Submission, Politics, and the Media

01/18/2008 01:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The news media is giving Mike Huckabee a free pass on the fact that he signed a statement declaring that wives should be "'submissive" to their husbands.

In a recent Fox debate, Huckabee adroitly sidestepped the issue, saying, "The point is that as wives submit themselves to the husbands, the husbands also submit themselves, and it's not a matter of one being somehow superior over the other." He added that his feisty wife Janet certainly does not kowtow to him.

Little was made of the exchange in the mainstream press, but the statement he signed was far more ominous than Huckabee made out. In 1998, he was one of the signatories to of a full page USA Today ad that read, "I affirm the statement on the family issued by the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention." The SBC's family statement declared, "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."

One of the leading Born Again Christians in the nation didn't think the statement was as bland as Huckabee presented it. Former president Jimmy Carter (and his wife Rosalynn) left the SBC over the issue of the statement.

This Baptist credo sees the submission of women and the primacy of men as central to their theology. The family should be based on the model of God's relations with his flock: Dad is the God-like figure, the mother and children the disciples.

Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, helped draft the statement. According to Land, the statement says that while the husband and wife are equal before God, "the wife does not get veto power over the husband's decision.

"Somebody has to be in charge," Land explained. "The Bible says the husband is in charge." While the husband should "solicit his wife's views," ultimately "he is going to make the decision."

The reason, Land said, is that Southern Baptists believe that "God holds the husband accountable for the household."

So guess who doesn't get to say Thou Shalt Not.

Does God really want all men -- including drunks, abusers, narcissists, layabouts or dummies -- to veto the decisions of all women? I don't think so. She's too smart for that.

While all this could seem like theological trivia, akin to counting angels on the head of a pin, widespread acceptance of such a position can, in fact, undermine families. When churches see the primacy of men as God's will, preachers orate from the pulpit that woman's place is in the home.

One woman I know, who belonged to a large Bible Belt congregation, said that most of her female friends had good jobs, but the minister railed, week after week, against women working. As a result, many of the women quit their jobs. In the economic downturn that followed, many of the men lost their jobs, throwing the families into economic chaos. Wrenching divorces followed.

U.S. census figures show that the divorce rate is higher in the Bible Belt than in other areas of the country.

Male dominance, when reinforced by religion, can have chilling consequences for women and girls, since it is often a factor in spousal abuse. Counselors who deal with batterers say that the men often take church doctrine that wives should obey their husbands to mean that they have divine sanction to use force to control women.

Religious groups don't condone battering, but as one man who counsels abusive men puts it, many violent men adhere to the myth of entitlement, which teaches that men are the heads of the household and that women must be subservient.

I saw this myself once when I was writing a story on domestic violence, and attended the meeting of a group of male batterers who were in a counseling group after having been arrested. One man said flat out that the Bible decreed that a wife must obey her husband, and his wife often disobeyed him, so he had a God-given right to hit her.

Too often, women agree -- when their pastors say so.

Blindly accepting male authority is not only dangerous for women, but can sometimes lead to tragedy. Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children, was under the spell of a traveling minister named Michael Woroniecki, an acquaintance of her husband's. The minister preached, "The role of women is derived from the sin of Eve and bad mothers who are going to hell create bad children who will go to hell."

After her fourth pregnancy, Yates suffered deep depression and suicidal thoughts. She seemed to improve on anti-psychotic drugs. Doctors warned her that another pregnancy might bring back her psychosis, but in March of 2000, Andrea, at her husband's urging, became pregnant again. She stopped taking the drugs. Finally, in the grip of severe postpartum psychosis, she killed her children.

When male dominance leads to abuse, the children suffer along with the parents. A young man I know grew up watching his father hit his mother with a belt, a shoe, or any other handy weapon. Even though he's a sensitive and caring adult, he has trouble getting close to women. He knows he's not the cruel sadist his father was, but he worries that if he falls in love, he will one day actually turn into his monstrous father.

So why does Mike Huckabee get to skate on backing a position that has such serious consequences for families? Because he's fun, plays a mean banjo, and jokes with the press corps? Or because women's and children's issues tend to be far down the pecking order in national politics.

The latter is most likely the case.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."