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The Psalm In Santorum's Political Quiver

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The Psalms, like all other Scripture, find their seasons, sometimes lying dormant and then suddenly meaningful again. Take Psalm 127. Jim Bob Duggar arrived in Iowa last Monday with, by his tally, "12 of our 19 children," on a blitz "trying to convince people one by one that Rick Santorum is the family values candidate." If Santorum owes any of his remarkable last-minute surge to the Duggars, then the pater familias of the TV series "19 and Counting" has given an old Bible verse a currency that's hard to imagine anywhere outside ... the Republican primaries.

Psalm 127's overarching theme is the importance of God's participation in human actions. The famous first verse reads, "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." Its second part is a helpful little warning against working unnatural hours, because, after all, God gives us sleep. Here's the third part:

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth.

Happy is the man who has a quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies at the gate.

There's some question as to how this fits in with the first two parts. The argument in favor is that sons, like sleep, are a gift from God, over whose birth humans (back then) had no control. Others felt the connection was tenuous. Nobody doubted that in the Psalmist's day of clan loyalty and infant mortality, having a "quiver full" of children was a form of power.

Less obvious -- until last Tuesday -- was its applicability today. We're no longer a nation of clans or, for that matter, of farmers looking for extra hands. The verse seemed outmoded. There is one group that has rediscovered it, and taken its name from it: the Quiverfull movement. Coalescing in the mid 1990s, it is made up of conservative Christians radically opposed to any form of birth control because they feel it interferes with openness to God's providence, or plan. The movement (or significant segments of it, since it has no single leadership) is part of the Christian Right counter-culture. Many of its guiding lights have seen super-fecundity as a form of protest against abortion and birth control, and in some cases, feminism. Some pose it as a variety of spiritual warfare. Nancy Campbell, an early Quiverfull author, wrote, "Oh what a vision. To invade the earth with mighty sons and daughters who have been trained and prepared for God's divine purposes."

For a while, some skeptical observers of the cheery, apolitical "19 and Counting" have claimed that the Duggars are Quiverfull. It seemed plausible. They started down their current road after a doctor told them that birth control pills had caused Michelle Duggar to miscarry. After that, their website states, "We let God decide how many children we would have." They also report that "We ... studied the Bible and found a host of references that told us God considered children a gift, a blessing, and a reward." Presumably that study included Psalm 127.

But last year, in their book "A Love that Multiplies," the Duggars denied that they were part of the movement. "We are simply Bible-believing Christians," they wrote. "God says children are a gift and a blessing, and we believe it."

Nobody has disproved the denial, so why not take them at their word? But that doesn't mean that they are not, in their own way, triumphantly living out the Psalm. When Jim Bob Duggar, then an Arkansas state legislator, ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Senate nomination in 2002, he traveled with groups of their 13 children, which political reporters read as a jibe at his opponent's recent divorce and remarriage, issues in the conservative state. Last week Jim Bob reprised the technique, possibly with more success. There were more opponents this time, some of them in lasting marriages. But nine years some things had changed. One was the TV series. It's a force multiplier. If previously the Duggars had served some Arkansans as an example of a certain brand of Christian piety, now, with their show as megaphone, they are the ultimate American example.

The other new thing is that they have more children. Now, some might suggest that at 19 and counting, they may have outstripped their political appeal. At that total, they are not typical of any but the most prolific conservative Roman Catholic and Evangelical families. Committed believers may see them as sympathetic, but hardly as paragons of the faith. They might respect their piety but regard somewhat as the rest of the country presumably does: fondly, but as a curiosity.

But Iowa this week was different. The politics of the Republican party were so extreme, some of the positions and personalities so outrageous, the atmosphere so fevered and the desire for the evangelical vote so keen that there really was no ceiling on symbolism. Virtue could not be too broadly drawn. The more children your endorser had out of Christian conviction, the greater your advantage. And so the Duggar offspring, in addition to a gift and a blessing to their parents, became the modern embodiment of the passage from Psalm 127: each one an arrow in Rick Santorum's political quiver -- and in their father's, should he ever take up politics again and want a favor from the senator.

And that is how Psalm 127 verses 3-5 regained their mojo, at least for now. As a different biblical book says, for everything there is a season. I'd predict that the rattling of the Duggar's quiver may be muted in New Hampshire, but that we'll hear it loud and clear again in South Carolina.