The Military/Police Wife Paradigm

Asked to deliver the prayer for the graduates at my son’s M.Div. commencement at Southern, I included this sentence:  “I ask that in this terribly confused and willful world that the men gathered here today would be manly, and the women womanly.” For some, it was a “Say what?” moment. But I wanted to underscore an important distinction for their ministries, one that other denominations have erased.

It’s a distinction that biblicists and secularists alike have addressed. From Christian presses, we have, for example, Darrin Patrick’s The Dude’s Guide to Manhood (Nelson), Bill Delvaux’s Heroic (B&H), and Tony Evans’s Kingdom Man (Tyndale). And, then, from Yale University Press, we have Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield’s, provocative book, Manliness, whose essence I’ve heard summarized as “a willingness to put yourself at risk to defend a woman”—Barney Fife saying to Goliath, “If you think you’re going to lay a hand on her, you’ll have to come over me.” And how about Camille Paglia’s, December, 2018, essay in Time magazine, “It’s a Man’s World, and It Always Will Be.” It drove fellow feminist’s crazy. In it, she expressed her dismay at the “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” and “who-needs-men” conceit:

After the next inevitable apocalypse, men will be desperately needed again! Oh, sure, there will be the odd gun-toting Amazonian survivalist gal, who can rustle game out of the bush and feed her flock, but most women and children will be expecting men to scrounge for food and water and to defend the home turf. Indeed, men are absolutely indispensable right now, invisible as it is to most feminists, who seem blind to the infrastructure that makes their own work lives possible. It is overwhelmingly men who do the dirty, dangerous work of building roads, pouring concrete, laying bricks, tarring roofs, hanging electric wires, excavating natural gas and sewage lines, cutting and clearing trees, and bulldozing the landscape for housing developments. It is men who heft and weld the giant steel beams that frame our office buildings, and it is men who do the hair-raising work of insetting and sealing the finely tempered plate-glass windows of skyscrapers 50 stories tall.

Every day along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, one can watch the passage of vast oil tankers and towering cargo ships arriving from all over the world. These stately colossi are loaded, steered and off-loaded by men. The modern economy, with its vast production and distribution network, is a male epic, in which women have found a productive role — but women were not its author. Surely, modern women are strong enough now to give credit where credit is due!

And, of course, it’s not just physical. God didn’t just pick the strongest man and strongest woman and let them wrestle to see who would enjoy (or suffer) headship, with a coin flip to settle a draw. He’d engineered other characteristics into the genders.

It’s a distinction that Southern Baptists noted in a 2016 resolution against registering women for the draft, I spoke recently to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public service, tasked to bring recommendations to Congress in the spring of 2020. Our panel included a Catholic, a Quaker, a libertarian (atheist?), and a woman, who was a Marine veteran of Iraq, one opposed to drafting women. And in the audience was a remarkable man waiting for open-mike time at the end, retired Navy captain, Robert Miller, whose group, Hope for America, pleads for the maintenance of gender distinctions. (He’s a wealth of information, and I’ve learned much from him, including the fact that the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen killed a woman sailor who had a child she had left behind in the U.S.)

In my brief opening comments, I said that:

  • In opposing draft registration for women, Southern Baptists had cited the male/female distinction in Genesis 1 and noted the difference between men and women on the battlefield in terms of lethality and survivability.
  • This wasn’t a narrowly Southern Baptist concern, for majority Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular countries did not draft women. (Yes, there’s Israel, Norway, North Korea, and a handful of others, but these are extreme outliners for one reason or another.)
  • Though my wife Sharon didn’t serve in the military, she served the military, as noted by my eldest son, who recently retired from the Marines at Camp Lejeune.
  • My four D.C. granddaughters should enjoy the same privilege their mother had, to step away from a White House job offer and a full-ride in the Ph.D. program at Georgetown to be a homemaker and mother.

And I tore a newspaper in two directions to show it had a grain, analogous to the grain in creation.

Of course, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain that there is such a creation order. We lionize (or lionessize) women who take “historic” first steps into the realm of traditional masculine activity—Janet Guthrie, Sally Ride—while virtually ignoring those who excel in family heroics, e.g., Susannah Wesley, who raised John and Charles. Yes, Evangelicals can get excited over certain “historic” firsts of their own—first seminary board chairman, first agency head—and ignore a Texas homemaker and deputy county clerk in little Morton, TX (pop. 2,000), 56 miles west of Lubbock, Dorothy Barker, who stood with a handful of male seminary trustees in 1989 to vote against tenure for Southern’s heterodox Molly Marshall-Green. Why not recognize Dorothy, who had the wits and gumption to be the “historic” first woman trustee to oppose the first woman theology professor at a Southern Seminary?

Of course, we expect the non-biblicist world to be thumbing its nose at biblical distinctions, but Evangelicals are showing themselves susceptible to a similar enthusiasm for cheering on every “advance” in female notoriety, power, and outside-the-home achievement. The “You go girl!” movement is in full swing, and you’d better be on board lest you be branded a “misogynist.”

How might this be so? Let me suggest some reasons: In my youth, Southern Baptists and other conservative evangelicals were terrified that they might be considered intellectually second rate, hence, the bargain which was proffered to liberals, “We’ll call you Christian if you call us scholars.” (Thank God for C.S. Lewis, who gave us some cover.) But now the transaction turns upon worship of a new god, Perceived Sensitivity, adored by secularists and sacredists alike. If only Barnabas rather than Paul had been tapped to write the epistles, life would be so much easier.

There’s that, but let me note a few other forces at play, three maxims which are misappropriated to batter the distinction. Like fire, they can do much good, but, in the wrong hands they can do much harm.

1. “No man on his death bed will say, “I wish I’d spent more time at work and less time with my family.’” This implies that work is a simply a means to getting ahead in wealth, status, and power, and that the real deal for the man is nurture of and fellowship with the children, whose real deal is to nurture and fellowship with their own children and so on and on. It encourages a feckless circularity, the point of the family being the family. Daddy is at his best in building bird houses with the kids so that they will be tuned up to build bird houses with their kids. Kind of an Amish take on things. So I would push back to say that some men should, in their deathbed reflections, lament, “Mercy, I wish I’d spent more time at my work and less with my family.”

2. “God First; Family Second; Ministry/Career Third.” As I argued in an ETS paper, this has a number of problems, fifteen by my count, but I’ll only mention one. It’s epistemological, for unless a decision involves clear violation of a scriptural injunction, it’s a lot easier to know what your spouse/family wants than what God wants. So this puts a trump card in the hands the family, whose interests and motives may be less than anointed. Suppose that “I feel God wants me to go on this volunteer mission trip.” How could that stand up to your spouse’s declaration, “I know the kids and I don’t want you to go”? And so he doesn’t go. (As one minister put it, “Get your people overseas on a mission trip and they’ll discover that they’re eagles rather than turkeys, and when they get back, it’ll be hard to keep them out of the air.” But thanks to mom and the kids, dad remains a turkey, when they need an eagle landing in the house.)

Since my college days, I’ve been part of a University of Michigan survey of family economics. (I’m linked in because my mom was a U of M grad.) This year’s survey asked how many hours a week on average I joined in housekeeping activities, and there are many who argue that the higher that number, the better the hubby. So, for instance, a 50/50 split on dishwashing is laudable. Thus, the praiseworthy husband does well to scurry home to take up his role as assistant homemaker.

Of course, it’s important that the father be a strong, helpful presence in the home. (Indeed, the social wreckage of fatherless homes is everywhere to be seen.) But what of the larger point that men are supposed to be world-changers (or world-protectors) out in the world?

NYU psychology prof, Paul Vitz, put it this way:

What is the father’s major function? . . . [T]he father is a kind of Mr. Outside, while the mother is Mr. Inside. She forms the basic character, the emotional life, the interpersonal responsiveness of the child, much more than the father. But the father introduces the child much more often to the outside world. The father symbolized the structure of that world, of law and order, of the activities, of the things that you get involved in when you leave the home.

Antonin Scalia thought so. In a 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl in 2008 (recounted in an obituary), he said that

he worked a lot while the children were young and never went to any of their soccer games or piano recitals. Having his father attend his own events as a child was something Scalia wasn’t used to himself. “You know, my parents never did it for me . . . and I didn’t take it personally. ‘Oh Daddy, come to my softball game.’ No, I mean, it’s my softball game. He has his work. I got my softball game.’”

Scalia’s Ivy League-educated wife told Stahl that she juggled most of the events, making sure to show up for a little bit at a time for each of them.

Scalia is survived by Maureen, his wife of over 50 years, and his middle-aged children — Ann, Eugene, John, Catherine, Mary, Paul, Christopher, Matthew and Margaret. They went on to make their parents proud and gave them more than 30 grandchildren . . .

Paul became a parish priest in Virginia, and Matthew made a successful career in the Army . . . Eugene and John became lawyers based in Washington, D.C., while Christopher made a name for himself as a writer. Catherine, Ann, Margaret and Mary each gave birth to a handful of children.

Scalia married Maureen in 1960— “the product of the best decision I ever made . . . The mother of the nine children you see, the woman responsible for raising them with very little assistance from me . . . And there’s not a dullard in the bunch!”

Nine children! Poor Maureen, or so the cultural narrative goes, a narrative which has crept into Evangelical thinking. Never mind Genesis 1: 28, the mandate to be fruitful and multiply. (After all, haven’t we filled the earth already, what with over seven billion people crawling all over the planet? Well, not really. The whole lot of us could fit within the city limits of Houston if we stood shoulder to shoulder.) In this connection, I asked two back-to-back, Christ-and-Culture classes at Wheaton whether they thought they had a responsibility to have at least some kids should they marry. Out of the eighty, I think that fewer than ten hands were raised. It seems that, for them, procreation was an elective on the order of eating tofu or visiting New Zealand; take it or leave it. For one thing, it might adversely impact careers (another idol we worship).

3. “If you lose your family, you lose everything.” Yes, it’s very tricky to fault this, but stick with me as I suggest a way this can be weaponized to undermine gender roles. For analogy, consider the maxims, “If you have your wealth, you have everything” and “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” Two problems: There are a lot of people with poor health who do great things, including Joni Eareckson Tada and Helen Keller, as well as hymnwriters Fanny Crosby and William Cowper; second, it can drive one to hypochondria, ever anxious at the slightest sign of ill health, causing one to shut down normal living.

The marital version of this a sort of relational hypochondria, where the husband is terrified at the slightest disgruntlement, ever anxious to curtail his work to keep momma and the kids happy.

(BTW, unless he’s some sort of sacerdotalist, even the loss of his family, even if the unbelieving spouse of 1 Cor. 7 departs, he still has vast fields of ministry, albeit in different sectors.)

All this being said, I submit that the paradigm for a Christian wife is more nearly that of a military or police wife, whose husband maybe deployed at a moment’s notice, for dangerous, inconvenient, and prolonged duty. Yes, a lot of unfortunate television drama is built around the complaints of police wives who don’t get enough attention and have a hissy when the phone goes off in the middle of a special dinner and such; scripted back-stories of multiple divorces are commonplace. But if you visit the web sites of military and police wives, you’ll find inspiring words by and for women handling, with appreciation, the considerable challenges of their status. For instance, in one, we read,

I am an Air Force Wife.
Guardian of Favorite Blankets and Bedtime Stories.
My Airman’s Right Hand.
His Lover and Supporter.
I Defend My Family with My Life.

And then, in the poem, “A Police Officer’s Wife,” we read, “How many good byes are whispered, joined with a fond embrace? As duty steals her man, for the danger he must face . . . She’s a mother, lover, chauffeur and nurse, a living symbol of: ‘for better or for worse’ . . . Rich is the man, reaping his rewards in life, Who chose to be the other half of A Police Officer’s Wife.”

Which brings us to Proverbs 31. You might read it as a description of a wife whose husband is working undercover for six months or one whose husband is serving in Afghanistan. She isn’t a fainting flower, but a woman in full.

Look, I’m not suggesting that all or most men are out there fighting the Taliban, tracking down killers, or bringing sanity to a Supreme Court gone mad. Many of us live in the workaday world of insurance underwriting, bus driving, and manufacturing, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect us home most every night. But the point is three-fold: first, each job can involve being salt and light in a risky way; second, all men are on call to extend their crusades as prompted by God (and not by lust for status and affluence); third, their wives need to be so spiritually constructed as to cheer them on in their strategic, vocational absences.

I served 28 years in the Guard and Reserves and was never called upon to enter combat. But I was ready to go, and my wife would have supported me in it and done the full Proverbs 31 thing in my absence.

We’re putting a lot on the wife, and bewailing the plight of the husband who can’t rely upon a good one. But, of course, the other tragedy is the difficulty in finding a man who’ll put it on the line for truth, goodness, and beauty in the world outside the home. Too often, godly women are asked to settle for the less than thrilling. (“Aim low, girls, they’re riding Shetlands.”) They may not express it, but deep down, many long for a hero.

I think of my surprise when I announced to my wife with caution that I was sensing a call to the pastorate. After all, what could be cooler than being a philosophy professor’s wife at Billy Graham’s alma mater in Chicagoland? Turns out, she was thrilled. Turns out it was something she’d desired all along, having had such a great experience as a PK herself. Who knew? So you might be surprised if you showed more boldness in your efforts to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Look, I’m not saying that we should shun a Margaret Thatcher when we don’t have a Winston Churchill around or that you mustn’t hold down the fort in the days when she’s landed a job and you haven’t. Rather, I’m talking about the default position in God’s created order.

One of my favorite movie scenes comes at the end of Three Amigos, the story of Hollywood cowboys recruited to deal with bad guys in Mexico. The actors thought they were being asked to make a movie; the villagers thought these guys were the real thing ready to do a real job. Somehow, it all worked out, and some tender relationships developed along the way. Then, as the three were about to “ride off into the sunset,” the Steve Martin character, Lucky Day, turned to Carmen and said, “I’ll come back some day.” To which she replied, “Why?”

I like to image a Christian movie in which the man of the house says to his wife, “I’ll be home every night this week?” And then she asks, “Why? Don’t you have some important things to do out there some evenings?”

The U.S. Life Saving Service was the precursor to the Coast Guard, and in its day, it was staffed by men who lived with their families in little houses along the coasts—Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf, and Great Lakes. When sailing ships ran aground or were otherwise in distress in their area, these coast watchers were tasked to fire string-and-rope-rigged mortar rounds in hopes of snagging the wreck, allowing them to deploy a breeches buoy to rescue passengers. Failing that, each U.S.L.S.S. man had a life boat to shove into the surf and row to those in danger. The motto was, “You have to go out; you don’t have to come back.” (I’ve seen it on the wall of the maritime museum in Astoria, Oregon.) The point was this: As bleak as the prospects may seem, don’t bother doing the math. Get in the boat and go. If you make it back, great. We may give you a medal. If you don’t, you did your duty. And, yes, we may give you a medal for that too. But you have to go.

So we might imagine, Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully (of Through Gates of Splendor), dithering over whether to make that next missionary flight to reach the Aucas for Christ. And then Elizabeth Eliot steps forward saying, “Jim, I love you, but you have to go out; you don’t have to come back.”

Male and female created He them.