“Submissive” and “meek”: That’s how former Full House star Candace Cameron Bure recently described her role as a wife and mother, attributing it to Christian scripture.
You might chalk it up to, “Well, whatever, a Christian fundamentalist said something sexist. Nothing new here.” And no, it’s neither particularly new nor is it surprising that cultural conservatives have jumped to her defense, reminding us that marriage and God are inextricable.
But Cameron’s description of her marriage is worth a longer look, because it’s a part and parcel of the debate Americans are having over the definition of marriage, and also because Cameron is wrong. Not, “hey, we live in the 21st century!” wrong, but biblically wrong.
Most of what’s been written about Cameron’s advocacy for biblical marriage has been supportive: “She’s right!” or “You do you!” And a lot of those sentiments, especially the latter, are deeply misinformed about what Cameron is actually promoting. I know this because I was raised in a fundamentalist community that stood at the front of the battle lines of the late-90s culture wars and fed the same scriptural lines she cites in her argument. Cameron’s description of matrimonial bliss is all too familiar.
In an interview last Monday on HuffPost Live, Cameron explained a controversial passage in her new book "Balancing It All: My Story of Juggling Priorities and Purposes." “My husband [Valeri Bure] is a natural-born leader,” she writes:
I quickly learned that I had to find a way of honoring his take-charge personality and not get frustrated about his desire to have the final decision on just about everything. I am not a passive person, but I chose to fall into a more submissive role in our relationship because I wanted to do everything in my power to make my marriage and family work.
The former actress elaborated to HuffPo host Nancy Redd: "The definition I'm using with the word 'submissive' is the biblical definition of that. So, it is meekness, it is not weakness. It is strength under control, it is bridled strength."
Erm, okay, you might be thinking. Whatever works for you, DJ Tanner.
When Cameron cites the “biblical definition” of submissiveness, she’s specifically talking about a passage in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:1: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husband so that, if any of them do not believe in the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.”
Like many contemporary evangelicals, Cameron is wedded to a literal reading of the Bible – it needs no interpretation or historical context. But biblical literalism leaves fundamentalists like Cameron in a sticky situation: These first century dudes said I should submit, and so I do it even when it’s not the right thing. Would you defer to your spouse “even at the detriment of your family?” Redd asked Cameron. “Uh…Yeah! …yeah,” she replied. “But obviously I will make my opinion very clear.”
Ancient rabbinical traditions demanded a specific kind of marriage between men and women that were largely based on the preservation of bloodlines and childbearing (TL; DR version of the Old Testament: Some guy is the son of some guy, who’s the son of some other guy, they all die).
That’s what lies behind Cameron’s worldview: She reads 1 Peter 3:1 without any context (historic or otherwise), and the infallible word of God tells her to let a burly, hockey-playing Russian make all of the decisions. She not only does it; she “love[s] that my man is a leader.”
But she’s wrong. When Cameron reads “submit,” she’s interpreting that commandment through a 21st century lens. She shows her hand when, during the interview, she provides an analogy of her marital power dynamic. “It is very difficult to have two heads of authority,” she says. “It doesn't work in military … we have one President…a Vice President … and when you are competing with two heads of power that can pose a lot of problems or issues.”
For someone claiming a “biblical definition,” Cameron’s quick shift from ancient Judaea to the American political system seems a bit bizarre. She’s not using “submission” the way the writers of the New Testament would have employed the word. It’s filtered through a very secular understanding of power and hierarchy.
For anyone who has ever spent time in a fundamentalist community, Cameron’s rhetoric is all too familiar. It’s what led the headmaster of my Christian high school to loudly proclaim that women couldn’t hold leadership positions, that they couldn’t be preachers or become the president of the United States. I distinctly remember a high school English teacher who declared that the death of 110 people in a well-known plane crash was the fault of the female pilot (it wasn’t). It was her fault because her gender, an immutable gift from God, should have prevented her from taking such a difficult position of leadership to begin with.
Flying a plane, leading a church, or even leading the state violated God’s commandment of “submission.” Listen closely to Cameron and you will hear echoes of the same perspectives on gender – when fundamentalist Christians cite 1 Peter 3:1, they are simultaneously citing 1 Peter 3:7 where husbands are instructed to “treat [your wives] as the weaker partner…” Taken literally, these two verses paint a very clear gender dynamic: men are deciders, women are weak Cameron loves that her “man is a leader” because she (or her daughter) cannot occupy such a place of authority.
In response to the "haters," Cameron posted a selfie to her Facebook wall. She shows off a toned arm flexed Rosie-the-Riveter-style. “Nothing weak about this,” she captioned the photo, “people talk about what they don’t understand.”
Within less than twenty-four hours the photograph had tens of thousands of likes and nearly a thousand comments. The comments, too, were a familiar rhetoric: Women chimed in with support, offering their first person testimonies about how “decision making” and “feminism” had nearly ruined their marriages. Many claimed that their marriage was saved when they submitted to their husband, and by extension, God’s will.
Reading the comments was like stepping into a time machine. At the megachurch to which my high school was attached, women’s testimony of submission was central to recruiting and “spiritually nourishing” women in the church. Listening to women reject modern ideologies to instead uphold their natural and God-given gender was central to that format.
I had the pleasure of listening to Phyllis Schlafly explain how feminism was ruining women: liberation turned women into confused sluts and emasculated men (clutch all of the pearls!). It was, of course, both an all-purpose salve and a blame game: If your marriage wasn’t working, that was your fault for rejecting biblical womanhood. Reject instead secular notions of gender and equality, celebrate your femininity, be submissive, and live happily ever after. And do it, even to the detriment of your family.
You can probably imagine why I never darkened the doors of that megachurch after my eighteenth birthday.
Cameron is not providing helpful marriage tips that you might want to try out at home. For biblical literalist, marriage is built on preserving nonnegotiable gender roles. Leadership is endowed by God for men alone; women serve God through submission in marriage and motherhood.
And this is why we should listen closely to what Cameron is saying. When Americans debate marriage equality, this is where a sizeable number of them are coming from. It’s not simply that they can’t fathom same sex marriage, it’s that it upends divinely ordered gender roles.
So the next time your fundamentalist acquaintance from junior high posts a meme-generated anti-equality picture on your Facebook wall, keep in mind that what Cameron is describing is his ideal marriage.