Conceiving Parenthood

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

In 1905, German scholar Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a foundational text in the development of the discipline of sociology. Weber argued that Western capitalist economies gain their unique character and remarkable dynamism notas Karl Marx had heldfrom changes in class structure but from the “worldly asceticism” of its religious makers. Weber believed that Martin Luther and John Calvin had destroyed the deep emotional securities found in Catholicism; in their place arose uncertainty about “election” (predestination). However, anxiety about salvation could, Weber argued, be allayed by work. Additionally, Protestants were to avoid ostentation and the accumulation of goods. When this ethic of self-denial combined with the “work ethic,” the result was the regime of saving, investing, and calculating that are the prerequisites of capitalism. As her titleConceiving Parenthoodindicates, Amy Laura Hall seeks to interpret American Protestantism along Weberian lines, but with a special focus on norms of family life that have evolved since Methodism’s fervent early days on the American frontier. A pro-life feminist, she teaches theological ethics at the Divinity School at Duke University. Significant to her account is the fact that Hall is the mother of two daughters, one of whom is adopted.

Her general thesis is that American Protestants have too readily fulfilled Weber’s characterizations, forsaking their best theological impulses in doing so. They have indeed been controlling and “mercantilist” when they should have been extravagantly generous and celebratory. They have been narrowly calculating in too many phases of life, identifying success with wealth and status rather than with solidarity and service. Worst of all, they have allowed themselves to be manipulated by capitalist culture into thinking that their children must be perfect or, at least, earn perfection in a Darwinian struggle for prominence.

Against this broad trend, Hall places the example of Methodism when it was “filled with new wine,” heedless of institutional and familial correctness. Born in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, Methodism “embraced the holy work of open-air stump preaching, coal-mine conversions, women preachers . . . and worship that mixed shopkeepers, factory workers, and Oxford-trained dons in ways that seemed ill conceived to many in power.” Hall particularly admires the example of Jonathan Kozol, whose emphasis on the permanent worth and blessedness of all children pushes his readers to extend their imagination beyond the family, embracing as their own the children of the poor and rejected. That this Jewish revolutionary pedagogue should be a hero of Hall’s book is an irony that her theologyfocused on God’s surprising gracecan easily encompass.

Hall advances her case by treating four topics that at first appear to be unrelated. Indeed, one of the book’s achievements is the demonstration of their thoroughgoing connection. They are the campaign to make American homes “hygienic”; the corporate takeover of childrearing and homemaking through the marketing of “expert information” and related products such as infant formula; the conscription of church elites into the American eugenics movement, whose “poisonous messages echo still”; and the complacent reception by Protestants of the propaganda effort to make Hiroshima seem necessary and nuclear power an unambiguously good thing. In recent decades, failure to resist the darker temptations of genetic manipulation builds on the same tendency.

Hall argues these far-reaching theses by adopting the strategies of both the popular culture studies movement and postmodernist discourse analysis. She examines such mass-market periodicals as Parents, Ladies’ Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, and McCall’s because their readership was “markedly Anglo-Saxon, mainline Protestant.” She pays especially close attention to Together, a Methodist magazine designed to compete with these secular publications. In addition to commenting on particular articles and editorials in these magazines, Hall does “close readings” of photographs, illustrations, and, especially, advertisements. Indeed, of the 135 figures that enliven the book, the majority are advertisements. This research strategy makes for lively viewing and reading, but it also limits the book in significant ways because the relation among advertising, public opinion, and core attitudes is exceedingly complex. The fact that many expensive advertising campaigns do not actually succeed is only one facet of this complexity.

In chapter 1, “Holy Hygiene: Parents’, Protestantism, and the Germ-Free Home,” Hall vividly illustrates the commercial and cultural impact of the late-nineteenth century discovery of pathogens and effective antisepsis. Drawing on the work of social historian Rima Apple, she traces the rise of “scientific motherhood,” a movement to reform old-fashioned homemaking practices through the use of electrical appliances, sterilization, and disinfection, the new teachings of home economics and pediatrics, andominouslyeugenics. Hall’s overarching claim is that while the new research labs, institutes, university...

(The entire section is 2179 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Christianity Today 52, no. 7 (July, 2008): 55.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 51 (December 24, 2007): 48.