Friday, October 20, 2006

Who Is Really Protecting Family Values?

In the weeks leading up to the election, Focus on the Family and other conservative groups will be calling for Americans to get out to the polls. And when they motivate people, they will use a familiar refrain: the future of the American Family depends on you. If you let the “liberals” convince you to stay home, Dobson says, “the consequences for the country could be grave.”

But who is really protecting family values? As Randall Balmer points out in his book Thy Kingdom Come, if the Religious Right were really intent on protecting the nuclear family, why aren’t they pushing for legislation to make divorce difficult and rare instead of focusing on these so-called “activist judges” and “liberal courts”? My Bible has much more to say about divorce than homosexuality. God says He hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), and while Jesus is silent about homosexuality, he makes clear his strong stance against divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5: 31-33). And while America’s gay population has been estimated at 5% or so, divorce now affects over half of our population, and the effects of divorce on children is demonstrably negative. By any measure, biblical or sociological, it seems that divorce is much more of a problem. So why all this talk about the threat of homosexuality to the American family?

The reason is because the selection of homosexuality is politically strategic, and that is the same reason you won’t hear vitriolic anti-divorce rhetoric leading up to the vote in November. The reason why Focus and others only concentrate on gays instead of divorce is obvious, according to Balmer; divorce hits too close to home, and railing on that issue would certainly splinter their own political base. As the saying goes, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and since over half of evangelicals have divorced at one point, attacking that issue with the same force as they do with homosexuality would be political suicide. So instead, the Religious Right’s strategy involves identifying a moral vice – regardless of the proportion of biblical support for it in relation to other things – and localizing that vice in a small group. You externalize the fear, and then rally your base around it. Projecting this fear onto a small out-group has been fabulously effective in history (in fact, gays have been used before), and it continues to be effective in American politics. An attack on divorce – about which the Bible has more to say – hits too close to home, a talking point one won’t find in the Religious Right’s mobilizing leading up to the November election as they seek to “protect traditional family values.”

Regardless of what one thinks about gay unions, can anyone make a serious case that a smattering of gay couples wanting to marry is really the problem with the American family? The America family is undoubtedly in crisis, but I hope that thinking Americans are digging deeper than the sensational language surrounding gay marriage. Real protection of family values comes – not from constitutional amendments and marriage protection acts, which do little to affect the lives of a large majority of Americans – but from policies that genuinely support parents, support children, and support schools. Disintegration of the family and poverty are often closely linked, so if the Religious Right really cared about families, shouldn’t they be willing to invest in our impoverished inner-cities, under-resourced rural tracts and failing public schools? Wouldn’t increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit and the minimum wage help provide economic stability to our working poor and their struggling families? How about funding day care, lunch programs, and Head Start to support children and families? Instead, we find cuts in all those initiatives while money goes elsewhere, leaving the magic fingers of the market to care for our families. And how about sensible legislation to make abortion rare, not election-time rhetoric followed by years of inactivity?

Unfortunately, discussions about sensible policies that can help real families are not effective in drumming up fear and outrage or getting people to the polls, and that it is indictment upon us, the thinking American public. It is our duty to see to it that fear-mongering, demonizing out-groups, and ignoring real policy solutions do not win. Again, regardless of what one thinks about gay marriage as an issue, we owe it to ourselves and the millions of other American families to not let the Religious Right’s rhetoric obscure the need for a more robust discussion of what real, biblical family values looks like and what policies actually protect American family values.


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