Love as the Defining Principle of ‘Family’
On July 4, my good neighbors invited me to join them, their closest family, and friends for their annual backyard cook out, which I gladly accepted. I’ve admired these neighbors since I first moved directly next door over four years ago. Their two daughters and son, and their grandchildren love coming over to see them on nearly a daily basis where good times and tasty food rule their days. I feel a certain envy that most of my beloved family members live so far from me.
Though my neighbors and I share divergent backgrounds, we read from virtually the same page politically. And as has become the case, especially at large gatherings, the discussion turned to issues of politics within this contested and tumultuous Trumpian age. Somehow the topic centered on a comparison between conditions under President Obama versus President Trump.
All but one person around our table yearned for the reason, the relative calm, and the steadiness of our former president. The only holdout was either a friend of a family member or an in-law, a white man of about 35ish, a practicing Catholic (like most of those gathered), who argued that “Obama attacked the family.”
As I asked him “How did Obama attack the family?” someone at the table flinched and tried to change the topic knowing this man and his politics. I perceived her thinking that I had opened a hornet’s nest.
“He attacked the family by supporting homosexual marriage,” he quipped. “I would support the domestic partnership, but not marriage. Marriage is only for one man and one woman. It’s always been that way, and should be that way now.”
We went back and forth for a while. I talked about how “separate but equal has never been equal,” as affirmed by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision holding school segregation unconstitutional.
He then invoked the notion of “Biblical marriage,” from which I retorted: “Do you mean that men should engage in polygamous relationships like Abraham, the patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Arab Muslims who conceived progeny with two women, his wife Sarah and maidservant Hagar?”
“Or do you mean that if you are a man and your brother dies,” I continued, “you are obliged to marry his widow even if you are already married, as stated in the Jewish Bible?”
“Or what about the mandate in the Christian Bible,” in Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, be submissive to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” And 1 Corinthians 14:33-35: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
We talked for another 15 or so minutes about the supposed separation of religion and government. But issues around marriage equality have been ongoing for many years, long before people of so-called differing “races” were finally granted the right to marry in the Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
I remember back to the early 1990s when residents in a section of Los Angeles erupted following the acquittal of police officers accused of exerting excessive force against motorist Rodney King. A few weeks later, the fictional TV character, Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, gave birth. Vice President Dan Quayle, in his own inimical fashion, concluded that the riots in Los Angeles were caused by a deterioration of “traditional family values” as represented by the unmarried Murphy Brown.
Ross Perot, Texas billionaire, and Independent presidential candidate, declared on ABC’s 20/20 in 1992 that if elected he would not appoint “adulterers or homosexuals” to the high position of the government. “No, I don’t want anybody there that will be at a point of controversy with the American people,” said Perot. “It will distract from the work to be done.”
In the fall of 2011, as I watched from my home in Ames, Iowa the political TV ads by the candidates running in the all-important first-in-the-nation Republican Iowa Caucuses, a recurring theme emerged. In their attempts to appeal to the estimated 60% of Iowa Republican caucus goers who defined as Evangelical Christians, most of the candidates emphasized their so-called “Christian family values,” which, by the way, opposed marriage for same-sex couples and LGBT members of the U.S. military.
We saw this theme most clearly exhibited in Texas Governor’s Rick Perry TV ad “Strong”:
“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”
In addition, political and theocratic Right groups continually attempt to ban books on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes geared to students over the accusation that these books do not promote “traditional family values.”
One does not have to look far to see a basic confusion (translated as “deception”) in terminology between “family” (denoting a configuration of individuals) and “values” (related to intrinsic human principles and qualities). In addition, the term “traditional family” – currently defined as a family constellation composed of two married parents (a man and a woman) with birth children – is even more problematic because it is a relatively modern invention constructed during the rise of the industrial age.
The Right holds it up as the standard against which all others are judged, even though a U.S. Census Bureau report found that “[b]etween 1960 and 2016, the percentage of children living in families with two parents decreased from 88 to 69.” Even in these families, many of the children were not directly related by birth to at least one of the parents.
In truth, the concept of “traditional family values,” as used by the political and theocratic Right, has nothing to do with “tradition,” with “family,” or even with “values.” It has more to do with politics, with separating people into distinct and discrete camps of “us” versus “them,” while blaming and scapegoating “them” for the problems facing our country and our world.
At one time, the Right scapegoated “Communism” and the “Communists” using scare tactics to recruit members into its organizations and bring in donations to fill its war chests. Now, since the relative demise of world Communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Right needs other villains to scapegoat to further its own political agendas, and has thus targeted those who fall outside its current definition of the “traditional family,” which include lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, those who fall along the transgender spectrum, people who favor and advocate for protecting women’s reproductive freedoms, Muslims, immigrants, and even heterosexuals who either choose not to marry or choose not to bear children.
These politicians, educators, and clergy seem somehow to have forgotten the warning given by poet and essayist Walt Whitman:
“I say of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn – they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”
We must as a society, then, expand the definition and remove from our vocabulary words that delineate people according to relationship status, for example, the value-laden terms “unwed mother,” “illegitimacy” and “illegitimate child,” “bastard child,” “out of wedlock,” “bachelor,” “old maid,” “Miss,” “Mrs.” – and consign these words to the archives of history because when currently used, they separate people from one another and result in stereotyping, scapegoating, and lowered self-esteem.
Human diversity is a true gift as evidenced by the fact that “families” come in a great variety of packages, with different shapes and sizes, colors, and wrappings. If, however, we still need to cling to a common definition of “family,” I would remind us of one offered by singers/songwriters, Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips, who tell us that
“The definition’s plain for anyone to see. Love is all it takes to make a family.”