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Family Values: Can One Size Fit All?

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Message Deirdre Good
Trying to retake the high ground in the values war, Democrats across the country have been talking about religious and family values. Democrat incumbents and hopefuls including Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Harold Ford, Senate candidate in TN, Rep. Sherrod Brown, Senate candidate in OH, to name a few, have been emphasizing the faith content of their political stances. Their approach seems to be working: Stephanie Bastin, Sunday school teacher in Tennessee plans on voting for Harold Ford, she said yesterday, because "We share the same values. He's a Christian, and I'm a Christian." Are these all trying to ride on the coattails of Republican success by adding religion to their campaign arsenal? Or is there a substantive difference between Republicans and Democrats evocation of religion in the political arena?

One common characteristic of the Democratic appropriation of religion in political discourse is a reluctance to impose one's own specific religious beliefs on the public good, even in the presence of the assertion that commitment to religious and ethical beliefs serves the public good. One Democrat recently confirmed that while he was personally against abortion, he also believed that each woman was responsible for making her own faith decision about abortion. Right-wing support for Republican candidates, on the other hand, comes from those who believe and assert that their moral views must be imposed on all Americans through legislation and even Constitutional Amendment. Republican endorsement of this position was all too apparent in the Terry Schiavo case.

Does the right-wing Republican stance constitute a "more serious" appropriation of religion by contrast with the Democrats' espousal of faith as a personal directive? In Human Events 11/2/06, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asserts that only Republican leadership champions marriage and family values in the public arena, saying "There is only one party that expressly supports marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The other party would promote a culture of death, place restrictions on the church...." The delineation of the issue in such polar terms insults the integrity of political leaders on both sides of the aisle, all of whom support family values even when they cannot agree on what those values are or do not necessarily associate family values with specific religious dogmas.

We can all agree that marriage between a man and a woman is integral to family values and that it has social and religious sanctions. And there are also social and religious sanctions for other models embodying family values. Our lived experience and our religious traditions tell us that there isn't in fact a single model of a family and its values that our politicians or we can idolize. Look around at our own examples: single-parent families, families of grandparents raising grandchildren, blended families, adopted children, single people, same-sex couples with or without children, and nuclear families. Look at all the different households described in the Bible from the patriarchs to Jesus' own: Abraham's included his wives Sarah and Hagar with their children Isaac and Ishmael together with Abraham's concubine Keturah and her six children. God promises that through Abraham's descendants all the other nations of the earth would be blessed. In Jesus' time households continued to be diverse: the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus constituted a household, Paul was a single man and Jesus was the child of a single parent. Matthew's gospel emphasizes this when it describes Jesus with the phrase "the child and his mother." Although Joseph adopted Jesus, the gospel writers never describe Joseph as Jesus' father. In the gospels, Jesus himself identifies his own family as those who do God's will, not those to whom he is biologically related.

Different models of households in religious traditions provide a warrant for the diverse patterns of our own families. The recognition of a broad spectrum of household arrangements mandates that we affirm and celebrate in our civic and religious lives patterns of family life that differ from ours. Diverse families share similar values: blended or traditional, same-sex or single-parent households all know, for example, that forgiveness is the glue necessary to bind families together. This is not to deny that living out forgiveness is hard work. Nor is it to exclude the possibility that some forms of families may be "tares in amongst the wheat" to be left until the final harvest. But to err on the side of generosity and magnanimity by including and celebrating different models of families and their values is both to affirm our own experience and to identify a more complex and more honest religious tradition, wherein God models consummate generosity and magnanimity. When we link this reality to the recognition that judgment is God's and not our own, we will have honest public debates on family values.
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Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, New York City and author of Jesus' Family Values (Church Publishing 2006)
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Family Values: Can One Size Fit All?

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