Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Family Values

Why churches fear gay marriage | Salon News

While conservative churches are busy trying to whip up another round of culture wars over same-sex marriage, Rodriquez says the real reason for their panic lies elsewhere: the breakdown of the traditional heterosexual family and the shifting role of women in society and the church itself. As the American family fractures and the majority of women choose to live without men, churches are losing their grip on power and scapegoating gays and lesbians for their failures.

Churches have a vested interest in supporting sex roles and the "traditional family." Traditional women are the backbone of the church and historically, in the US especially, people go to church "for the sake of the children."

Working women don't have the time to work for the church or the motivation. In the past, churches provided educated, energetic women with a venue in which they could do jobs in which they could organize, manage, play with significant sums of money and exercise authority--work that was not available to women in the secular world. Now that women get responsible, interesting positions outside the church, they have little reason to make alternative careers in church volunteer work.

Churches serve the interests of traditional women. For men, and working women, church-going is a hassle: after the work week they want to sleep in, lounge around in grotty old clothes and relax. For stay-at-home moms churchgoing is a break in their routine: a chance to dress up, get out of the house, and socialize with other adults. For older women, who have made careers of "doing for" their families, the church affirms the worth of the caring work and gives them opportunities to do more caring work once their husbands and children are no longer around to do for.

Churches not only provide opportunities for "caring work"--they valorize traditional femininity. Playing to their "base," they flatter traditional women who have invested their lives in doing for their families by identifying caring work as the epitome of Christian virtue. But the more they promote traditional femininity, the business of caring, the more they turn off women who are not invested in doing for their husbands, children or others and want no part of caring work or traditional femininity.

Rodriguez has not got it quite right. He suggests that Christianity needs to be feminized:

The desert religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are male religions. Their perception is that God is a male god and Allah is a male god. If the male is allowed to hold onto the power of God, then I think we are in terrible shape. I think what's coming out of Colorado Springs right now, with people like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, is either the last or continuing gasp of a male hierarchy in religion. That's what's at stake. And women have a determining role to play.

I don't know about Judaism and Islam, but Christianity is already too feminized, and is becoming even more so as non-traditional women, and men, drop out leaving the church to traditional women and and churches cater increasingly to their smarmy sentimentalities and taste for caring work.

Churches have evolved to satisfy the interests of traditional families: they provide activities for traditional women and sell themselves as socializing agencies for the young. When young adults postpone marriage and child-rearing or forgo it altogether church membership declines. When women enter the labor force and, more particularly, when they enter as full-time careerists, churches lose support. Perhaps most importantly, when the traditional family ceases to be the norm and loses prestige, the Church, whose fate is inextricably linked with the traditional family, loses prestige.

Gay marriage is a symbolic blow to the ideal of the traditional family as a cultural norm and that undermines the prestige of the Church. Materially, if fewer individuals form traditional families, churches lose membership and support. They have every reason to be worried.

Raised on the Dick and Jane readers, I yearned for what I thought of as a "real Dick and Jane Family." By the time I got married, at 22, I was desperate. I wanted a suburban house furnished with a husband, three kids, a dog and a cat. I wanted to get into what I thought of as the World of Sunshine, the 1950s sitcom world, where Young Families went on picnics, had family meals, and went to church. I wanted to be a soccer mom.

I got it, and loved every minute of it. During summer vacation, when I would drive my kids around in my van and people thought I was a real soccer mom--a housewife--I was tremendously proud: I had made it, I felt, into the Dick and Jane world.

Everyone I knew thought I was nuts. If there was one thing they wanted to avoid, or at least postpone, it was the suburban family life that I was desperate to get. Most people I knew never got married, and most who got married never had children. They wanted to live in Manhattan or San Francisco, work in publishing, journalism or the arts, live in lofts, go to concerts and to the theater, try out restaurants and engage in various urban entertainments. They regarded life in the 'burbs as boring, declasse and certainly not the thing for people like us.

I could easily understand the resentment of red-state, church-going Nascar Dads and Soccer Moms. They recognized that there was an urban coastal elite who thought the Dick and Jane life they chose to live was ridiculous and were contemptuous of them. And they believed that the progressive policies this elite promoted, including gay marriage, would make it difficult to get or maintain the Dick and Jane life, and squeeze them out. So, in California, they voted for Prop 8, which was represented not as anti-gay but as pro-family.

Most had nothing against gays and opposed anti-sodomy laws as invasions of privacy; most supported civil unions. They simply wanted affirmation that the Dick and Jane sitcom life was the good life, that it was the norm, and that it wouldn't be taken away from them. And churches supported Prop 8 de jure because they regarded homosexuality as a sin but de facto because Dick and Jane families were their bread and butter.


gavagai said...

Ratzinger nailed it when he said this past summer, "I believe that the church in America, at this point in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment."

It isn't so much that the coastal elites despised Dick and Jane visions of suburbia, they just dispised the narrow array of possibilities.

The Church has always feared having to compete in the market-place of ideas alongside a multitude of ways of finding fulfillment. We've lived and we trust the evidence of our experience over the hocus pocus. At best, God is in the margins.

Prop 8 and their ilk will quickly lose the same-sex marriage gambit according to the same way they've lost every other "tradition" from birth control to abortion. With no discernable harm done to society, people will move towards the position of tolerance and individual libery, and declare, "What's the big deal?"

H. E. said...

I don't disagree. Prop 8 will go down, after expensive litigation, Rat will not make any significant headway in his program to re-Christianize Europe and, more broadly, people will move towards individual liberty and tolerance. I'm all for that.

But there's no free ride. The end of religion opens new possibilities but closes off others, and people on the ground know it. The Dick and Jane life is increasingly hard to come by: working class people can't afford it and (here I do disagree) coastal elites are contemptuous of it.

The Prop 8 supporters are of course wrong. Gay marriage doesn't threaten the Dick and Jane family. The economy and the material conditions of life in the 21st century do. It isn't feasible for most families to maintain a middle class standard of living on one income. The kind suburban development promoted during the 50s with long commutes by car isn't sustainable.

But the Family Values people do have a legitimate grievance and ought to be taken seriously. The kind of life they want is slipping away, or unattainable. They can't get what they want. Maybe the only people who can get the Dick and Jane family are dual income professionals of the coastal elite who, like me, are just playing at it.