The Duplicity Inherent in Family Values

It’s hard to watch the YouTube video of Rep. Mark Souder and part-time staffer Tracy Jackson, as they sit, talking about Souder’s unwavering commitment to abstinence education. Souder is the latest family-values guy to get poisoned with his own venom, as we find out that he and Jackson had an affair. This grown man, with a wife and children, could not do what he was asking hormonal prom-dates to do—abstain. Jackson seems to be intelligent and poised, playing the role of newscaster as well as she plays the role of a no-sex champ. It makes me cringe to see the made-for-Christian-TV videos, watching him pat himself on the back for standing up for abstinence, while talking to his mistress. But it doesn’t make me surprised. I grew up in that Christian Right world, and know it’s full of opportunities to be bitten.

Souder was part of the House Republican class of 1994, when we began to hear the “family values” message reverberating through our political and religious landscapes. At least, I certainly heard it. In the early 90s, I was young and in Bible School. I remember one afternoon in particular, when I snuck out of the dorms to the beach with my friends, six other Christian college students, most were from out of town. The women were from prominent families. Their fathers were pastors of large conservative churches and Evangelical institutions. All of our parents were in the thick of planning for the Republican Revolution, armed with a pro-life, pro-abstinence, and anti-gay agenda. Most of these women were at a Bible school, not because they were aspiring to have great careers in the church, but they were hoping to find men with similar values, so that they could become wives, mothers, and supporters their husbands’ careers. I, on the other hand, was a budding feminist, wrestling in a conservative Evangelical college. I liked these women. Even as I look back, I still have a great fondness for them. Their hopes were a lot different from mine, and I often became frustrated by their willingness to place all of their own career ambitions into a man. But, they were clever, witty, and beautiful. Their families were powerful for a reason, and as we snuck down to the Oak Street Beach, I even felt a bit intimidated by them.

When we got to the beach, we stripped off our outer clothes, and I realized we were all wearing bikinis, which was strictly against the Bible School rules. Thankfully this was in a time when no one carried cell-phone cameras, shared YouTube videos, or kept personal blogs. I doubt we could get away with that sort of indiscretion now. But, as I said, it was summer, they were beautiful, and we were young, and so it seemed natural. As we settled ourselves onto the towels, passed around the suntan oil, and slathered it on our bare bellies, we began to talk about abortion. Abortion in our circles was akin to murder, so I was surprised to hear one woman quickly confess, “I would get one.” My ears perked as she explained, “I wouldn’t even think twice about it. If I got pregnant, it would ruin my father’s career. I would never tell my parents or anyone. I would just do it, as soon as I found out.” The chorus of women agreed.

I sat silent, looking out into the water. It didn’t bother me that one of the women would get an abortion. What concerned me was that she would have an abortion for her family, in order to keep up the appearance of abstinence. She would do it alone to protect her pro-life father. Watching the lakeshore, I thought of all the strange traps that we were entangling ourselves in order to uphold these family values. As women, we were the sexual gatekeepers, we were to wear the purity ring and keep vigilant in fighting off men. We were told that masturbating was a sin, and Joycelyn Elders was a purveyor of evil. If we had sex, we were tainted and immoral. We could not get on the pill or buy condoms, because we believed in abstinence, so securing birth control was like premeditated sin. And now, was it understood that if we became pregnant, we were to quietly get an abortion in order to protect our father’s job?

I don’t want to universalize that moment and say that all women who grew up in the Christian Right thought these things. But for me, it became too much to bear, and I had to begin imagining values that supported every person in the family. Now that 1994 is far behind us and we are almost numb to the scandals of that “family values” class, can we begin rethinking all of this? And when we do, can we start focusing on the young women? Can we support couples when they need to say “no” and encourage birth control when they are ready to say “yes”? Can we nurture women in all of their choices, and urge them to make decisions in light of their own futures? Can we begin to support loving, same-sex couples as they look to start families? As Mark Souder and Tracy Jackson sort through their personal failings, as they adjust and makes some necessary changes in their own lives, I hope we can change our national dialogue as well, and use this time to recognize the failings of “family values” ideas.

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How (and how not) to take criticism

[This is cross-posted on Duke’s Call and Response blog]

I remember the first church member who came to me and criticized my preaching. My first reaction was to become defensive. I wasn’t sure if the complaint was entirely fair. I also wasn’t sure if this complaint was a symptom of a larger problem within the congregation — namely, a desire for control over what I said in the pulpit. I was new to this congregation. It was a small church with a complicated history.

I called my former professor and mentor, Michael Jinkins. “Should I be worried about this?” I asked.

“No, you shouldn’t worry. He came to you directly. That shows he wants the best for you,” Michael responded.

I took Michael’s advice, and within a short year, the member was one of my closest allies and friends. The member did indeed want the best for me. I learned that day how helpful it is to take down those defenses and listen to what people have to say.

As a pastor, I receive all sorts of complaints, not only about my sermons, but also about programming, pastoral visits, or even my wardrobe. As a writer, as my audience grows, so do my critics. It is often difficult to know how to respond. Do we answer each complaint? Do we try to defend our beliefs, our congregation, or our denomination each time we feel that we are unfairly condemned?

As leaders who often work in institutions in the midst of decline, we can become overwhelmed with criticism. It is easy to become defensive, even when our main goal is to love God and to serve our neighbors.

How do we respond?

First, know who our friends are. Sometimes this is hard to figure out. I have often been a friendly complainer within the church, and I’ve had different reactions. I have been shut down. I have been told that my concerns were my own fault. And I have had people take the time to listen to me. I bet you can guess which responses have been the most constructive.

Second, listen to minority groups and the stories of individuals. As church leaders, defensiveness can be a dangerous position, especially if we are in power and we are insensitive to the complaints of a minority group. When men, women, or children claim to be victimized, we must be especially attentive. In this highly litigious society, we might be cautious about what we say, but we cannot allow the concern of legal matters drown out justice. When there has been systemic abuse, oppression, or discrimination, the original damage that was caused only becomes magnified if we build up our defenses.

Third, when a criticism is launched, it is the wrong time to highlight the pain of the powerful. As public leaders, we feel things just as strongly as the next person, but we might need to find a private place where we can grieve. It’s insensitive to the real victims when the powerful highlight our own difficulties in public forums. This happens in small ways, like when an institutional leader who must lay off an employee repeatedly laments how difficult it is to do so. Or it can happen in big ways, like when church leaders complain of their victimization when their institutions have shuffled the deck with pedophile clergy and allowed continued abuse.

Fourth, know when to say, “I’m sorry.” Why is this so hard for Christian leaders? In the heart of our spiritual practices and liturgy we proclaim that we are broken people. We confess that we have been wrong and we ask for forgiveness. And in this world, where we are criticized by everyone from our grandmothers to new atheists, sometimes the only thing to do is to admit that we are wrong. And we are sorry.