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.

10 thoughts on “The Duplicity Inherent in Family Values

  1. You make such an important point about integrity here. I hope many read it and our national dialogue can change as you suggest. Your background gives you a really insightful understanding of the right. Thanks for sharing how your experiences enlighten your faith and theology.

    By the way, how did you ever become a budding feminist at your Bible college?

  2. I have a little different take on this issue about which I blogged this past Tuesday as follows:

    “Why Evangelical Christian Politicians Have So Many Moral Failings”

    First of all, what does the word “evangelical” actually mean?

    It means someone who supposedly emphasizes the authority of Scripture, especially the New Testament.

    Unfortunately, I do not believe most so-called Evangelicals understand the Bible correctly. This is obvious to me by their emphasis on “values” i.e. behavior.

    After a long and careful study of the Bible, it is clear to me that the emphasis of the Old Testament is behavior (thou shalts and thou shalt nots) but the emphasis of the New Testament is faith. Specifically, faith in Christ.

    The New Testament is full of evidence that what I am saying is true. Perhaps the passage that speaks this truth the loudest is as follows:

    “But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (Galatians 3:22-25)

    There is also a very, very interesting verse with which most Christians are unfamiliar which goes as follows:

    “All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers.” (Romans 5:20)

    Another similar verse is:

    “The strength of sin is the law.” (I Cor 15:56)

    The bottom line is that, the more you emphasize behavior and make some behaviors off limits, you literally magnetize people to those behaviors.

    A psychologist did a study one time where he observed people walking past a greenhouse and realized that there were lots of stones lying around and lots of people walking by and yet nobody ever seemed to be throwing stones at the greenhouse. So, he had a sign made up forbidding the throwing of stones at the greenhouse. Suddenly, stones went flying.

    This is the trap the Mark Souders of the world fall into. Even today, he is saying that the message is good even though he failed to live up to it.

    He is wrong. He, like millions and millions of his fellow Evangelicals, just doesn’t get it. He simply has the wrong take on the Bible and he has dragged that out into the political arena.

    The effect of him and people like him is to damage Christianity, to do no favors to the politics of this country, and to bring himself to personal ruin.

    And yet many will persist in following the same road.

    There will be more like him. It is inevitable. They have set themselves up for it.

  3. Carol,
    Sue Duffy must have been such a wonderful friend and mentor to have when you were young and growing in faith in college. Your story reminds me again about the wonder of friendship and God’s love through these relationships. Thanks for sharing the obituary notice on her life. It brightened my evening.

  4. Carol,

    Very poignant insight. In talking about Bible school and “Oak St. Beach” you wouldn’t be referring to MBI would you? If so there are others who found their way through all that to a more grace-filled place. I am one.

  5. I found you via your post on Huffington.
    I, too, was raised in the environment you described. I’m liberal Quaker now, and part of a women’s spiritual group. At our most recent gatherings, we’ve discussed romantic and sexual relationships and what faithful means. I’ve been thinking about my own sexual experiences and how, when I was a teen and young adult, they were informed by the (midwest baptist) church. I was lucky enough to have not gotten pregnant but, like your friends, I, too, would have most likely had an abortion for much the same reason.

    I have teenaged children who have been actively engaged with our regional young Friends group. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be a driver and facilitator on several occasions (we’re called FAPs or “Friendly Adult Presence”). I am completely awed by how loving, supportive and honest our teen Friends are with one another. Sexuality is discussed with candor and grace. The teens and adults are able to talk about their sexual feelings safely with no fear of judgment. They (we) can acknowledge their feelings and then talk about what is appropriate for the weekend retreats and what is not cool. It’s just amazing to me how lovingly sexuality is understood to be God-given and a healthy part of everyone. I wish that gift of acceptance for all young people.

    As I’ve talked about my experiences and thought about the “premeditated sin” aspect of my earliest sexual relationships, I find that I, too, would love to somehow reach out to young people growing up with the impossible standards dictated by the church. I can’t think of how to speak to them, though. The church is so narrow as to what is acceptable influence and what is not that I can’t imagine how to make that connection.

    I would love to see you address this topic in more depth and offer some solutions for reaching girls who are like we once were.
    Thank you!
    Mary Linda

  6. Mary Linda, I suggest in my post that the problem is not only that the standards of behavior imposed by the church are impossible to live up to (and result in inevitable failure) but also that careful reading of Scripture informs us that the Lord does not call upon Christians to live by them to begin with, but by faith in Him.

    Otherwise, if all we did was live (or attempt to live) by external standards (law) how could our righteousness exceed the righteousnesss of the scribes and Pharisses? (Matthew 5:20)

    Any thoughts?

  7. Excellent thoughts, Carol.

    To me, four things are clear from the scriptures:
    – God’s standard for sexual relations is explicitly spelled out and not subject to negotiation.
    – Our God is a forgiving God who loves and saves us even when we fail.
    – We should not hold non-believers to God’s standards. We should welcome them, and encourage them to meet God and learn those standards for themselves.
    – Believers who insist on following a different standard cannot call themselves believers. If they do, they should be removed from the church and we should “not even eat with them” until decide they want to choose God’s path again.

    In other words, we should lead with God’s grace, but not forget God’s truth in the process. I feel that too many conservative churches have forgotten about grace, and too many liberal churches have forgotten about truth.

  8. “In other words, we should lead with God’s grace, but not forget God’s truth in the process.”

    God’s grace is separate from God’s truth? That’s news to me. But, if it’s true, how do you explain the following:

    “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

    “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

    Seems to me that if Jesus is full of grace and truth, we would be ill-advised to speak of them separately or as some sort of conterbalance one to the other.

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