Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Motherhood, apple pie and a "family man"

Two rants about the last week…

1. A progressive faith group called Matthew 25 put out an Obama ad, "Families," to be run during last Saturday’s "Civic Forum" at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church.

It’s a good spot, featuring a number of religious leaders speaking to the notion of Barack Obama as a “family man.” This characterization of Obama rings true; I find the ease and strength with which he speaks of his family to be a visible sign of leadership and concern for the common good.

Here’s the caveat. As I viewed the ad, I found myself wincing a bit at what seemed like a “dig” at McCain, as one man claimed that Obama has a history of "standing by families” as his spouse added, pointedly, “...including his own." I think the whole "family man who supports strong families" could have been done without that dig at McCain (who has acknowledged his own failure with regard to his first marriage many times, and did so again at the Saddleback forum.)

I'd hope that the progressive faith movement could do "faith and family" in a way that can champion these important values without this constant need to judge others. This is what would make progressives different from the politicized religious right, for whom an accounting of the claims of faith seems to be inseparable from a list of the ways in which other people fail.

Particularly with regard to “family,” there’s a big difference between making policies that support families and making headlines that judge them. If this difference is put into play, the notion of saying that Obama is “a family man” is not a statement about his purity on a tick list of titillating potential scandals; it’s a statement that highlights his engaged concern for the challenges families face.

Just as a practical matter, holding someone up as an “exemplar” on the family front is always a bad idea, might as well toss banana peels in front of the guy as he walks. Besides the Eddie Haskell element -- nobody likes a show-off, particularly on the marriage and parenting front -- there's also the problem that nobody, but nobody, is perfect. To set a candidate up above the fray is to invite disaster, which will surely come – in the re-appearance (or manufacture) of a long-lost high school sweetheart or, as every parent could warn, a public stumble as a child becomes a teen surrounded by cellphone cameras hardwired to 24-hour cable TV.

But even more, making the argument be about the candidate’s purity is simply the wrong point here. Obama is not a “family man” because he’s been married to his first wife for many years and has two lovely daughters; he’s a “family man” because of his ongoing, work-in-progress commitment to his family, which is to say that he has a record of commitment to the conversion of the heart that is asked of us all.

It’s that commitment to a redemptive social order that will support all of us that is at the heart of the progressive faith agenda. This is the progressive’s crucial difference from the boilerplate of the politicized religious right, with its modern absolutes and invented apocalypses, its scandals and tearful confessions. For the progressive, care for the neighbor is not anxiety about the neighbor’s state in the abstract -- pure or damned? details at 10! -- care for the neighbor is about cultivating strong families by paying careful attention to the kind of social and cultural and civic networks we build. (And yes, these networks will be judged as "good" to the extent that they promote the "good" of each person.)

2. A short rant. I was so excited to see the language of "fatherhood" in the platform of the democratic party, I ripped right into a search for "motherhood."

Huh. Must've spelled it wrong... lessee here...m-o-t-h-e-r-h-o-o-d. Enter.


"Mothers," are there, of course. They need to be cared for, particularly those in need of social and economic support. This is good. But I'm just throwing out there the fact that "motherhood" and "fatherhood" don't seem to be parallel terms anymore, they no longer track together, in this cultural milieu. "Fatherhood" is good, we need more of it. "Motherhood" sounds a little loaded, better to focus on "women" and their "issues."

Perhaps if we get down-and-detailed about "fatherhood," we'll drop the Hallmark language and find out that most "men" have an "issue." Or two.

But they might not want to talk about it.