“God in America”: A Reflection

Last week Craig and I watched “God in America,” the PBS special co-produced by Frontline and “American Experience, which traces the ongoing effects of religion (specifically Evangelical Christianity) on American cultural and political life. I was amazed and gratified to find that this ambitious undertaking, though not without some omissions, gave a fairly even-handed treatment to what by all accounts could have been a polarizing theme. 

Having grown up in the Evangelical tradition, I found the sixth part of the series most thought-provoking in terms of understanding how my own world-view has been shaped.  In part six of the series, we look at the lives of men like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., Pat Robertson …  men who walked a fine line between working for “the Kingdom” and being instruments of influence in secular society. 

There were some surprises — I was not aware, for example, of the meeting in Switzerland that Billy Graham had with other evangelical pastors to prevent the election of John F. Kennedy because of his Catholic beliefs. I was also not aware of the fact that it was the author/philosopher Francis Schaeffer who brought the Evangelical community (beginning with Jerry Falwell) to the forefront of the pro-life movement (that up until that time it was perceived to be a “Catholic issue”).  From here, this hot-button issue became a way for the Republicans to capture the hearts and votes of the Evangelical community.  (Much to the chagrine of John Kerry, who admitted that his defeat in the presidential election was largely attributable to his having “gotten it wrong” with his fellow Catholics.)

What fascinates me most about “God in America” is that it is possible to see in one six-hour, panoramic sweep the very real consequences of “religious retreat” — that is abdicating our place in society out of a misguided belief that our little light can do nothing to turn back the darkness.  This series amply demonstrates that, to the extent that people of faith identify and rally around a common cause (or common enemy), we can make and HAVE made a difference. 

However, if we are to continue to argue effectively for change, we must be able to translate the tenets of our particular faith tradition into “global virtues” that are readily understood by those of other faiths — or none at all. The final twenty minutes of the program sums this up rather nicely.  In the words of President Obama:

“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. … The majority of the great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their personal beliefs into public policy is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of our morality, much of which is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition ….” And yet, as the president pointed out, our ability to pass legislature based on the religious principles of a particular faith tradition will depend on being able to persuade others of the objective value of those faith-based principles.

Why? The future of God in America is … marked with diversity. As religious options multiply, and as those in positions of influence become increasingly estranged from established religious institutions, the ability of people of faith to infuse society with objective principles of truth will depend upon our ability to find common threads of morality — global virtues, if you will.

Yes, God is still alive and well, here in America. And we — the thousand points of light, as envisioned by President Bush, Sr. — have cause for hope.

Same-Sex Parenting: A Preferred Alternative?

“Thirty Days,” a television series on FX, recently ran a program entitled “Same Sex Parenting.” The program was about “Tom and Dennis,” a homosexual couple from my neighborhood who foster-adopted four boys, and “Kati,” a Mormon woman from California who was herself both an adoptee and adoptive parent.

Kati moved into Tom and Dennis’ home for thirty days, while they attempted to persuade her to change her conviction that gay and lesbian couples should not be allowed to foster or adopt children. (She kept referring to this alternately as her “belief” and “opinion.”)

The persuasion took a variety of forms, including …

Dinnertime confrontations: “Are you saying that these kids would be better off in a group home than with us? Are you saying that we’re bad parents?”

Mandatory attendance at gay and lesbian events and support groups, in which participants took turns at using her for target practice for her “prejudices.” (Groups included COLAGE, an Ann Arbor group for children raised in same-sex parent households and CARE, an advocacy group that seeks to have laws passed to protect same-sex couples.)

Forced labor, in which she had to hand out flyers to businesses in the downtown area (the owners had clearly been coached to make barbed comments about “those people” who are treading upon their rights).

A field trip with two social workers from Detroit, who took Katie into a crumbling neighborhood, to see a group home in which one of them had been raised, to demonstrate how much better off children are with ANY family than in a group home.

Is Any Family Better than NO Family?

This last point is usually the argument most groups return to, as it is the most difficult to refute. For a long time I avoided writing on this particular subject for the simple reason that I, too, had SEEN such a group home, and was horrified by the conditions in which the kids were living. Were the children truly better off in a place like this than with a gay couple? And, if so, how?

Watching “30 Days,” the answer became very clear to me. The first clue came when I saw that Katie was put on the hot seat over and over again for her “opinions,” yet at no time did the tables turn. Tom and Dennis were never made to sit down with sociologists or psychologists or theologians who could ask them the hard questions about what they were teaching the children about heterosexual relationships, and how it might affect the future ability of these children to form healthy families. No one suggested that any other considerations (including the developmental needs of the kids) might trump their “right” to have a family. They were never asked to confront anything more persuasive than “I’m sorry, but this is what I think.”

What they want you to presume, of course, is that no such considerations exist. And yet they do exist, and cannot be discounted without doing real and lasting damage to the well-being of children who have already suffered so much. (For more about this, click on this study from the Family Resource Center.)

Here are a few of them:

1. Children adopted by gay and lesbian couples are absorbed into a subculture is intrinsically different from the one in which they originated, and to which they very likely belong.

Many experts in adoption contend that it is highly undesirable to place an African-American child (or a child from any other non-white background) with a Caucasian couple. No matter how loving or well intentioned, the argument goes, the white couple is intrinsically “different” from the child, unable to give that child the tools he or she needs to get along in his particular corner of the world. (Some couples attempt to overcome this by exposing the child to others with similar backgrounds at school, in church, and even on play dates. However, in a very real sense, a white parent can never hope to teach by example what it is to be part of that particular community.)

Similarly, homosexual or lesbian couples cannot teach children by example the skills they will need to grow up and form healthy heterosexual relationships. Because the gay and lesbian community tends to form a distinctive subculture within mainstream society, the pressure to accept the gay lifestyle as “normal” or even desirable could not help but form an indelible impression on the children placed in their care. The tensions (such as those seen on the show) between the two camps cannot help but have a negative effect on the kids.

At one point in the program, one of the men (I think it was Dennis) commented on how the kids hadn’t warmed up to Katie. “I haven’t seen them hug her even once, and they are normally very affectionate kids,” he said. In reality, the children had picked up on the tensions in the house, between their “dads” and this lady who “didn’t want them to be a family.” Children tend to take their cues from their parents … and these two had already branded Katie “the enemy.”

2. Children placed in gay and lesbian homes become unwitting targets, exposed to greater censure and scrutiny by their peers than other adopted and foster children.

In the “30 Days” episode, a young child – six or seven years old – going to his first day at school was admonished by his “dad” to choose whether or not to tell his classmates that he has two dads. Katie was horrified by this. “You’re asking a six year old to make decisions about something he shouldn’t have been exposed to in the first place!”

While her horror is justifiable, the reality is that this kind of decision making about how much information to share, and with whom, is all too common for foster children and adopted children. This is especially true when children are adopted outside their racial or ethnic group; their coloring makes it immediately evident that their natural parents are not raising them. Children pick up on this quickly, and questions such as, “So where are your real parents?” or “How come you don’t live with your real parents?” are all too common.

Responsible parents talk with their children ahead of time, and help them to decide how to respond to these personal questions. Unfortunately, children raised in gay and lesbian households suffer an additional level of scrutiny. Their desire to blend in to their peer group is frustrated each time “both dads” or “both moms” show up for ballgames or other class events, or they are asked to do projects about their families. (Children raised by single parents generally do not have the same difficulties because of the prevalence of divorce.)

Although many schools try to smooth over these differences in the name of “tolerance,” the bottom line is that these children are forced to be a constant reminder of a lifestyle many other parents strongly object to … which only adds to their sense of being “different” or “unlovable,” making them unwitting (and undeserving) targets.

3. Children placed in gay and lesbian homes are not taught how to embrace God’s design for family life.

Children raised in gay or lesbian households don’t get to experience the positive ways men and women complement and complete each other, especially within marriage. Rather, they are subjected to conflicting and contradictory messages in their adoptive homes, no matter how otherwise “loving” and “supportive.” For these children, the “theology of the body” is all but lost, and their inherent dignity is further obscured.

So … Back to the Orphanage?

Whenever human choices cause them to take steps that are outside the revealed will of God, there are consequences that are very real, and often far-reaching. If Adam and Eve had imagined that a bite of fruit would have sent them so far from the Garden, do you think they would have taken that first bite?

The children currently in the system are not pawns in the war of political activism. Most of them were brought into this world through the ill advised and often sinful actions of their parents, and have scars that are both deep and permanent. There is no denying this. They are growing up in a world that is harsh and by all accounts unloving.

There was a time when whole religious orders were dedicated to caring for such children, forms of which continue to this day. However, no institution – no matter how well organized, or well-intentioned – can take the place of the family. The first Christians had a tremendous influence on the Roman Empire for the simple reason that they tended to the needs of the poor and marginalized, especially its discarded children.

The best thing for ANY child is to be raised by his natural parents — one man, one woman, lovingly united for life in the bonds of holy matrimony. Each time this plan is disrupted, the child is the one who suffers. The question is not “if” the child is going to suffer, but “how much”?

The child who is adopted by another couple will likely grow up wondering about his birth parents.

The child who is raised by a single parent will grow up wondering about the other parent who is no longer a part of his or her life.

The child who is adopted by a single parent grows up with all these questions, plus a few more in the event that single parent marries unwisely. (Two women in my family had children and subsequently married. Both children suffered at the hands of their birth fathers and their mother’s husbands.)

In the short term, placing a child with a gay or lesbian couple may seem like a better choice than leaving him or her in a group home … until you think about the consequences of that choice. As a result, that child is absorbed into a subculture to which he does not belong, forced to accept as normal a lifestyle that is far outside the mainstream. Instead of learning from his parents the tools he needs to understand the beauty of the complementarity of the sexes and the order of natural family life, he is subjected to conflicting and confusing messages that strike at the core of his identity … and his dignity as a human person.

However, until and unless we are prepared to accept responsibility for these lives, and teach them the things they need to know to form healthy relationships and enter into marriage and family life, our protests will fall on deaf ears. Resources are limited. The need is too great.

To the extent – and ONLY to the extent – that we are prepared to respond with tangible help, can we hope to effect real, lasting change. And so, there is only viable response to the social worker who says, “What can I do? Send them to the group home … or with Tom and Steve?”

The answer is the same as the one Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta so often gave. “Give those children to me.”