Required Reading: Rich Parents Are Better

You remember the old joke:

Q: What’s the best way to have a million dollars by the time you’re thirty?

A: Inherit ten million dollars when you’re twenty.

A new book by sociologist Robert Putnam underlines the traditional wisdom: The best way to succeed in life is to pick the right parents. According to reviews in The Economist and New York Times, Putnam amasses solid evidence to demonstrate that the class gap between rich and poor parents is huge and increasing.

Graphic inequality

Graphic inequality

The relationship between parenting and poverty has been a culture-war flashpoint for fifty years. As historian Andrew Hartman relates in his new book, back in the 1960s sociologist and sometime-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised hackles with his study of the causes of African-American poverty.

The problem with too many “Negro Families,” Moynihan argued, was that a destructive anti-family culture had set in. Kids were no longer being raised in stable two-parent households. Fathers were absent or abusive. Mothers were overworked and under stress. The result, Moynihan concluded, was that poor families—especially African American poor families—could not raise successful children.

Critics charged that Moynihan attacked poor people, not poverty. He was accused of a new crime: “blaming the victim.”

The numbers in Putnam’s new book offer some sobering suggestions that Moynihan’s warnings were correct, but not just for African American families. The real divide, Putnam says, is not between black and white parents, but between well-to-do college-educated parents and not-well-to-do parents with less education.

Some of these statistics are truly mind-blowing. Consider, for example, that a poor eighth-grade student who does very well in school still has a worse chance of completing college than a rich eighth-grade student who does very badly in school. The numbers of children living with two well-educated parents has stayed relatively stable. The number of children in single-parent households has shot up among parents with no more than a high-school education.

Traditionalists and conservatives, no doubt, will point to Putnam’s work as more evidence in favor of traditional families. The best way to fight poverty, they might say, will be to encourage stable two-parent households.

Progressives and liberals, meanwhile, will point to these numbers as proof of America’s un-level playing field. Children of parents with fewer educational advantages need extra assistance from government in order to stand any sort of chance.

The long-standing dream of American education has been that education can lead to success. Since the days of Horace Mann, education has been offered as the key to the American dream. Putnam’s study offers more evidence that education is part of the structure of inequality, not the sledgehammer to demolish that structure.


Mommy, I Can Marry a Princess!

What is so frightening about gay marriage?  A TV ad from California’s 2008 battle over same sex marriage gives us a clue.  Gay marriage, to many conservatives, will ultimately tear families apart. 

For those of us trying to understand conservative, traditionalist, ‘fundamentalist’ culture in America, this TV ad offers some insight into conservative thinking.  Many of us are puzzled by conservative opposition to gay marriage.  Like Jonathan Rauch, it seems to me that a defense of traditional values should logically want to see as many people married as possible. 

Image source: A Collection of Odd

But for many conservatives, a redefinition of marriage will represent a cultural camel’s nose under the tent.  That is, if two same-sex partners are allowed to marry, then a slew of other cultural transformations will soon thrust themselves into mainstream culture.  Any opposition to these radical changes will soon be tarred as mere bigotry. 

In the same-sex marriage debate–as in so many cultural contests–schools and schooling play a central role.  For many conservatives, public schools often play the role of cultural contaminant.  Ideas such as evolution, secularism, moral relativism, and sexual liberation, in the conservative vision, are transmitted into cultural circulation by being injected into children at public schools.  Schools are used by progressive activists to subvert the proper relationship between parent and child.  Schools fill the heads of impressionable children with pernicious ideas about the nature of morality and values. 

We see a particularly striking example of this in California’s TV ads.  During the fight over California’s Proposition 8  in 2008, ads depicted a girl coming home from school, happily telling her worried mother that she learned she could marry a princess.  The ad warned ominously: without Proposition 8 parents would have no legal right to complain.

This ad plays upon a very commonly held notion about the flawed relationship between traditional values, families, and public schools.  In this vision, schools become the institution that transforms cultural change from a general trend to a problem within conservative families. Schools become intrusive agents warping the minds of children and turning those children against the dearest beliefs of their parents.  

I’m sympathetic.  I support gay marriage, evolution, pluralism, etc.  But I recognize that many of my well-meaning education colleagues really do envision public schools as a vehicle to transform children’s culture.  When cultural conservatives worry about camels’ noses, I believe they are smart to worry.  Progressives yearn ardently for a network of public schools as “change agents.”  Just as fervently as conservatives worry about the intrusive moral role such schools might hope to play.

In the News: What Is a Family? CA Approves Multiple-Parent Bill

We read in yesterday’s First Thoughts that California lawmakers have passed a new law.  Senate Bill 1476 will allow courts to recognize that “a child may have a parent and child relationship with more than 2 parents.”

This bill came about from a complicated family situation.  In In re M.C., a child had been put into the foster system.  Neither the biological mother, nor the mother’s new partner, could or would care for the child.  But the child’s biological father was not legally her parent, so the child could not be given to his care.

The arguments for and against the new law provide an illuminating glimpse into culture-war positions about the meanings of traditional families.  Supporters of the law claim that such laws simply move the courts into balance with the messy realities of our contemporary society.  Bill sponsor Mark Leno (D-San Fran) stated, “We live in a world today where courts are dealing with diverse circumstances  that have reshaped California families.”  Similarly, an LA Times editorial in favor of the law opened with this gambit: “For better or worse, families have changed.”

Opponents of the law have articulated some of the reasons often given in Fundamentalist America for supporting traditional family structures.  Writing in the Huffington Post, John Culhane and Elizabeth Marquardt argued that the new law will open a Pandora’s Box of unintended, but predictable, consequences.  “The ‘rule of two,'” they noted,

“for assigning legal parenthood has rarely been breached, for good reason. Again, consider In Re M.C.. Reunification is always challenging; here, it is unlikely to succeed with anyone except (possibly) the biological father. Is it really wise to deploy already-strained government resources toward three parents? And what if, in another case, reunification with all three parents were achieved?

“The problems would then multiply. It is hard enough for even two parents to agree on how to raise a child. Three parents in conflict would be still worse. Constant judicial involvement in decision-making would be the unintended but entirely predictable consequence. If there were a custody battle, the child might end up being shuttled between all of them. In fact, a Pennsylvania court has ordered custody to be shared among three legal parents.

“And why stop at three? Senator Leno’s bill places no limit on the number of possible parents. If three’s a crowd, four or more is a mob.”

Along the same lines, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) complained, “This smacks of the state redefining parenthood.  What’s next? Are we going to parent by committee?”

For conservatives, the primary danger seems to come from state intervention into private family structures.  Those structures, many conservatives believe, have precedence to the state and ought to be immune to state meddling.  For religious conservatives, this is often articulated as a notion that God created the traditional two-heterosexual-parent family.  Human governments ought only to support what God has created.

Is Gay Okay? Not in Utah…

Image source: Business Insider

I’ll admit it.  I find Glee offensive.  Not because of any teen-steam sexuality or anything, but just because everyone keeps singing and dancing all the time.

Now it appears a new show by one of the creators of Glee will not be aired by a Utah NBC affiliate.  According to an article by Scott Pierce in the Salt Lake Tribune, TV station KSL will not show The New Normal in the usual NBC timeslot.  Why not?  The show depicts the lives and times of a gay couple and their quest for a surrogate-carried baby.

For the culture-war-tuned antennae of ILYBYGTH, the interesting part of this story is the language each side uses to explain its position.  According to Jeff Simpson, CEO of KSL’s parent company, the show was banned because, “The dialogue might be excessively rude and crude. The scenes may be too explicit or the characterizations might seem offensive.”

Voices from Fundamentalist America support this decision.  The activist group One Million Moms has opposed the show.  According to the group’s website,

“NBC is using public airwaves to continue to subject families to the decay of morals and values, and the sanctity of marriage in attempting to redefine marriage. These things are harmful to our society, and this program is damaging to our culture. . . .

“Millions of Americans strongly believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman. NBC’s “The New Normal” is attempting to desensitize America and our children. It is the opposite of how families are designed and created. You cannot recreate the biological wheel.”

In these short paragraphs, One Million Moms sums up (sum up?) the reasons some conservatives give for opposing homosexual marriage and homosexuality in general.  In coming weeks, we at ILYBYGTH will be exploring these arguments in more detail.

In the meantime, the defense of the show demonstrates one of the most popular arguments made in favor of gay marriage.  As Glee and New Normal producer Ryan Murphy argued, “It’s 2012.  I don’t think this is anything so outrageous.”


NEW TOPIC: Family & Sexuality

What makes up a family?  What is the right way to have sex?  Fundamentalist America has strong feelings about these questions.  For many outsiders like me, conservative opinion on these issues is truly perplexing.  If it is “conservative” to want a smaller government, for instance, why is it also “conservative” to regulate all the sexual behavior in all the bedrooms in the country?  If Fundamentalist America wants strong families, why do they deny same-sex partners the rights to marry and raise healthy, happy children?  Even more foundationally, why does Fundamentalist America even care if people are gay, straight, or otherwise curved?  How does it stop a conservative Christian from following her religion if other people have sex in ways she doesn’t like?

For the next several weeks, ILYBYGTH will explore these questions.  Posts will fall into three basic categories:

  • The fights against same-sex marriage;
  • Notions of sexuality; and
  • Contraception.

Just as we’ve done with the topics of creationism, traditionalist education, and the Bible, our goal will be to present the best possible arguments from Fundamentalist America.  Our goal as outsiders will be to understand conservative thinking on these issues, not to attack or defend it.

This will certainly be tricky.  It is much easier to speak calmly and dispassionately about such things as evolution, John Dewey, and Bible apocalypses than the intimate relationships that make up family life.  Attacks on homosexuality, for example, come much closer to home for many people on both sides of the issue than, say, denunciations of evolution.

One more reminder: when we talk about “Fundamentalist America” here at ILYBYGTH, we mean something wider than simply those very conservative evangelical Protestants who might call themselves small-f fundamentalists.  We are talking here about a broad conservative, traditionalist impulse, shared among many different types of conservative people.  Conservative Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims may all be part of this sweeping interpretation of FA.  Indeed, even mainly secular people who favor traditional society may include themselves as part of this coalition.

The purpose of ILYBYGTH is to understand the ideas of this deeply conservative tradition in America.  You can help.  Share your experiences, comment on posts, ask questions.  Even with this intensely personal and highly emotional topic, we’ll resolve to talk calmly, respectfully, and with a sincere desire to understand, even if we can’t agree.


In the News: Anti-Fundamentalist Hate Crime?

FRC President Tony Perkins.

According to a story from Religion News Service, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of inciting a hate crime against them on Wednesday.  The irony is beyond painful.  The SPLC has long been a leading voice identifying and condemning right-wing hate violence.  Is Perkins’ accusation a mere stunt? Or does the SPLC have to acknowledge its role in this crime?

On Wednesday, Floyd Lee Corkins II allegedly entered an FRC office in Washington DC and shot unarmed security guard Leo Johnson in the arm.

FRC President Perkins blamed the SPLC for inciting this violent act.  Perkins claimed,

“Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been reckless in labeling organizations as hate groups because they disagree with them on public policy.”

The SPLC has, in fact, accused the FRC of some despicable actions.  According to the SPLC, the FRC demonizes homosexuality.  FRC leaders, according to the SPLC, have publicly advocated the expulsion of all homosexuals from the USA.  The FRC, according to the SPLC, has also equated homosexuality with pedophilia.  These are not insignificant claims.

As Chris Lisee reported for Religion News Service, the alleged shooter had been an activist at some local gay-rights organizations.  Even more curious, he had been carrying a large bag of Chick-fil-A sandwiches.  The symbolism seems unmistakeable.  After all, given the recent culture-war dust-up over Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, a gay activist might not usually purchase fifteen sandwiches from the chain.  Fox News claims that just before opening fire,  Corkins said, “I don’t like your politics.”

So was this an anti-fundamentalist hate-crime?  Can the SPLC be held accountable?  The SPLC’s Mark Potok called the FRC claim “outrageous.”   Other gay-rights organizations quickly condemned the shooting.  Potok’s defense makes an important point.  The FRC shooting was a tragedy, Potok claimed, but Perkins was cynically taking advantage of this event to claim a “false equivalency” between the FRC and other victims of hate crimes.

Nevertheless, Perkins’ accusation raises important questions.  As we’ve seen with other recent culture-war violence, such as the deadly shootings at the Sikh temple near Milwaukee, the dangers of escalating America’s culture war are real.  Language that demonizes the opposition hurts us all.  The solution must be more along the lines of Matthew Lee Anderson’s and John Corvino’s response to the Chick-fil-A affair: we must talk to one another.  Openly, honestly, and even painfully and awkwardly, if necessary.  We don’t need to agree, and we must avoid the false solution of merely papering over our disagreements.  But we must also all agree–as most groups do in this case–that violence is not part of these discussions.

In the News: Update–Chick fil A, Traditional Values, Gay Rights, and Boycotting as Culture War

We’ve been reading with interest the developing story of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A.  Defenders such as Mike Huckabee have called for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.  Opponents have rallied for a boycott of all Chick-fil-A branches.  Why?  Cathy’s comments and philanthropic donations have supported what he would call “traditional families.”  His opponents call them anti-gay.

The questions in this story have attracted the attention of everyone interested in today’s culture wars:

  • What does it mean to support traditional families?
  • What role do businesses play in promoting cultural values?
  • Is a consumer boycott a viable tactic for culture war victory?

So far we’ve refrained from posting any more news on this developing story.  But yesterday Darren Grem on Religion in American Life posted an analysis that was so insightful, we thought we’d recommend it.  If you’re following this story, or even wondering about it, Grem’s article is a great place to start.  He offers a cash-flow chart of where every dollar spent at Chick-fil-A likely goes.  We are looking forward to reading more when Grem’s book comes out.


Fundamentalist Fast Food? Christian Chicken? Fresh Hot Hate?

Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy

The interweb has been squawking about Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s recent statements.  Earlier this week, Cathy told the Baptist Press that his 1600-strong chain of fast-food restaurants was founded on Biblical principles, and will keep running that way.  Part of this means support for the traditional family.  “We are very much supportive of the family,” Cathy said,

“– the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

Chick-fil-A’s committment to Biblical values goes beyond supporting traditional marriage.  Most famously, the restaurants are closed on Sundays.  The corporation also conducts missionary work among its workers, to its customers, and in its advertising.  When asked about his support for such Fundamentalist groups as Exodus International and the Family Research Council, Cathy happily replied, “Guilty as charged.”

Opponents have accused Chick-fil-A of an anti-gay position.  Many took umbrage at Cathy’s assertion that non-traditional marriages “invit[ed] God’s judgment on our nation.”  On Wednesday, Tim Carman asked in the Washington Post if readers would continue to eat there.  Not everyone will.  As Melissa Browning noted in the Huffington Post, “I can’t eat hate.”  But it appears Browning represents a minority, at least among Carman’s readers.  The results of the Washington Post poll (as of 11:00 New York time on Friday, July 20, 2012) showed 62% of almost 19,000 respondents planning to continue their patronage.

Nevertheless, Chick-fil-A offered yesterday a clarification of its position.  It officially noted that it takes no position on gay marriage.  However, it plans to continue its policy of “Biblically-based” management principles.

Does it matter if chicken is processed biblically?  More important, do we need to be sure that every dollar we spend supports only those corporations whose culture-war positions are as palatable as their products?