In my years working in the struggle for LGBT equality, one thing I always sensed about our ideological opponents was that their use of the term “pro-family” to refer to their movement was basically meaningless — pablum that sounds good in their echo chamber, but means little to the rest of the world. Because, really, everyone is “pro-family,” right, at least on a theoretical level? When I was younger, I had a bumper sticker that said “Focus On Your Own Damn Family,” referring to the monolith known as Focus On The Family. Liberals and LGBT rights supporters have always responded to this terminology by pointing out that all families are different, that LGBT people have families too, and that any true movement claiming to support the “family” would take this into account. But the religious right, “pro-family” movement does not.
1. They don’t care about families with gay kids, except to push parents toward programs that purport to “change” their kids. For those with gay kids already grown and out of the house, they drive a wedge between the son or daughter living authentically and the parents who cling to an anti-gay ideology.
2. They don’t care about the children in families led by gay couples, even though study after study has shown that kids do best in homes led by two loving parents (regardless of gender), and they won’t fight for the stability that allowing same-gender parents to marry gives to those kids.
3. For all their misplaced activism against women who have abortions — because the idea that they actually care about unborn children is a smokescreen — they offer little support for women who give birth to unplanned children, many of whom struggle financially to provide.
And so on. “Pro-family,” they are not, unless it looks exactly like their ideal conception of what a family should be. We see this again and again. We see it in a story making the rounds this week, about a straight married couple who are being attacked by the American Family Association, led by Bryan Fischer, because the husband is a trans male. Even though he had fully transitioned before he married his wife, that didn’t stop “Robby,” the wife’s cousin, from running into Bryan Fischer’s arms, publicly maligning his own family for the sake of the conservative Christian idea of The Family:
That sense of family and loyalty was upended completely when Robby recently ran to the American Family Association, an entity defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate” organization, to get their help in humiliating and attacking Jessica’s marriage. Robby has never met Jessica’s husband.
Jessica and her husband, Nick, are legally married. Nick is a transgender male. A mutual friend introduced them a few years ago.
On the afternoon of September 23rd, Jessica got a private message from her cousin Robby out of the blue. It said “Jessica, I want you to know that I love you both as a person and as my family. You and I practically grew up together, and I don’t want you to think that I am angry with you. But I have to tell you that what you and Nick are doing is wrong, and I am going to be doing all that I can to challenge it. I realize this might upset you, but I have to do what is right as difficult as it is going to be.” Jessica had no idea what he meant about “challenging it”, but she was soon to find out.
That evening, Robby posted this to his Facebook wall: “Last week I learned of a same sex marriage that took place right here in the state of Mississippi. Two females, one of which is a family member of mine, applied for and was granted an official marriage license in Desoto county. One of the partners poses as a man and managed to obtain a driver’s license that legally identified her as a male. I would like to urge all Mississippians who are outraged to join me. This is a battle that has come to us and we cannot afford to lose traditional marriage”. Then he then gave the phone numbers of the attorney general, lieutenant governor and the governor. Around midnight, Jessica received another private message from a woman she had never met. “You need to see this video,” the message said. The video was her cousin Robby on a show with the AFA’s Bryan Fisher. Bryan Fisher is infamous for homophobic statements that include the encouragement of the kidnapping of children from LGBT families.
Clearly Robby is a sad Mississippi bigot who values his own willful misunderstanding of the world more than he does the cousin he “practically grew up with.” We see this in groups like PFOX, which drives wedges between parents and their LGBT children, all for the sake of the ideology of The Family. There are a million more examples.
So, is the term “pro-family” meaningless, something simply that sounds good to rigidly conservative people? Or is it a metaphor for something bigger?
Chris Mooney reports at AlterNet on the differences between left- and right-wing brains and morality and finds that there are significant scientific differences in the way the respective groups view life and politics. Mooney uses the work of researcher George Lakoff as a springboard for examining our perceptions of morality:
Perhaps the earliest and most influential thinker into this fray was the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, with his classic book Moral Politics and many subsequent works. Lakoff’s opening premise is that we all think in metaphors. These are not the kind of thing that English majors study, but rather real, physical circuits in the brain that structure our cognition, and that are strengthened the more they are used. For instance, we learn at a very early age how things go up and things go down, and then we talk about the stock market and individual fortunes “rising” and “falling”—a metaphor.
For Lakoff, one metaphor in particular is of overriding importance in our politics: The metaphor that uses the family as a model for broader groups in society—from athletic teams to companies to governments. The problem, Lakoff says, is that we have different conceptions of the family, with conservatives embracing a “strict father” model and liberals embracing a caring, empathetic and “nurturing” version of a parent.
The strict father family is like a free-market system, and yet also very hierarchical and authoritarian. It’s a harsh world out there and the father (the supreme and always male authority) is tough and will teach the kids to be tough, because there will be no one to protect them once the father is gone. The political implications are obvious. In contrast, the nurturing parent family emphasizes love, care and growth—and, so the argument goes, compassionate government control.
Mooney examines other researchers who appear, at first glance, to contradict Lakoff’s premise, but in his examination, he finds that the truth is that most researchers’ studies into these differences between liberals and conservatives aren’t contradictory, but complementary.
Liberals don’t use the “pro-family” language, but the truth is that yes, we are all “pro-family,” but we see it differently. In my research into the various actors who drive the euphemistically named World Congress Of Families, I have found a strong strain of what I call “Judeo-Christian Supremacy.” This is the belief that the “Judeo-Christian” philosophy — which is very different from anything resembling either Judaism or Christianity — is so far superior to any other that its adherents have a responsibility to use any means possible to structure the world around its tenets. And indeed, one of the most important tenets of that philosophy can be summed up quite simply as “Father Knows Best.” They believe in a patriarchal nuclear family where women’s rights are always secondary to men’s, and Daddy should be obeyed without question.
But it goes beyond the nuclear family. It explains so much about why the same far-right individuals who twiddled their thumbs while President Bush took the United States into war in Iraq are now up in arms about President Obama invoking essentially the same powers with ISIS. President Bush — playing the part of the conservative Christian “pro-family” Daddy — was legitimate in their eyes. He was one of them. They consider President Obama the enemy — an illegitimate father, if you will — and thus their allegiances find their ways elsewhere. It explains why they fight so fervently against LGBT equality and women’s reproductive rights. People exercising their own autonomy to do with their bodies and lives as they please is in direct disobedience of their conception of Daddy, whether that’s their projection of God, their religious leaders, or world leaders like Vladimir Putin, whom World Congress Of Families Communications Director Don Feder finds more legitimate than President Obama, claiming that Obama is a greater threat to American national security than Putin.
Amanda Marcotte examines this tribal mentality among conservatives as it pertains to their reaction to the Ebola virus:
Researcher Jonathan Haidt is the architect of the “moral foundations” theory that suggests that political inclinations, at least in modern times, are rooted in five different foundations: harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, and purity. Liberals and conservatives weigh these five considerations very differently. For instance, liberals are more likely than conservatives to factor in whether an action causes harm when deciding if it’s wrong or not. Liberals also worry more about fairness and have more regard for people that are outside of their “group” than conservatives. Conservatives, on the other hand, put far more trust in authority. Conservatives are also far more obsessed with “purity” and far more likely to get hung up on the idea that the body “is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants,” as Haidt explains.
Ebola touches, for conservatives, two big, red buttons. First, it’s a disease, so of course it’s going to set off the fears of contamination that Haidt demonstrates plague conservatives far more than liberals. Second of all, conservatives associate ebola with people who are different from them—from different countries, often of different races—and they have little regard for people in “out groups”, which is Haidt’s term for people who are different. And because conservatives are less worried about harming others or being fair, it becomes easy for them to demonize people with ebola, demand that they be left to die without care, and simply kept from “contaminating” the rest of us.
You see this tension with many other issues. Abortion? Conservatives are grossed out by women who gave up their “purity” by having sex, but liberals are more worried about the harm done women who lose abortion rights. Gay rights? Conservatives see gays as impure and different, but liberals are worried about treating them fairly. Ferguson protests and the Mike Brown shooting? Conservatives love authority and support the police, especially against black protesters that are seen as an “out” group. Liberals worry about the harm done to Brown and the protesters and are angry about the unfairness of a policeman shooting an unarmed man or attacking unarmed protesters. Indeed, the ebola panic quite resembles the way many conservatives reacted in the early days of AIDS, demonizing sufferers as disgusting peoplewho should be isolated and left to die.
It’s often easy to caricature far right folks as stupid, but the truth is obviously more complicated. I do believe that a few figures on the Religious Right are indeed quite dumb, but many of them have what I referred to recently in discussion with my brother as “unexercised minds.” They’re not curious, and this lack of curiosity is instilled in them from a very early age. If Father knows best, then blindly accepting what he says is safe and comforting. Asking questions is frightening. What if Daddy is wrong, or worse, lying? This is why, when right-wing people confront a life experience that forces them to challenge their assumptions — say, having a gay son — that questioning often leads to the crumbling of their entire worldview.
When that worldview doesn’t crumble, we see people like the Mississippi family above falling apart because they simply can’t handle the idea that one of their tribe is different. People of other races, religions, sexual orientations, family structures, and so on, threaten the purity of the tribe, and moreover, they threaten “Daddy’s” authority. The various religious leaders who have built the modern religious right — a group that really didn’t exist three hundred years ago — have built a belief system so rigid, so legalistic, so utterly un-Christian, and they have built a worldview for the tribe that is indeed so flimsy that if one block is removed, the whole thing comes down like a bad game of Jenga.
This is why their proclamations this week on marriage equality are so utterly insane. We know that Mike Huckabee, Porno Pete and Linda Harvey are pathetically calling for civil disobedience, and we know that Ted Cruz is grandstanding by pushing a federal marriage amendment that died a decade ago, but let’s quickly look at the words of Mat Staver, from the Liberty Counsel hate group:
“When less people get married and you have more children out of wedlock, when you destabilize the institution of marriage, you make the economy poorer and you make the society unstable. That’s exactly what we’re having and that’s what we’re going to see here in America and around the world,” he said. “When you tinker with the very basic foundation of family and you assume that gender doesn’t matter, you ultimately affect the rest of society and the strength of civil government.”
Beyond mere social unrest, Staver warned that recent rulings in marriage cases have sent us hurtling towards self-destruction. “This is something that I believe is the beginning of the end of western civilization. You can’t simply redefine and pretend that ontological differences between men and women do not exist. This will have consequences.”
Oh, how melodramatic. The end of Western civilization! And it’s all the gays’ fault!
But we must understand that when he says “family,” he’s not talking about familial love, support and responsibility, the kind that features in families of all political persuasions, religions, sexual orientations and races. He’s talking about The Family. (Sounds kinda Mafia, doesn’t it? It should.) Western civilization will not end, but we are coming to an end of the days of Judeo-Christian Supremacist dominance, at least in the West. We are coming to the end of a time when one’s status as a white, straight, Christian male means that he is automatically positioned in a place of authority above others. I’m sure it’s jarring for people like Staver, Huckabee and their cohort, to face down the prospect of having to play by the same rules as everyone else. I’m sure they feel helpless in the face of a society that has mostly abandoned them. But they did it to themselves.
“Pro-family” means something, to be sure. It just doesn’t have anything to do with any real family.