The Public Eye Magazine - Winter 2005
IT TAKES A FAMILY
Conservatism and the Common Good
Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader
Forget the red state/blue state split. The real divide, articulated
by ultraconservative Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum,
is over human nature.
"The truth is that human beings are not born naturally inclined
to do the right thing," he writes. "A philosopher
once said that the only empirically
provable philosophical doctrine is that of original
sin: I know it and you know it, and as a
father of six, I know none of us is born without
Ignore, for now, the unnamed thinker.
Instead, let Santorum walk you through his
world, a place where human beings are forever
battling against temptation and transgression.
Santorum's lengthy but readable tract is a
for-the-masses guide to contemporary Christian
conservatism. An obvious rebuttal to
Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1996 bestseller, It
Takes a Village to Raise a Child, he focuses on
multiple themes: the role of families as arbiters
of "social capital;" the centrality of religion
in civic life; and the ways popular culture
shapes both identity and ideology. Abortion and LGBT rights
are, of course, slammed and public education is derided. Needless
to say, liberalism is portrayed as one-hair shy of Satanism.
Despite his rhetoric, Santorum comes across as earnest—he
seems to truly believe what he writes—as he argues the benefits
of a rigid, hierarchical domestic tableau. Much of his doctrine
comes from Catholicism's theory of subsidiarity, the principle
that all social challenges should be addressed at the level of the
smallest possible social unit, the family.
An unabashed supporter of heterosexual marriage, he echoes
Irving Kristol's 1970s dictum that families are the primary arena
for lessons in social functioning, the place where boys learn to
be men and girls learn to honor and obey their fathers, brothers
and husbands. But that's not all. Santorum is also a booster
of Covenant Marriage. "Divorce is simply far too easy to get in
this country," he writes. "States should put in braking mechanisms
for couples who have children under the age of 18. This
means a mandatory waiting period and mandatory counseling
before a divorce is granted." His arguments sound rational—
until you question who will counsel whom and look at real world
reasons for marital dissolution, from spousal battering to marital
rape to blatant incompatibility.
What it boils down to is this: According to Santorum, marriage
is not for adult pleasure; it is for child-bearing and childrearing.
Consequently, he believes that the dissatisfaction of
grown-ups is of little consequence. At the center of his beliefs
is the rejection of what he calls individualism.
Time and again he rails at self-centered
adults who give little credence to community
needs or the collective good. Here, too,
it's a question of perspective. As he sees it,
abortion epitomizes society's capitulation to
individuality by allowing women to define
morality for themselves. The same, he continues,
is true of sexuality.
"Laws have meaning and therefore, laws
teach. When something is legal it has the presumption
that it is moral and right. If the sexual
unions of men with men and women
with women have equal dignity with the
union of men and women, then marriage
cannot be understood as having anything
intrinsically to do with children. Society will
teach the next generation that marriage is a
self-centered endeavor about adult satisfaction,
not children's well being… Children have a right to a faithfully
married mother and father."
Santorum blames popular culture and the public schools for
promoting this rampant individualism and for pushing the idea
that thoughtful people can make good, moral choices from an
array of options; to hear him tell it, feminists and queers run everything
and promote free love at every turn. Sex and the City (he
calls it Sex in the City) and Friends come in for particular criticism
because they depict unmarried partners having sex for pleasure,
not procreation. "Teen pregnancy, abortion, sexually
transmitted diseases, addictions to pornography and its debasing
message about women and sex, high school drop-outs, depression
and suicide: all come in whole or in part from increased sexual
activity," he writes.
For Santorum, cause and effect are simple and there is no need
for references, attribution, or proof to buttress his statements.
We should just take his word—he is, after all, a U.S. Senator.
Indeed, he presents good and bad in black-and-white, easy to
define, terms: Good culture "tells us about life as it really is—
it tells the truth."
Let's return to Sex and the City and Friends… Apparently,
Samantha, Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte, to say nothing of Joey,
Phoebe, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, et.al., live lives so distinct from Santorum's
as to be unfathomable; they are thereby "false," beyond the pale.
And good culture? One need look no further, he argues, than Mel Gibson's
The Passion of the Christ, a film that "tells the truth, no matter how discomforting."
Just in case you missed the point,
in Santorum-ville, truth is never relative;
like original sin, it is the same
for everyone. In this schema religion is always a social good, to
be lauded by government and supported by public policy. The
agenda is clear: Intelligent design should be taught in public
schools; tax dollars should pay for parochial education under cover
of school choice; prayer should be returned to the classroom;
and respect for authority should be ironclad. While corporal
punishment is not mentioned, it is a short leap from Santorum's
theories about respect for elders, no matter their behavior. Predictably,
pedophilia is ignored.
In the end, Santorum's straightforward assessment of domestic
policies is an instructive look at the Christian right. Although
his worldview will stun those unfamiliar with religious conservatism,
progressives will likely be equally surprised by his advocacy
of workplace flexibility and telecommuting; returning the
right to vote to felons after five arrest-free years; using incarceration
to teach parenting skills to both male and female detainees; and
expanding down-payment assistance programs to enable low and
moderate income adults to purchase homes.
Santorum's It Takes a Family raises important questions for progressives
and those on the faithbased left. How we approach people
who believe that humans are intrinsically evil remains to be seen. But in a country in which 40 percent
of the population says they are born-again, we can no longer
afford to give these concerns short shrift.
Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based teacher, writer and
activist. She is the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion
Terrorism (St. Martin's Press, 2001).