The Author’s Corner with Libra Hilde

Libra Hilde is Professor of History at San Jose State University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: In one of my undergraduate courses, I ask my students to write a paper comparing the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. The idea for Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty emerged from repeatedly confronting the disjuncture between these two authors’ experiences. Despite being quite young when her enslaved father passed away, Jacobs attributed her sense of humanity and will to achieve liberty to his influence. Douglass could only guess at the identity of an unknown white father who never acknowledged or took responsibility for his enslaved child. I found this contrast fascinating and set out to explore how enslaved people conceived of and negotiated paternal duty within the constraints of slavery and Jim Crow.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Denied the ability to directly provide for and protect loved ones, enslaved men often found alternative ways to care for and support their children, exerting their influence through advice, ideas, and religious counsel, immaterial means over which slaveholders had less control. This book counters persistent stereotypes of African American families and absent, irresponsible Black fathers, showing that because enslaved and then freed men did not have access to open patriarchal authority, much of their care-taking behavior has remained hidden.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Recent events and the racial reckoning we face in this country have underscored the destructive impact of misconceptions about Black masculinity and the African American family that are an ongoing legacy of slavery. In order to appreciate the variability and adaptability of the enslaved family, we need to look beyond household structure and normative definitions of family and fatherhood and instead look at how kin units actually functioned. It is also important to understand the public/private and hierarchical nature of Southern masculinity and how such assumptions continue to shape American attitudes. While only white men in the Old South had access to public definitions and the display of manhood, enslaved men were frequently allowed to exhibit attributes of masculinity within the confines of the plantation, especially when this arrangement profited the slaveholder. Enslaved men faced painful, intractable dilemmas and yet many endeavored to uphold the vision of paternal honor idealized by African American communities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LH: I started college as a mechanical engineering major with the unrealistic goal of becoming a mission payload specialist and astronaut. In my first semester, I took an 800-person American History survey course with the late Leon F Litwack, and it changed my life. I switched my major to history and never looked back. In graduate school, I narrowed my focus to the Civil War era based on interest and a desire to work with the late William E. Gienapp. Great teachers and mentors have provided inspiration at every stage of my career development.

JF: What is your next project?

LH: My next project examines the consequences of Civil War mortality, comparing Southern counties with relatively light losses to those with heavy losses. The South lost a significant percentage of its white male population between the ages of 14 and 55, and local organization of regiments meant that deaths were unevenly spread across the landscape. I am using a combination of quantitative data and qualitative sources to explore the effects of wartime mortality on household formation, marriage patterns, local politics, regional migration, gender roles, and post-war race relations, with a particular focus on widows.

JF: Thanks, Libra!

Is Donald Trump “the greatest defender of life, family, and religious liberty to take the White House in decades?

Court evangelical Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, recently tweeted:

Is Trump really a president who values life? I assume that Perkins is referring to abortion here. But there is not a single baby in the womb who has been saved because of a Trump policy or appointment. In fact, as conservative writer David French has noted, “unlike George W. Bush–who signed into law a born-alive infant protection bill and a partial-birth abortion ban–Trump has not signed a single significant piece of pro-life legislation.” His piece “Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have ‘Blood on their Hands’?” is worth reading in full.

If we expand “pro-life” beyond abortion, Trump seems to have very little regard for life. More than 200,000 people have died from COVID-19. Trump is not responsible for all of their deaths, but we cannot ignore his failure to act swiftly and quickly to protect the American people. When it comes to protecting life Trump is woefully inadequate. Here is Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed b y their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

On November 3, 2020, we get the opportunity to rebuke Trump for failing to protect our right to life. His presidency has been “destructive” on this front. His failure to act early on the virus, his refusal to listen to scientific experts, and his mocking of masks and social distancing, has not kept us safe.

And as long as we are talking about life, what about Trump’s refusal to acknowledge America’s race problem? Instead of addressing the systemic racism that is getting Black men and women killed, Trump has ignored the lives of African Americans, preferring instead to emphasize law and order. Is this a president who values life?

Perkins also thinks Trump is good for families. Let’s remember that the Trump administration has separated thousands and thousands of children from their parents. But I guess these families don’t matter because they are not Americans.

One could also ask whether parents want their children watching a president on television and the Internet who demonizes his enemies, lies endlessly, sleeps with porn stars and talks about grabbing women’s body parties, disparages women, etc., etc., etc. Is Trump really pro-family, Tony? Do you want your grandkids watching this president? I know he is not a “pastor-in-chief,” but don’t you want your president to be a person of character–a role model to children and families? Please tell me how you reconcile the Trump presidency with your so-called “family values.”

Finally, Trump gives lip service to religious liberty, but he has done very little to advance it beyond speeches. Contrary to popular opinion, Trump did not remove the Johnson Amendment. His religious liberty commitments come down to “guidance letters” to protect prayer in public schools. Some of his followers actually believe he overturned Engle v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruling that removed mandatory prayer from public schools. He did not. Trump doesn’t care about religious liberty. Evangelicals are getting played.

Don’t be fooled by Donald Trump. He does not care about life, the family, or religious liberty.

Michelle Obama’s DNC convention speech was deeply Christian

After the first night of the Democratic National Convention I tuned into Fox News. Laura Ingraham was on the air and, as might be expected, she was trashing the convention. I stopped watching after about forty minutes of analysis from Eric Trump, Ted Cruz, and other conservative pundits.

Cruz actually said that the reason the Democrats are pushing for mail-in-ballots and the funding of the United States Postal Service is because they know it leads to voter fraud.  Cruz has no evidence for this claim. Nor is there any evidence to suggest mail-in-voting leads to voter fraud. But I digress.

Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was also on Ingraham’s show. He is a very patient man.

I was struck by the fact that none of the conservative, pro-Trump pundits mentioned Michelle Obama’s speech. They just couldn’t touch it.

Watch it:

Though Obama only mentioned “faith” and “God” a couple of times, this was a deeply Christian speech.

  • She talked about the inherent dignity of human beings.
  • She talked about truth.
  • She talked about the character of a leader.
  • She talked about health care.
  • She talked about care for the environment
  • She talked about racial justice
  • She talked about the evil of racism and white supremacy
  • She talked about empathy
  • She talked about caring for others
  • She talked about raising children with a strong moral foundation
  • She talked about the coarseness of our culture under Trump
  • She talked about selfishness
  • She talked about greed
  • She talked military violence
  • She talked about using the Bible for a photo-op
  • She talked about being a mother.
  • She talked about being a neighbor
  • She talked about meekness
  • She talked about confronting “viciousness” and “cruelty”
  • She talked about finding common ground based on the value of all human beings
  • She talked about the need to speak truth to power
  • She talked about family
  • She talked about compassion
  • She talked about grief

After covering Trump’s court evangelicals for the last four years, it was nice to hear such a Christian speech in this kind of public venue. I left the speech encouraged in my faith and hopeful for America’s future. Thank you Michelle Obama.

Coronavirus Diary: March 29, 2020

Ally at CFH

This kid just got home

The other day Joy (my wife) and Caroline (my youngest daughter) joked that my life has not changed a whole lot since all this social distancing and quarantining started. They are partly right. While I no longer go to campus to teach any more, I still spend a lot of time in my basement reading, writing, and studying.

I just finished my first week of teaching online. As some of you know, I am teaching a reading and discussion course for first-year Messiah College students called Created and Called for Community. I am trying to make the best of it, but it is not ideal. My students are doing their best to adjust. They are much more adaptable than I am. Since I am using a discussion board to facilitate class dialogue, I am actually “hearing” the voices of students who were relatively quiet during our face-to-face classes.  This is good.

As some of you may have noticed, I have been reading and sharing a lot more theology lately. I think the questions raised in Created and Called for Community have led me to think more deeply about transcendent things. I am sure the pandemic has also pushed me in this direction as well. Last Friday, I taught Exodus 19-20 and the Sermon on the Mount. Tomorrow I am teaching Acts 1-4 and the Nicene Creed. I have been wrestling, alongside my students, about what it means to be created in the image of God and how  such a belief translates into what we are called to do and how we are to live in this world.

Our empty nest has become full again. It is good to have the girls home. Caroline has been home for two weeks. Ally got home last night. They both loved being at college, so we are trying to walk alongside them in their disappointment and anxiety. This is especially the case with Ally, a senior. Last night everyone tolerated my reading of part of Pope Francis’s coronavirus blessing. I’d encourage you to read it as well.

And yes, we often get on each other’s nerves. Our house is small. We bump into each other a lot. Sometimes we just need to retreat to our spaces and shut the door or go for a walk. I think we’ll all survive. 🙂

Thanks for reading.

Where are the Court Evangelical Defenders of “Family Values” Today?


Getty Images

The Trump Administration separated 1000s of immigrant children from their parents.  If I am reading this article correctly, the administration does not know where these kids are located. They simply failed to write down where they sent them.  It will take up to two years to find them.

And where are the court evangelicals today?  They brag about unprecedented access to Trump.  Now is the time to use such access.  These men and women built their political careers around defending “family values.”  Why aren’t they lined-up at the White House door to demand that these families are reunited sooner?

Here is Tony Perkins, president of an organization called the FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:

Apparently Perkins’s “religiously informed values” do not bear on “public policy decisions” about reuniting families separated by Trump immigration policy.  It seems like this might be something an organization called the FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL may want to take up.

I wonder how Perkins would respond if these were white middle class families?

First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress spent his Sunday interviewing a guy from Duck Dynasty:

I am sure this interview focused on family separation. 😉

Gary Bauer, a former president of the Family Research Council, is using his Twitter feed to spew anti-immigrant rhetoric:

Former “Focus on the Family” host James Dobson is wondering what “love” looks like:

Eric Metaxas was on NPR earlier today wondering if the American Republic has “lost its way’:

These court evangelicals, if they really believe in family values, should be screaming from the rooftops today.  Sadly, it’s not going to happen.

The Fea Girls on the Championship Road

I am always proud of my daughters, but I am especially excited for them this week.

Caroline, a high school senior, is playing on Tuesday night in the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Athletic Association (PIAA) state semifinal game in the hopes of advancing to the state championship game on Saturday.  I wrote a bit about the Mechanicsburg Wildcat’s girls soccer team here.  Last Saturday afternoon they advanced to the semifinals with a thrilling 2-1 double overtime victory over Archbishop Ryan High School in 30 degree weather and howling winds.

Caroline banquet

Caroline at the team banquet last week

GIrls soccer team

Caroline’s team has 11 seniors

Allyson, a junior right side hitter on the Calvin College women’s volleyball team, will compete this weekend in Pittsburgh for the NCAA Division 3 National Championship.  On Saturday night they won an epic 5-set match against Wittenberg University to advance to the round of 8.  I have no idea why the #1 ranked team in the country (Calvin) faced the #3 ranked team in the country (Wittenberg) in a regional final, but that’s what happened.   Either team could have won this game and both deserve to be in the Elite 8 this weekend in Pittsburgh.   It was a sweet win for Calvin.  Last season Wittenberg defeated Calvin on their home court in the national semifinals.

Sarah and Ally

Ally is #19

Ally and Dad

It Turns Out I am Not the Only Historical/Political/Online Writer in the Family

Ally at CFH

From the “proud Dad” files:

My daughter Allyson, a junior psychology and history major at Calvin College, has been writing (for money!) at a website called Listserve.

Here is a taste of her piece “10 Wildest Filibusters in History“:

The late Strom Thurmond, once an ambitious and fiery senator from South Carolina, still holds the record for the longest spoken filibuster by one US senator as of late October 2018.

His passion?

Stopping the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He was well prepared for the big moment, dehydrating in a steam room to avoid going to the bathroom and bringing cough drops and candy to the Senate floor. He also placed his aide in the coatroom with a bucket in case he had to take care of business. His preparation was intense.

His fate?

Thurmond began speaking at 8:54 PM on August 28, 1957. His speech included renditions of the entire Declaration of Independence, US criminal code, and voting laws of each of the 48 states. The other senators were not thrilled.[1]

Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois even attempted to sabotage the operation by putting a pitcher of fresh orange juice in front of Thurmond, whose aides quickly snatched it and placed it out of reach. Thurmond spoke more than 24 hours, ending at 9:12 PM on August 29. He successfully stalled the passage of the bill, but he didn’t stop it.

Or check out her piece “10 Famously Hard-Core Female Spies.”

This weekend she is taking some time off from writing to try to help her team win the Michigian Intercollegiate Athletic Association volleyball championship and secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.  Some of you know that the Calvin Knights are currently ranked #1 in the nation in NCAA Division 3.

When Did Evangelicals Start Talking About Family Values?

QuakersOver at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz of Asbury University argues that “family values” is a relatively knew idea in American evangelicalism.   Here is a taste:

“Turning hearts toward home”—a phrase Dr. James Dobson has repeated so often over the last four decades that it sounds like scripture. It’s hard to believe now, but his unrelenting focus on the family would have been viewed as heretical by evangelicals a century and a half ago.

Indeed, revivalistic religion in the eighteenth century often tore families apart. As Christine Heyrman writes, “For those to whom Canaan’s language long remained an unintelligible tongue, the conversion of beloved relatives could lead to enduring emotional estrangement. Transformed by their newfound zeal, dutiful sons and daughters, affectionate siblings and spouses . . . [could become] remorseless, relentless, seemingly heartless in dealing with loved ones.”

The instinct to de-emphasize family continued in the nineteenth century. Methodist evangelist Phoebe Palmer suffered the death of two young children, and she interpreted these tragedies as divine discipline. “After my loved ones were snatched away,” she wrote in her journal in 1831, “I saw that I had concentrated my time and attentions far too exclusively, to the neglect of the religious activities demanded. Though painfully, learned, yet I trust the lesson has been fully apprehended. From henceforth, Jesus must and shall have the uppermost seat in my heart.” Palmer’s heart was sanctified at the moment it turned away from home.

Ironically, the nurture of family was first a mainline value. As historian Margaret Bendroth shows in her terrific book, Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children and Mainline Churches (2002), white middle-class Protestants in the 1860s advocated for regular family devotions, recitations of the catechism, Bible memory, and careful attention to children’s dress and diet. Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell wrote, “Dress your child for Christ if you will have him a Christian; bring everything, in the training, even of his body, to this one final aim, and it will be strange, if the Christian body you give him does not contain a Christian soul.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am not sure how Swartz is defining “evangelical” or “family values,” but certainly the seventeenth-century Puritans were quite concerned with family.  The nuclear family was part of their “values” system.  Or at least that is what Edmund Morgan taught us decades ago.

I would also argue, along with Barry Levy, that the modern middle-class family as we know it today had its roots in the Quakers of Pennsylvania.  As far as I know, Levy’s interpretation has not been challenged since he first published Quakers and the American Family in 1988.

And if a whole generation of women historians is correct, the Second Great Awakening had something to do with women’s role in preserving the family, preparing citizens of the republic, and the cultivating the domestic hearth.

As I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment, the real threat to eighteenth-century “family values” was mobility, ambition, and education.

We’re Right There With You Barack!


Many of us know what this is like.  From The New York Times:

After Malia Obama went off to Harvard University last month, her father couldn’t hold back the tears.

Barack Obama described that moment on Monday in a speech for the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, which was named for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s older son, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

The former president said some kind words about Beau and his parents, Joe and Jill Biden, before talking about the joys and sorrows of watching children grow up.

“For those of us who have daughters, it just happens fast,” Mr. Obama said in a video published by WDEL, a news outlet based in Wilmington, Del.

“I dropped off Malia at college, and I was saying to Joe and Jill that it was a little bit like open-heart surgery, and I was proud that I did not cry in front of her. But on the way back, the Secret Service was all looking straight ahead pretending they weren’t hearing me as I sniffled and blew my nose. It was rough.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Kelly Family Speaks!

I love this:

A professor was Skyping with the BBC and his kids unexpectedly entered the room. Academics and others went nuts trying to deconstruct this.  Some said this was an example of patriarchy.  Others thought Professor Kelly’s wife was the nanny.  Still others implied that Kelly was a bad father because he nudged his daughter away from the computer.

All of these interpretations assume way more about Kelly and his family than the context or evidence allowed.  Dare I say that this kind of deconstruction is part of the reason why so many people are growing tired of academics and other political pundits? Race, class, and gender are often helpful interpretive categories, but when every event is interpreted through these categories we academics can look silly.

Whatever the case, the Kelly family has weighed in, both in the video above and in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Here is a taste of that article:

Problematic live interviews can also have potential negative career consequences for those involved. Mr. Kelly and his wife immediately feared the worst, assuming that he wouldn’t be contacted again to appear on TV.

“We said to each other, ‘Wow, what just happened?’ ” Mr. Kelly, said, adding the blame was entirely on him for not locking the door.

He immediately wrote to the BBC to apologize, but within 15 minutes the broadcaster asked if it could put a clip of the interview on the internet. The couple initially declined, feeling uncomfortable that people might laugh at their children. But they were eventually persuaded that the video would show they were just a regular family.

Within a couple of hours, it became clear to them that the video would disrupt their lives. Mr. Kelly said his Twitter and Facebook notifications began going haywire as people shared the video online. The next day he put his phone in airplane mode as the number of emails and calls, many from journalists, became overwhelming.

The couple spent most of Saturday trying to decide how to handle the attention. Offers from major U.S. TV networks and media came flooding in. Some journalists tracked down Mr. Kelly’s parents in the east side of Cleveland to ask them about it.

“We stonewalled because we didn’t know what to do,” Mr. Kelly said.

In a video interview from home, Mr. Kelly’s son sat on his lap banging on his desk and computer keyboard while his 4-year-old daughter played rock, paper, scissors with her mother.

“He usually locks the door,” Ms. Kim said. “Most of the time they come back to me after they find the locked door. But they didn’t. And then I saw the door was open. It was chaos for me.”

Mr. Kelly describes his reaction as a mixture of surprise, embarrassment and amusement but also love and affection. The couple says they weren’t mad and didn’t scold the children. “I mean it was terribly cute,” Mr. Kelly said. “I saw the video like everybody else. My wife did a great job cleaning up a really unanticipated situation as best she possibly could… It was funny. If you watch the tape I was sort of struggling to keep my own laughs down. They’re little kids and that’s how things are.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Kelly and his family plan to hold a press conference at his university to answer questions from the Korean media, which have a strong interest in the video. Most important to them is that people can laugh at the video as unvarnished but normal family life.

“Yes I was mortified, but I also want my kids to feel comfortable coming to me,” Mr. Kelly said.

“I made this minor mistake that turned my family into YouTube stars. It’s pretty ridiculous.”

Read the entire article here.

George Scialabba on Christopher Lasch and the Family

Cultural critic George Scialabba revisits Christopher Lasch’s 1977 book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged and tries to rescue Lasch’s argument from the feminists who bashed the book when it first appeared.

Sciaballa writes at The Baffler:

It was not feminism but mass production, political centralization, and the ideology of endless growth and ever-increasing consumption that had placed impossible strains on the family and made psychological maturity so difficult, Lasch argued. According to Askyourguide, an authority on psychic costs in individuals, every organism can flourish only within limits, at a certain scale. We have, in our social relations of authority and production, abandoned human scale, and the psychic costs are great.

The main developments of the last few decades, the information revolution and the triumph of neoliberalism, have only intensified the pressures besieging the family. Increased economic insecurity and the robotization of work—the central strategies of neoliberalism—have undermined the authority and self-confidence of parents still further and confronted adolescents with the prospect of adulthood as a war of all against all. Inside and outside the classroom, a tidal wave of advertising-saturated media aims to enlist children as fledgling consumers. The internet and social media diminish interaction among family members, especially across generations, while face-to-face encounters, with their greater emotional immediacy, are less and less the default mode of communication among adolescents. The hyperconnected life, for all its allure, is a centrifugal force.
The family, in whatever form, can only thrive within a healthy psychic ecology. It has gradually dawned on everyone who does not have a financial interest in denying it that massively tinkering with our physical environment is bound to have drastic effects on public health. It’s taking even longer to recognize that the same is true of our mental environment. The unending flood of commercial messaging, utterly empty of information or art, resembles the miasma of toxic particulates that infect the air of even the most developed countries. The continual stream of social messaging is analogous, in its lack of nourishing substance, to the ubiquitously available junk food that none of us can help succumbing to occasionally. The automation of work and the financialization of the economy leave most of us as bewildered and vulnerable as the progress of science and technology leave all but the intellectual elite, who can actually understand the seemingly magical forces that make our more sophisticated machines run.
It is just as the environmentalists (and, come to think of it, the Marxists and the Freudians) say: Everything is connected. Pull on one thread and the whole fabric unravels. To strengthen the family, we must rethink the division of labor, which means reevaluating productivity, efficiency, and growth, which means challenging the distribution of economic power and wealth. We may even need new conceptions of “rights,” “individuality,” and “freedom.”
Read the entire piece here.

Conservatives: Relax, the Pope is Not Done Yet

Some conservatives are unhappy with the Pope today.  They wish he would have said more about marriage and abortion in yesterday’s speech to Congress.

Of course the Pope did allude to abortion with this line:  “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every state of development.”

And  some might interpret this statement as a plug for traditional marriage: “Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and family….”

But the Pope is not done yet with the United States.  He still has more speeches to make and some of them will be devoted to the family.  I think everyone needs to wait until the visit is over before we can honestly assess it.  Some of us historians might even say we need a few years, or even longer, to fully evaluate the significance of Francis’s visit.

Stay tuned.

Three Cheers for Frank Bruni and Focus on the Family

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni has been using his New York Times op-ed column to defend the institution of the family. Isaac Chotiner at The New Republic does not seem to like it one bit.  In fact, he has even compared Bruni’s recent columns to rhetoric found at the “right wing religious group” Focus on the Family.  In order to be cute, Chotiner lists eight statements about the family and asks his readers which ones came from Bruni and which ones came from the Focus website.  (Did I mention that Chotiner calls Focus a “right wing religious group?”).  Please notice that these statements have nothing to do with abortion, gay rights, the “traditional family,” or anything else that might be construed as culture war rhetoric.

Here are the statements:
1. “A family can pass its painstakingly nurtured closeness down through the generations.”
2. “Busyness can make it difficult for parents to savor life’s ordinary moments. But it is precisely those moments that your children will treasure forever.”
3. “Grandpa took Leslie to a Waffle House on the first day of their drive and then again on the second. They share, along with genes, an affinity for breakfast foods and carbohydrates.They don’t share musical tastes, so for most of their trip, they left the radio off and just talked, treating the highway as memory lane.”
4. “Your daughter mentions her 10th birthday. You assume she will rave about the beautiful cake and Sparkles’ funny balloon animals, but instead she recalls how much fun it was to ride in the van with you to pick up doughnuts for breakfast.” 
5. “Carve out space for family no matter what…put relatives at the head of the line….find gestures large and small.”
6. “Not all happy families are alike. But all happy families…have this in common: Their bond is forged not by accident but by intent.”
7. “Most children find just as much, or even more, joy in the little things as they do in life’s big events.”
8. “Everyday interactions may be more meaningful than many parents realize.”
Answers: Bruni is 1, 3, 5, and 6
At face value Chotiner’s post can be read as little more than an interesting observation or comparison. But we all know that this was not what he had in mind.  For example, Chotiner compares Bruni’s writing about the family to “Hallmark Cards.”  He also uses the ellipsis for effect, as in: “Bruni wrote a piece entirely about the value of…yes, family.”  This sentence reeks with sarcasm about Bruni’s choice of topic.  And his use of the phrase “rightwing religious group founded by James Dobson” is sure to raise some hair on the necks of New Republic readers.

The most disturbing thing about this post is that Chotiner’s world view is so narrow that he does not seem able to admit that an organization like Focus on the Family could have anything positive to say about the place of the family in American life.  Moreover, he is so embedded in a culture-war narrative that he just assumes his readers will scoff at Bruni in light of the mere mention of James Dobson. 

Now I do not agree with everything Focus on the Family teaches about the family.  I have also been critical of Dobson for his decision to refocus his ministry toward politics. But I think most liberals and conservatives would agree with the eight principles listed above, whether they were written by Focus on the Family or a New York Times columnist.  Some things that are just human.  And it is foolish to politicize them.

My Cousin and His Daughters Go Viral

Jake and his daughters, Erin and Riley

Yesterday my cousin Jake posted a letter to Twitter written by his 9-year old daughter Riley. Riley and her twin sister Erin are both hearing impaired (they wear hearing aids) and were thus inspired by a commercial featuring Seattle Seahawks running back Derrick Coleman and his similar hearing problems.  Riley’s letter to Coleman has gone viral and my cousin Jake and the girls are making the rounds on television shows this morning, including a brief stint via Skype on Good Morning America.

Why I Like "Evangelii Gaudium": Part Four

Here is part three of my continuing series on Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium.

In sections 61-67 of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis addresses some major “cultural challenges” that Catholics, and I would add all people of Christian faith, must face.  First, he goes after globalization. Francis writes: “In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated.”  He uses the complaint of African bishops as an example.  Many of these bishops have complained that globalization is making them feel like “parts of a machine, cogs on a gigantic wheel.”  As a result, the “field of social communications,” which is run by “centres mostly in the northern hemisphere,” do not understand or consider the problems that such countries face as a result of their “cultural make-up.”  To put this differently, the media and entertainment industries are “threatening traditional values,” particularly as they relate to marriage and family.

And speaking of marriage and family, Francis believes that these institutions are “experiencing a profound crisis.”  He calls the family “the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences.”  It is also the place “where parents pass on the faith to their children. 

He then turns to marriage:

Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form or mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.  But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.  As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life.

Here Francis sounds a lot like Christopher Lasch in Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. I also thought about the modern, middle-class understanding of marriage in which the purpose of this sacrament is to fulfill the therapeutic needs of one’s spouse.  Many evangelical marriage ministries operate the same way.

Finally, Francis makes the case for something akin to a Christian liberal-arts education (although he doesn’t use that term):

While we are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data–all treated as being of equal importance–and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment.  In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.

More later.

The New Focus on the Family

Jim Daly

A couple of weeks ago I was doing a public interview on religion and the American founding at an international conference on secularism at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

During the course of the conversation, Jacques Berlinerblau, the organizer of the conference and the interviewer, asked me about the religious and political views of young evangelicals.  I turned to the usual talking points about the next generation of evangelicals.  They were not interested in the culture wars of their parents, they were pro-life but their social vision was broader than just one or two issues, and they despised hypocrisy and wanted a Christianity that was authentic.

Berlinerblau, an astute observer of American religion, seemed to agree.  He mentioned that he was shocked when he heard Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, do an interview with National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Berlinerblau was right to be surprised.  Focus’s former president James Dobson began the organization with the goal of strengthening American families, but it eventually evolved into a political organization that became a major player in the culture wars.  (Of course, Dobson would not have it seen this way.  The politicization of Focus, he believed, was a fundamental part of its original mission). As far as I know, Dobson never did an interview with NPR, but I could be wrong.

I thought again about my public conversation with Berlinerblau after I read this profile of Daly in The New York Times.  Daly is clearly moving Focus on the Family in a new direction, at least in terms of its approach to the larger culture.

Here is a taste:

James Dobson

Mr. Daly has succeeded in differentiating himself from an earlier generation of Christian leaders, like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer and Donald E .Wildmon, who made their fame and notoriety alike in the battles around abortion and homosexuality.

In quite a vivid way, Mr. Daly, 51, has also departed from the example of his predecessor at Focus, James C. Dobson, who retired in 2009. Just a few months ago, referring to the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Dr. Dobson said on his syndicated radio program, “I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God almighty, and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”
As he became president of Focus in 2005 and chief executive four years later, Mr. Daly put forward the message of humility and outreach in an autobiography, “Finding Home,” and an acutely titled spiritual manifesto, “ReFocus.” He has welcomed members of the same gay rights organization, Soulforce, whose activists had been arrested during protests at Focus during the Dobson years.
Focus has collaborated with the local alternative weekly, The Colorado Springs Independent, in a campaign to encourage families to take in foster children. (“No, hell has not frozen over,” the paper quipped about the partnership.) Most recently, Focus hosted a question-and-answer session with Jonathan Rauch, a journalist who has advocated gay marriage.
Such efforts have won Mr. Daly praise from unexpected quarters. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, has classified the Family Research Council, another conservative Christian organization, as a hate group because of its position on homosexuality. But the law center’s senior fellow, Mark Potok, said Focus had tried to evolve with the times.
Perhaps Daly is returning Focus on the Family to its roots.  Christianity can be an important resource for strengthening American families.  I have listened to Dobson’s radio show and have read some of his books. Some of his thoughts have helped me to be a better parent and husband.  But when Focus on the Family became a political organization, and Dobson began endorsing candidates for office, I stopped listening and reading.  So did many of my more progressive Christian friends. This is a shame, because some of the things he had to say about strengthening the American family transcended politics.  Unfortunately, the politicization of Focus meant that it would never reach those who shared different political views.
Daly seems to be charting a different course.  I am glad to see it.

Darryl Hart Takes His Shot at Liberal Education

My friend and professional contrarian Darryl Hart has turned to The Front Porch Republic to offer a critique of Bill Cronon’s thoughts on liberal education from his seminal article “Only Connect.”  (He is responding to this post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home).

After listing Cronon’s virtues of a liberally-educated person, Hart concludes:

The old Beach Boys song, “Wouldn’t it be Nice,” is running painfully through my head.

Some of these higher education happy thoughts may be true when it comes to certain skills that liberally educated students receive, as in reading, writing, and thinking (though they miss just as many undergrads as they hit). But number seven’s warm fuzzy, “Liberally educated people are humble, tolerant, and self-critical. They recognize and value different perspectives” makes absolutely no sense of many professors who are liberally educated as well as the string of academic novels that feature scholars who are proud, myopic, judgmental, and overly protective of reputations and office hours.

At the same time, this list, while patting those involved with liberal education on the back, doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the students who come to liberal arts institutions do so by way of families who have inculcated many of the virtues touted in this list — even some of those critical skills attributed to liberal education. It seems to me that any proper evaluation of a liberal education concedes that time at college mainly refines what has already gone on in the life of a student before enrollment. Lights may go on in the case of discovering authors and important texts, but the virtues that a society needs from its members are more often learned from parents, teachers, and clergy, than from hyper-sensitive and ambitious faculty teaching the Great Books.

Hart’s thoughts here are on the mark.  I wish more academic scholars would practice the liberal arts virtues that Cronon espouses.  But I also think Hart needs to get out a bit more.  For example, in the last week I have spent time with two scholars who reflect these virtues:  Geoffrey Harpham, director of the National Humanities Center, and Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Jewish Civilization Program at Georgetown University.  I could also add folks like Annette Gordon-Reed and Anthony Grafton to the list. Perhaps some of the novelists Hart mentions did not spend time with these gracious scholars.

As a father, I could not agree more with Hart’s point about raising children.  I think our society would be in much better shape if liberal arts education served the purpose of refining “what has already gone on in the life of a student before enrollment.”

Quote of the Day

From Christopher Shannon’s review of Robert Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s.

I suppose I should come clean on my own family values. I suppose I would call myself a traditionalist with a great sympathy for the vision of family life presented in the work of Wendell Berry.  There can be no real family apart from a family economy, and so much of the ink spilled on “the crisis of the family” since the nineteenth century has been a futile evasion of this basic fact.  In parts of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan invokes the frontier wife as a model of woman as an economic actor; in the end, she chose middle-class professionalism over a true home economy that would have men and women working together within the home.  To the commentator who feared that I might be criticizing Self from a “monistic” understanding of sex and family life, I can only say that sexual novelty and experimentation make for a rather dull and shallow pluralism.  Family life, especially farm family life, took on diversity through ethnic and religious traditions rooted in specific local places.  The continuity in place over time require to foster and sustain any culture worthy of the name is exactly what a market economy that rewards rootless mobility refuses to tolerate. Among Americans of European descent, there is far less cultural diversity than there was a hundred years ago, despite all of our sexual experimentation.  How many of us speak the language of our ancestors?  In many ways, sexual and family experimentation is a symptom of the poverty of our post-traditional, consumer culture to satisfy the real and legitimate human needs once met by true culture. 

Medved: Presidential Fathers and Sons

I am not sure how much we should make of this, but Michael Medved has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal reminding us that we are once again going to elect a president that is either a privileged son or a man with no relationship with his biological father.”  In the former category, think Obama, Clinton, and Gingrich.  In the latter category, think Bush, McCain, and Romney.  What does this all mean? Medved speculates:

No recent presidents can boast paternity that seems ordinary or normal, finding middle ground between the intense expectations of a powerful, prominent parent and the disasters of badly broken families with absent birth fathers.

In one sense, these extreme backgrounds now dominate the presidential process because that process itself has become so extreme. A rising politico can no longer wait for colleagues to push or pull him toward a White House race, or dream of sudden success at some brokered convention. A serious candidacy currently requires obsessive pursuit of power over the course of several years, with expenditure of tens of millions in campaign cash.

What sort of person willingly undergoes such an ordeal? More and more, it seems, either a privileged individual with a profound sense of entitlement, or an unlikely upstart whose status as miraculous survivor amounts to his own anointing. But despite a shared sense of determination and destiny, famous-father candidates tend to run dramatically different campaigns than do their no-father counterparts. 

Read the rest here. If any of you are psychologists you may want to weigh in.