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The family myth

In any significant election campaign, such as that we have recently endured in Australia, it does not take long to hear politicians of all types wanting to claim “family” as a particular marker of their cause. From an appeal to “working families” to the ubiquitous “family values,” this terminology is invoked—however vaguely—to urge the importance of our voting behaviour. As Amanda Lohrey puts it, “‘family’ is the most powerful metaphor in politics today” (“Voting for Jesus,” Quarterly Essay, 2006).

The focus on family seems so wholesome and indisputable. But the two primary meanings behind this terminology are not necessarily as Christian or as family friendly as is so easily assumed.

The first use of family is little more than an appeal to sanctified selfishness. We can easily disguise—even to ourselves—the blatant “what’s best for me” self-centredness that dominates much electioneering with the seemingly semi-altruistic “what’s best for my family.” C S Lewis described family as “the first step beyond self-love” but urged that we should also move beyond “family selfishness” (The Four Loves). The Bible repeatedly urges that we should order our lives—and society—beyond a narrow focus on our own interests and (usually economic) wellbeing (see, for example, Mark 12:31). In the context of a contemporary electoral process, this must mean voting on larger issues and even sometimes to our own detriment for the sake of the good of others, particularly the marginalised and oppressed.

The other primary use of family is more complex but perhaps no less misleading, loaded with an array of conservative political and social assumptions. In Families at the Crossroads, Rodney Clapp surveys how the accepted understanding of family—working husband, stay-at-home mother, with a couple of children—developed in the 20th century in the conservative United States middle-class and how it has been maintained and championed by both Christian and political figures because of its political and economic usefulness. But, he argues, beyond this recent popularity, this concept of family has little credibility, historically, cross-culturally or biblically.

Clapp describes the “widespread impression that those who would question aspects of the industrial, middle-class family are disputing Scripture and departing from a way of family that is thousands of years old, even based on the order of nature itself. . . . The mistake of evangelical traditionalists begins when they look around and see that the family they promote is not supported by the wider society. Then they assume that their position is ‘biblical,’ whereas positions of (apparently) more recent vintage are ‘cultural’ and non-Christian” (Families at the Crossroads).

If Christians wish to urge for Christian values through political processes that may have a place, remembering that imposing such values on a multicultural, multifaith society may itself be quite unchristian. But instead of hiding behind the façade and assumptions of “family values,” they should have the courage to do that openly and to take the responsibility to then justify their Christian values by honest, careful and inclusive use of the Bible.

At some stage, whatever our political leanings, all of us must question whether our identification of our faith with a certain way of political thinking springs from our primary political persuasion being brought as a precondition to our understanding of faith. In her essay, Lohrey traces an example from the current Australian parliament where various votes were claiming the family motif, concluding that “the whole ‘family values’ rhetoric had dissolved into a slush pond of meaninglessness.”

Jesus was not much of a “family values” campaigner. In statements such as those recorded in Matthew 12:46-50, 19:28-30 and Luke 9:59-62, 14:26, Jesus emphasised a different set of values, focused on His kingdom as it will be when He returns and as it currently is in this world. As Clapp urges, “The family is not God’s most important institution on earth. The family is not the social agent that most significantly shapes and forms the character of Christians. The family is not the primary vehicle of God’s grace and salvation for a waiting, desperate world.”

This may be a disappointment to our politicians and other “family” campaigners. The values of God’s kingdom will have an influence on how we vote and how we interact in society—but they are more politically awkward than expedient.

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