by ProfDave, ©2021
(Jan. 8, 2021) — “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [mankind] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [well-being, success].”
I have a problem with sarcasm and a better radar for evil than for good. It doesn’t take a class-A mind to find fault with America today. No rocket-science is necessary to find evil. It’s all over the place. But what we really need – what you really need – is good! We desperately need to turn our attention to what is good and right – the values on which democratic society and human flourishing depends. “Values clarification” was a good name. Unfortunately, we turned it on its head by making it all about me first, my way, and my advantage. Self-defined instead of self-defining. Values worth having are bigger than me. Once we recognize what is of intrinsic, transcendent, and gold standard value, everything else is relative, and we can clearly see the way out of the mess we’re in. And there is a way out!
Our values need to be clarified – and I don’t mean by fifth-graders in a religion-free public school! Perhaps that is where we lost our grip on the common sense our parents taught us? If you aren’t old enough to drive, you aren’t old enough to be God. On the other hand, I was taught the difference between right and wrong with my mother’s milk, but I have always had a bad habit of choosing wrong. There is plenty of failure and hypocrisy to go around, but that only accentuates the need for keeping our values clear. It is better to shoot at the moon and miss, than shoot at a skunk and hit it. The hard part of being ethical is admitting when we miss. We like to pick the target by where the arrow lands. Remember the poem: “I shot an arrow into the air. It came to earth I know not where. My neighbor said it killed his calf. Had to pay him a dollar and a half.”
Our democracy rests on the intrinsic value of the individual human being. Miss that and we miss freedom – and kill somebody’s calf. Think about it.
Probably the value that is most fundamental to democracy – and also quite distinctive to the West – is the profound inherent value of the human person. Start with the word “inherent.” Persons are valuable in themselves – to begin with – not for what they can do for you. We all (regardless of religion) understand that it is wrong to use people in the way that we use things. A person should not be treated as an object or a means to an end. We resent it when it happens to us and, significantly, project the same feeling and value onto others. We have a lot of trouble at this point, but we know how we ought to treat a human being. PETA asking us to treat animals as “persons in fur coats” only extends the principle of humanity to other species. Likewise, we violate this value when we deny “human rights” to women, minorities, infidels, or the unborn. In effect, we weaken our ethics when we narrow the definition of human to exclude the powerless.
What does the profound inherent value of the human person actually mean? At some level almost all of us recognize that it is wrong to use another human being. It is wrong to grind up a person for hamburger, subject them to sexual abuse, or misappropriate their work or possessions. It is wrong to deceive, manipulate, or cheat them for economic or political purposes. It is wrong to enable or profit from their vice or addiction. It is wrong to neglect or abuse children, the elderly, the handicapped, or the insane. It is possible to rationalize and to contort our consciences to do any or all of the above – it is happening more and more these days – but deep down we know it is wrong. Somehow it is written on our hearts.
What is a human person? There is a clear biological standard in our DNA, but some have advanced a subjective political standard. The gold standard must be objective. People come in two genders, all shapes and sizes, different colors, nationalities, classes and conditions, but each has the fundamental value of being human. Likewise, persons have a huge range of abilities and disabilities, accomplishments and failures, virtue and depravity, youth and age. Some command special respect or censure, but all have the same fundamental value of being human. Indeed, we recognize the special obligation of the strong to protect and nurture the weak, dependent and disadvantaged. The most extreme Darwinist would be loath to say the strong and smart should exploit the weak and manipulate the foolish [as in the lottery?]. We know better, even if we don’t consistently do better.
Where does the profound inherent value of the human person come from? Notice that I have not here argued the value of the human person from a Biblical basis. I don’t need to. It is inherent in human psyche, religious or not, written on our hearts. It is no coincidence that democracy is a modern western invention, for Christianity actively championed the “image of God” in “male and female, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” against a pagan society where only free male citizens had rights. Racism dies hard, but Christianity changed the West. The alternative is a society based on caste or blood or one that merging the person into the family and the temporal individual into the eternal One. But even in the East, the human being who does not respect the humanity of others is less than human.
The value of the human person seems to be hard-wired in our DNA, but we have a lot of ways to obscure, dilute and rationalize it away. Notice it doesn’t have much to do with self-esteem, but is primarily about respect for the other guy. Self-esteem helps only if I abide by the golden rule, but gets in the way if I make my own values.
This value, at the core of democracy, can be expanded or contracted. The ancient Greeks recognized only adult male citizens as persons. The pagan Roman pater familis held the power of life and death over his wife and children. Slaves and captives were killed in the Coliseum for entertainment. Roman Christianity extended full humanity to women, slaves, and infants in the womb and out. Since then we have had trouble with people of different races and cultures. By denying their humanity, we were free to exploit them. We have also become aware that in some parts of the world there are those who have trouble accepting our humanity, and feel free to blow up churches and exterminate Jews in the name of Allah or Hinduism. But that’s another story.
Most of us have learned to accept the humanity of the African, the native American, “the heathen Chinee,” and the Australian Aboriginal. But now we struggle with infants, the handicapped and the aged. Some people are not useful. Post-industrialization, children have lost their economic value and become an interference with our adult pleasures. We should not be using children anyway. We know that. But when they become an inconvenient consequence of recreational sex, we are tempted to deny their humanity and dispose of them. Early Darwinists argued that the embryo began as an undifferentiated blob of tissue, then evolved into a fish, and recapitulated the stages of evolution – it was not really human until birth. Modern science (molecular biology and the ultrasound) has falsified this picture – it was ignorant, if not fraudulent. What does this do to our ethics? Will we follow the science or rationalize it away?
Also predicted by the “right-wing crazies” was post-birth abortions. Infanticide by any other name still kills the baby. See the recent article in JME On-line [http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/03/01/medethics-2011-100411.full.pdf+html]. Just when everyone knows that the embryo is human from conception, ethicists have come up with the idea that a human is not a person until he/she can reason! “If you flunk algebra again, I’m taking you to Planned Parenthood!” You probably know 50-year-olds who wouldn’t qualify as rational. And what about those right-wing idiots who don’t see reason like the liberal elites do? Abort them, too? Is this ethics or rationalization or Mad Magazine?
Values clarification side trip: “It’s my body.” Is it? “What? Don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? You are not your own, you are bought with a price” if you are a Christian [I Corinthians 6:19]. I gave my body to Jesus as a “living sacrifice.” [Romans 12:1] He redeemed me (bought me back) on the cross. In addition, my body belonged to Uncle Sam for two years when I was in the Navy. And while I was married, my body belonged to my wife – and hers to me. But any sort of sexual misappropriation is an offense against the value of the human person. It is wrong for a woman to be made pregnant against her will. But in such a case, the invader is not the developing life but the father! Abort him! And if the invasion is consensual (both chose to give their bodies), so is the natural consequence. That innocent little “Who” is totally native to that womb and totally the responsibility of both parents, flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone. Ah! That’s the problem: consequences. We want to use (borrow?) each other without commitment or responsibility. Is that respectful of human worth?
Family. Next to human personhood, and related thereto, is the value of family. Indeed, in the East family trumps personhood and the individual is dispensable for the family and its honor. Tradition, ancestry, caste and clan can be good things, but inhibited the development of democracy in the non-western world. Yet family is a matter of survival. Reliable long-term relationships between the sexes, between the generations, and among siblings are vital for the development of civilization and stable society. Homo Sapiens’ long juvenile development requires parental care and protection, both male and female modeling, and lengthy education/apprenticeship – 15 to 30 years – before the person is fully functional. The positive side of this is the possibility of a sophisticated society, culture, and civilization. There is simply no other way to keep the human race going. Without strong family values everything falls apart.
No question that the family is valuable. Only science fiction could dream of a utopian world of free sex, without gender distinction, parents or children – and it always turns into a nightmare. In children’s film “Mars needs Moms” babies are born in test-tubes and raised by robot nannies, but it doesn’t work. See Soviet orphanages. Men run amuck if not tied to families – women tend to be the muck-ees – and terrible things happen to orphans. Family is essential for the survival of the individual, the continuity of society and of the species, and the humane relationship of the sexes.
The primary values of family build on the fundamental value of the human person: unconditional faithfulness to the covenant of marriage (I would add adoption) and the priority, loyalty and respect for persons related by blood and marriage. All families are not equal, and most of us are dysfunctional in some way, but the ideal is written on our hearts: husbands and wives who are faithful and responsible to each other for life, parents who are diligent in passing on values and preparing their offspring for life, children who listen and learn and care for their elders, siblings who support and encourage each other, a unit of the broader community who know who they are and where they come from.
Even though we differ on what is right or wrong, we recognize that the person who values only himself, determines his values by temporary personal advantage, or uses people to gratify himself is a moral pygmy. Likewise, we recognize one who consistently holds every human being sacred, regardless of gender, race, or condition as a moral giant. Even if we ourselves regard such a stand as impractical and unreasonable.
Family is a bit complicated. We have mixed feelings about monogamy and respect for authority, but we want our partners to be faithful to us and our children to do what we say and get along with each other. Covenant relationship requires the willing and irrevocable giving of oneself that the moral pygmy cannot do. The moral pygmy alternately dominates and abandons his offspring. To honor one’s parents (not merely to be intimidated by them) is a decision that requires moral fiber – and is not particularly encouraged by popular youth culture. We know these things are essential to human flourishing, but there is something else in our psyche that regards the faithful husband or wife and the dutiful child as dupes of an oppressive order. At the same time, we do know that this voice of disorder is morally pathological. And everybody hates sibling rivalry. At least to this extent, the value of the family is written on our hearts.
Side-trip: “It takes a village to raise a child” (Hillary Clinton). The idealized African village (ask AIDS orphans about the real thing) really represents another value, that of community, where families support each other. Adults, if they are not actually members of the extended family, act as if they were Aunties and Uncles. But that is not the reality of the urban project, the socialist orphanages and daycares of Eastern Europe, or the world of government agencies – however well meaning. You can’t pay professionals enough to do what families do every day. The community can be a huge support to the family (or a dangerous jungle), but no one is positioned to know and care for the child the way the parents are.
In general, a family is a group of individuals related by blood or marriage, who identify with and depend upon each other meaningfully. Somewhere near the core of every family is a marriage: a mating couple whose stability is usually key to the success of the whole. The pair are usually connected by marriage and their bloodlines are usually the source of subsequent generations. Common exceptions are adoption (substituting covenant for blood) and cohabitation (blood without marriage). Success can be defined by the long term, all around flourishing (shalom: wealth, health, happiness) of those who identify as family members, and their overall cohesion with each other. Marital failure disintegrates the family both immediately and cumulatively, and is a major cause of poverty, health problems, and social pathology of all kinds. Once again, the key values of family and marriage are faithfulness and loyalty. The needs of society as a whole and the individual human person intersect with family values in monogamy. Do you agree?
Family values do not require that everyone be married or everyone have children, but there is no such thing as a family of one. Single adults have their place in the family constellation, and childless couples can model faithfulness to each other and play an important role in the lives of the next generation. Or both can be loose cannons, alienating other people’s mates and children from their families by predatory behavior, negative role models, and the like. Examples: celibate priests and school teachers who pour their lives into other people’s children or – on the other hand, the “other woman” and old fashioned rué who prey upon other people’s spouses and children – not to mention self-indulgent celebrities who mock faithfulness and loyalty by their lives and creative works. Single parents are families, too, but deeply handicapped and in need of extended family assistance in so many ways. Every child needs both a father and a mother to reproduce a healthy marriage – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the family values of love and happiness. That’s because their definitions are so squishy. We confuse love with sexual desire, gratification, and warm fuzzy romantic feelings. When we love each other in the family as objects to be consumed for our personal gratification, brother, it ain’t love! We violate the humanity of our significant others even if the self-gratification is reciprocal – the relationship soon goes toxic. That is why we have so much divorce and fatherlessness. Happiness is even more ephemeral. It can be the result of cherishing the other values or pure selfishness when pursued directly, for its own sake – the sum of all values or their nemesis. Love and happiness come to those who practice the values of human worth, marital faithfulness, and family loyalty. Those who pursue personal “love” and “happiness” as ends in themselves are tempted to discard loyalty, faithfulness, and humanity along the way.
Family and Marriage are required for the procreation and preparation of future generations, for mutual support, and for cultural continuity. The values that support family and marriage are faithfulness and loyalty – the love of commitment and affiliation (not mere desire or romance). Happiness, or more broadly human flourishing, is the result. Need – societal and individual – intersects with values in monogamy. Does it have to be monogamy?
Polygamy has been tried in ancient agricultural societies where powerful men were at a premium and unattached women adjudged vulnerable to predation. It is still allowed in Islam. It had the virtue of maximum procreation, building large extended families in relatively short order, but depreciated the humanity of women, diluted the parenting of men, and – if we take Biblical accounts as representative – led to messy intramural conflicts. Furthermore, the faithfulness of the husband was always compromised by the thought of taking another wife or concubine.
Serial polygamy, as practiced today in America, is even worse. In the old days, when a man tired of his wife he could take a new one, but at least he continued to support and often live with the first one and her offspring. There was some security. Today there may be child support and visitation – maybe – but they are not the same at all. Instability and unfaithfulness are becoming endemic. No-fault divorce has diluted the stigma of discarding one’s family, but it is disastrous to the individuals and toxic to society. Fatherlessness is a hidden crisis in our society. There is no question that one spouse, for life, is a superior expression of family and marriage values and meets the needs of society better than polygamy.
When I was in graduate school half a century ago, we were told that marriage was passe. News flash: it is still here, more popular than ever, but fewer of us experience it. Some 40% of children are now growing up outside marriage – without one or both of their original parents. Are we holding up an unrealistic ideal and dehumanizing the victims of marital shipwreck by even discussing it? Shouldn’t we be upholding the values of cohabitation, the safer, more emotionally economical, alternative? Question is, safe for whom? As the musical goes, “With a little bit ‘o luck, you can get it all and not get hooked.” The more aggressive partner (usually the male) gets full access to sex, meals, and housing assistance, while accepting no long-term responsibility. By its very nature, the relationship is tentative, self-serving, and devoid of commitment. Break-up rates are much increased, even when marriage eventually follows. Then one or both partners are left destitute and the offspring are left to tumble. Marriage is more than a contract for sexual services, board and room. Cohabitation is no foundation for successful families.
“Get real,” you say. This is the 21st century! Does anyone still live like that? Never using people? Never treating women (or men) as sex objects – even in marriage? Never taking advantage of the weak and the foolish? Did anyone ever live like that? If we advocate ideals that we don’t live up to, what does that make us? Isn’t all this goody-goody blather Victorian hypocrisy? Be realistic! Hmmh.
I knew you would say that. How many times have I heard this from my kids. Isn’t the fundamental bent of our culture towards the real, not the ideal? We have made the “real” our ideal. From entertainment to education our obsession (beyond technical proficiency) is on what everybody else is doing, not on excellence; on par for the course, not the hole in one; on the average in life and morality – or somewhat less – not the heroic or what should be. Our heroes are lucky, not good.
Hypocrisy has its uses: if we don’t believe in something better than we are, there’s no way to go but down. We keep adjusting our sights lower and lower because we are missing low. No wonder our culture is on the skids! We should be aspiring to something above average! The Christian answer is that we are all broken people, living in a broken world, but redemption is offered. We need to keep our eyes on the goal of health and wholeness. Broken families, no matter how common, are not healthy. Pretending they are is no solution. We don’t need to blame the victims, but we do need to admit there’s something wrong.
Same-sex marriage side-trip. Can same-sex marriage be the moral equivalent of monogamy? Can it be marriage at all? If we call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs would a dog have? Anatomically and for running and jumping – four, but the politically correct answer would be five.
Leaving aside the question of whether names and social institutions can, or should be, changed by decree, what are the values implications of this innovation? Does SSM serve the needs of society in regulating relationships between the sexes, propagating and preparing the next generation, passing on cultural values, and providing for mutual care? By definition, it separates rather than unites the sexes, and does not naturally propagate the species. It “reproduces” primarily by adoption and recruitment from the fruit of heterosexual unions and can pass on homosexual sub-cultural values only in those ways. Mutual care is certainly possible as in any non-sexual friendships. Arguably, it is at a disadvantage in preparing adopted offspring for heterosexual relationships.
This discussion has been long and meandering, but I think we have clarified why monogamy is still the best expression of marital faithfulness. Note, this is not exclusively a Christian or western conclusion, but supported by most cultures and religions, ancient and modern.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.