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Why Children Make Us Conservative
Love without affirmation is impossible? Try telling a parent.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the “evangelical idolatry of the family trope” and why I don’t think this line is very compelling or helpful in light of what we know about declining Western fertility. The point I wanted to get across in that post was not that it’s impossible to make an idol out of the family. It is very possible, and if you spent some time in rural Christian communities, it won’t be long before you come across some stuff that borders on ancestral worship.
But there’s a difference between engaging idolatry as you encounter it, and turning “evangelical idolatry of the family” into a reliable point of attack for the benefit of writers and podcasters who want to make a Sex and the City-style singleness more of a live option for Christians.
In fact, I don’t think it’s wise or helpful right now to be making broad-brush points about how optional children are. To the extent that we can be showing sensitivity and love toward the infertile, I think we ought to be talking a lot about how natural having children is and how babies benefit us all.
One reason I think so is sentiments like this:
Why would Jory Micah say this instead of saying, for one example, that affirming LGBT relationships is biblically correct, or abundantly kind, or honestly just the way modern people should behave? All of those things are commonly remarked, and what’s more, those statements have content that is actually debatable. The biblical data can be looked at, the meaning of kindness can be argued, the role of modern mores in ethics could be adjudicated. So why would Micah say, as she does, that it is impossible to love gay or transgendered people without agreeing that their sexual behaviors or theological views are good?
One answer might be that this is not a theological statement. It’s a therapeutic one.
I don’t think Micah is intending to make a point that can be argued. I don’t think she’s offering an interpretation of information or a perspective on moral practice. I think she’s summing up a self-defined sense of wellbeing. You cannot love me without affirming me, because I decide what loving me means and I’ve decided that’s what it means.
That’s very compelling stuff in the paperback self-help market. It’s also the very first thing that anyone who has raised kids at all knows cannot be true.
Children define love for themselves every day, and a plurality of the ways they define love would result in their injuries or deaths. Children literally want what kills them, and they want it so passionately they will fight and endure punishment to get it. Imagining that true love means always authenticating another human’s being desires is a notion that cannot survive 10 minutes of real caretaking. You don’t take an ethics class to learn this as a parent. The very love that fills your entire self as soon as you lay eyes on a pulpy, purply mass of baby tells you that real love means saving this little one from himself each day.
The naked brokenness of human nature as seen in a child is, I think, a big reason why having children generally has a conservatizing effect on people. I don’t necessarily mean political conservatism, although it seems that does happen. I’m talking more specifically about a right-turn in general attitude toward life. Liberals tend to be human nature optimists who believe society will flourish as individuals eliminate the barriers to their full self-authentication. A progressive, at least in the traditional sense, sees human individuality to be a slate on which society imprints meaning; a just society allows individuals to maximize their own meaning, because in a “state of nature” humans are fundamentally good and their own meaning will tend toward the benefit of all.
Raising children constantly challenges this worldview (perhaps similarly to how travel and education can challenge conservative presuppositions). Parenting is not merely feeding, clothing, and building up the self-esteem of a tiny adult until such time as a school can do as much of this for the grown up as possible. To really parent is to intervene continually, separating what a child wants from what it needs and forcing them—and you!—to make sacrifices for the greater good. Children who are protected will feel un-affirmed a lot, and they’ll tell you almost every time (usually with tears) that this lack of affirmation is incompatible with real love. And yet you will continue to love: putting away the junk food, turning off the iPad, forcing them to stay in bed. Why? Because not becoming obese, not become addicted to the screen, and being able to sleep in her own bed is better for this human being than the things she wants.
The tender art of raising children is a marginalized calling in much of our culture. When New York Times columnists with socialist politics can be ruthlessly attacked online for writing positively about raising kids at the age of 25, you know that American elites’ vision of the good life has absolutely no category for being a parent. This is more than a demographic disaster. It’s an atrophy of our moral imagination.
Children remind a society what they really are. Equating total self-affirmation with real love is what a society does when it has pushed children out of its periphery and forgets what human nature and love are both really like. It’s a lot easier to convince a thirtysomething that love means giving another person whatever they ask for regardless of what it is than a parent. And perhaps no other role in life requires such a constant practice of lovingly denying demands. The people who know how the deepest compassion coexists with the sturdiest commitment to the good are not the ones who sit behind beautiful desks or fly first class. They’re the ones with peanut butter stains on their clothes and dirty diapers in grocery bags.