Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Economics of “Having It All”

One of the many responses to Dr. Slaughter’s article was by economist and mom, Adriene Hill.  Her response was couched in economic terms and appeared in the radio program “Marketplace.”  Her response is available at the following link:

As a tax lawyer, I appreciate the economic perspective Ms. Hill provides.  I also appreciate the gist of her comments which focused on prioritization.  She agreed with Dr. Slaughter that women can’t have it all, so she advised prioritizing “whatever gives us greatest value.”  Later she equates “greatest value” with “what makes us happiest.”  She concludes for herself that being a mom is where she is “both providing the greatest value and obtaining [her] greatest joy.” 

Three observations about Ms. Hill’s take on the work-family debate.

First, I am not sure that “greatest value” necessarily equates to greatest joy or happiness in all cases.  The ideal is that it does.  But the reality does not always match that ideal.  As a Christian, I think I’d agree that we ought to put our time where there is greatest value, but life is not just a constant party.   God gives us gifts and talents.  He gives them to us to use for his purposes to help achieve his plan for his children.  But there are bumps in the road and sacrifice may be required.  Following whatever whim puts a smile on your face momentarily is not necessarily going to achieve the greatest value in the long-run and be obedient to God’s plan.

Second, Ms. Hill concludes that she finds her “greatest value” and “greatest joy” by “[b]eing just ‘mom.’”  Earlier in her essay, Ms. Hill notes that she was divorced, had four kids and worked full time as an economist in our nation’s capital.  It thus appears she is spending most of her waking hours on her economist job, which by her own description is not where her “greatest value” lies.  That seems to be a contradiction.  But one can glean that she has no financial option but to work full-time to support herself and her children.  In purely economic terms, this would seem to be a misallocation of resources.  If she truly has greatest value in being a mom, her time working as an economist seems misused.  From an economic perspective, her time is better spent on parenting.  But again, there is ambiguity in what she means as “value” in this context.

Third, I worry about Ms. Hill’s assertion that her “greatest joy” by “[b]eing just ‘mom.’”  I don’t know her.  Maybe this is an accurate description of her true feelings.  But on the other hand, maybe she is simply conforming (consciously or not) to societal expectations of women.  We expect women to be nurturing and love children.  Even in 2012, even in the West, this is a deeply entrenched gendered preconception.  Most mere mortals want to conform to some degree.  We want to be liked and approved by others.  It is very difficult for us to say or do things we know others will condemn, even if it reflects our reality.  For this reason, I worry that Ms. Hill's assertion about her "greatest joy" may not reflect her reality.  Maybe that is just what she thinks everyone wants her to say.

1 Corinthians 12:4-7

There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Dana Shell Smith’s Take on Family and Work (Kudos)

Despite my criticism in the prior post, I did really appreciate one point in Ms. Smith’s article where she describes her family’s reality:

We are clear in our own minds that in this phase of our lives, so-called "work life balance" means work and family. Full stop. Social life is on the "nice to have" list, not the mandatory list. We haven't seen a non-animated movie in a movie theater in a decade. We collapse from exhaustion most evenings and are each settled in with a book by 10 p.m. We watch almost no TV and shop for everything except for groceries online. Fun for us, at this point, is family dinner time, walking the dog, camping with our kids for a night on the weekend, or maybe getting together with another family.

You get the idea. Everything else is work. Friends and colleagues are surprised, and occasionally offended, when I categorically state that I do not agree to engagements on weekday evenings (with the exception of my monthly book club, which keeps me sane).

I appreciated this part of Ms. Smith’s article because it rings true.  It describes the reality of my family and many others I know.  Working full-time and raising a family is grueling.  I don’t think this reality is noted enough in public discussion.  As a result, I don’t think this reality is appreciated in policy debates.

Several points about Ms. Smith’s description are worth noting here.

First, I actually cringe at the phrase “work-life balance” because it means different things to different people.  Here, Ms. Smith points out that for her the “life” part means her family while others mean “hobbies” or “leisure time.”  Most parents I know who balance raising young kids and work obligations are simply exhausted as Ms. Smith describes.  We don’t have time for hobbies or much of a social life. 

But to be clear, I don’t point this out as a complaint.  My husband and I wanted to be parents and through adoption made a conscious decision to start a family.  It was no accident.  We clearly chose parenthood. 

Further, I absolutely love being a mom.  As opposed to taking fancy vacations or eating in sophisticated restaurants, going to spas or the theatre, I personally would much rather spend my time  with my kids.  Even if it is not play time.  Helping them with homework, reading with them, taking them to dance lessons or soccer practice, reading to them, or teaching them to cook.  That is all fun stuff to me. 

But I raise this point about a lack of leisure time because in my experience non-parents or parents who don’t have compensated jobs just don’t seem to understand the reality of the situation for working parents.  Friends who have no children don’t seem to understand why I rarely have seen (or even heard of) most of the films nominated for Oscars each year.  The last movies I saw in a theatre were Madagascar 3 and Cars 2.  Anything else is on DVD, at least a year or more after it has come out.  Not only do my friends without kids not understand this reality, I often sense they pity me and think it is pathetic to be so out of the loop.

Similarly, friends without children or friends who are parents but have a full-time homemaker spouse seem to not have any sense of why I might not be able to go out for a gourmet meal or cocktails after work.  At church, I get similar reactions.  It seems to never dawn on many folks that I might not be available for committee meetings or Bible Studies on week nights.  The sense I get from such obliviousness is that people don’t understand parenting to be a serious responsibility of mine.  I guess the thought is that someone else does it (i.e., my husband?), but it doesn’t really impinge on my time.  The assumption from such folks seems to be that once I leave work, I’m footloose and free to do whatever my interest me.

I know these are not isolated experiences that are unique to me.  Lots of other working moms have commiserated with me over such attitudes and the lack of insight by those around us.  Many non-parents or parents with stay-at-home spouses don’t seem to understand our reality.

When I read Ms. Smith’s words quoted above, I had an epiphany.  For parents with family and jobs to balance, it all comes down to two kinds of work: paid work and family work. 

Helping with homework, fixing meals, doing the shopping, doing dishes, signing the permission slips, doing laundry and cleaning the toilet are all types of work.  They are personal responsibilities to one’s family, not professional responsibilities.  But these are not hobbies, they are a type of work.  And fulfilling these family responsibilities is time-consuming. 

So when some talk of “work-life balance,” the word “life” refers to fun and rejuvenating activities to help with stress.  It is a type of indulgence.  But when parents use the phrase “work-life balance,” they mean something very different, i.e., balancing two different types of work.  One is compensated and performed for third parties.  The other is non-compensated and performed for one’s family.  There is typically no or little time for us to engage in the kind of fun and rejuvenating activities that help with stress. 

Ms. Smith notes that in this phase of our life when we are parenting minor children while working professionally, there is not time for anything else if we’re going to get any sleep at all. That seems kind of pathetic.  And it doesn’t sound terribly healthy.  But it rings true.  Most of the working moms I know are exhausted and perennially sleep deprived.

I was talking with a working mom friend recently about this balancing issue, and I noted that the women I know who work out regularly either have no kids or are stay-at-home moms.  I had realized not long ago that I didn’t know any moms who worked outside the home who actually found time to exercise any more.  We may get up early to go spend some time on the treadmill or use our lunch hour to run to the gym.  But in my experience and observation, such workouts take herculean logistical efforts and tend to not be sustainable.  Eventually we’re so sleep deprived we can’t keep getting up early to exercise.  Or we end up having to work through lunch or run errands for the family such that the gym is no longer a possibility.

Not only do we neglect our health in being sleep deprived and too sedentary, I had also heard repeatedly from various working moms in different contexts that they didn’t have time to go to the doctor.  They made sure to take their kids to dental and medical check-ups, but they didn’t have time to attend to their own appointments.  Some of these moms indicated they hadn’t even had time to find doctors for their own health needs.  Others had commented that they had doctors, but couldn’t find time to make and keep appointments to see them.  In the past month alone, I’ve had several working mom friends tell me about chronic and potentially serious health problems they had, for which they just couldn’t find time to get medical care.

The point is that in my experience and observation, working moms are spread so thin.  There is arguably not enough time in the day to work two demanding jobs (i.e., compensated jobs and caregiver).  This results in few opportunities for a break or relaxation.  I have a dear friend who made a comment recently that was very insightful along these lines.  She is mom of grade school kids and she has a demanding professional job.  Her paid gig has her working until the sun has gone down five days a week minimum, and she puts in significant hours every weekend.  Nonetheless, she somehow finds time to help the kids with homework on a regular basis.  She mentioned to me recently that she had another grueling week ahead of her, but she was excited because one day this week she had scheduled some outpatient surgery.  The surgery was nearly a year overdue and she had suffered a lot of pain as a result.  But things had been too busy at work for her to schedule the surgery.  Having outpatient surgery didn’t sound like fun to me, but my friend was looking forward to it because she would miss a half day of work and would be able to rest a bit.  I gently flagged for my friend that it was pretty sad to look forward to surgery; it wasn’t exactly a day at the beach!  She agreed it was pretty twisted state of affairs, but that was her honest feelings.  Her reality is she got no break unless she was under anesthesia and undergoing an invasive medical procedure.   

Because parenting is such a tough job, I strongly advise anyone from taking it on unless they are sure that is their calling.  It is a never-ending job.  You never punch out.  Not even when you go to sleep.  You are always on call.  For years.  I personally find it rewarding and can’t imagine life without my kids.  But without that kind of passion, the grind of simultaneously working full time and parenting would be miserable.

Isaiah 40:28-29

Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dana Shell Smith’s Take on Family and Work (Criticism)

One of the many responses to Dr. Slaughter’s article was written by Dana Shell Smith, a career Foreign Service officer and a mom of two minor children.  Her article for the Atlantic is available at the link below.

Interestingly, Ms. Smith disagrees with Dr. Slaughter in many ways.  She and her colleagues puzzled “why Dr. Slaughter’s experience had so contrasted with ours.”  Ms. Smith queries whether it could be that Dr. Slaughter had been spoiled by her experience in academia or because Dr. Slaughter’s family was in another city. 

But one thing that Ms. Smith seems to overlook as she argues that one can “have it all” is that Dr. Slaughter was in a particularly elite position at the top of the State Department working under Secretary of State Clinton.  It is like comparing the experience of the vice president of a corporation with that of a supervisor of one small department. 

Ms. Smith lectures readers (and Dr. Slaughter) that to have it all you must “own your decisions,” which seems to mean making career sacrifices to accommodate family needs.  She appears to pat herself on the back for putting her foot down and taking time off when her family relocated or she had babies.  A couple aspects of this annoyed me. 

First, not everyone can take time off at such times.  Many employers do not permit such flexibility.  Even those that do often permit only unpaid time off on such occasions.  That is not a realistic option for people who are not independently wealthy or live paycheck to paycheck.  As a result, I don’t appreciate Ms. Smith lecturing people to follow her noble example when not everyone has the ability to do so.

Furthermore, if you are at the top of an organization, you may not have that luxury regardless of the employment policies and the ability to forego pay for a period of time.  There are many more people depending on you when you are the top of the food chain.  Moreover, there are fewer who can step in and fill in while you attend to family matters.  This is a critical point with respect to Dr. Slaughter.  As I understood her article, her underlying concern was that there weren’t enough women rising to the elite ranks of the professional world; family balance issues were impeding women from becoming the decision-makers in business and government.  By contrast, I understand Ms. Smith (as a Foreign Service officer) to be a fairly privileged work bee within the State Department.  I am sure she does important work, but she is one of many in similar positions.

Matthew 7:1

“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.”

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reader Responses to Dr. Slaughter’s Article

The link below has a variety of reader responses to Dr. Slaughter’s article:

Stephanie Coontz’s wording struck me: “the insanely rigid workplace culture that produces higher levels of career-family conflict among Americans.”  That phrasing really captures the reality Dr. Slaughter is critiquing, as well as my own experiences and observations.

Someone named “Flavia” described “[m]ainstream feminism” as being “a tool to enforce the current system of inequalities.”  She rejected “reactive feminism” that is “chasing this faux equality that puts us on the race to be better managers of exclusion.”  That is very challenging conceptually.  In essence, she seems to be asserting that mainstream feminism is simply about getting women into the same roles men have occupied in a hierarchical workplace.  I can appreciate that characterization and her hostility towards it.

I really applaud Katrina vanden Heuvel’s comment.  She reminds us of the critically narrow focus of Dr. Slaughter’s article, which assumes a women who is highly educated and pursuing an elite career.  The vast majority of working moms have an even more difficult reality.  For them, it is not just a concern that they won’t reach the most elite levels of their profession.  For most moms, Ms. vanden Heuvel notes the huge toll economic insecurity and the lack of support takes on children.  When women must “cobble together” multiple poorly compensated jobs, she notes that “[c]hild care gets done by grandmothers, neighbors or simply the TV.”  That is such an important point.  And not everyone has grandmothers or neighbors to help, so women are left to either forego needed income or leave children by themselves.  What a travesty. 

But in our culture, such points often seem to fall on cold hearts.  The common refrain is that the moms in such situations shouldn’t have made the decision to have children.  Particularly when you read reader comments to articles on such topics, you often see crude comments like “use birth control.”  That command is quite ironic in light of the recent debate about providing birth control as part of the medical insurance we pay for. 

For other reasons, it is also highly telling when you see such comments.  It is a basic fact of biology that it does take a male as well as a female to reproduce.  Apparently some species can reproduce asexually, but not humans.  It still takes two to tango.  But when you see such crude comments justifying the callus “you’re on your own” attitude towards single moms, I never hear anyone blaming the fathers who are equally responsible for bringing the child into this world.  Disproportionately, in single parent households, it is the father who is absent and the bulk of the child-rearing responsibilities fall to the mother alone. 

There is another hypocrisy in the common refrain the moms shouldn’t have made the decision to have children they couldn’t care for.  In our culture, abortion is something that most Americans do not celebrate and condemn to at least some degree.  Many consider themselves “pro-life” meaning they believe that medical abortions should not be legal.  Even those who embrace the “pro-choice” stance don’t celebrate it when a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy.  I’ve never heard anyone advocate that women should have more abortions.  That would be nuts.  Even if one has no concern for the fetus.  Medical abortions are not good for one’s physical health.  And there can be long-lasting emotional and spiritual scares on the woman who has an abortion.  At most in our culture, medical abortions are tolerated as a necessary evil or the least awful option in certain situations.  Indeed, Bill Clinton famously said he wanted medical abortions to be “safe, legal and rare.”

Because of this widespread attitude that medical abortion is not a positive choice, one would think that we as a society might celebrate women who carry their pregnancies to term.  You would think that we might applaud the women who do not choose to have a medical abortion.  Due to our widespread attitude of economic individualism, however, this is not the case.  Women are berated for having children they cannot support.  What a sick attitude. 

Economic Darwinism and conservative social values are a tragic, frightening mix.


Matthew 10:29-31

Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Blaming Women?

The article below caught my attention because of the title: “Do Women Have Themselves to Blame for Work-Family Imbalances?”  The article is available at the following link:

Because of my growing understanding of the issues involved, I now realize how much guilt women carry when they are both moms and work outside the home.  They are trying to live up to a paradigm that is impossible to meet.  But instead of support and understanding, most of society gives them judgment and condemnation.  The concept of blaming women for the issues involved with balancing work and family really touched a nerve with me.

But the interview wasn’t really about that.  The title was misleading.  Instead, the women interviewed (i.e., several high-profile women who report for ABC news) hit several of the points I’ve been raising in recent blog posts.  Amy Walter noted that women carry a lot of guilt for trying to balance work and family.  She also noted that successful balancing is dependent on “flexibility and a supportive spouse.”  The interview is worth a quick read.


Romans 8:13
If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if you put to death the actions of the body with the Spirit, you will live.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dr. Slaughter’s Interview with Lauren Young

Dr. Slaughter was also interviewed this summer by Lauren Young.  Excerpts of the interview are available in the link below.

The interview sheds some light on the generational gap among women.  Dr. Slaughter is now a woman in her 50s.  She talks about growing up in Virginia in the 1960s.  She describes it as a time and place when women were “seen but not heard.” 

She also talks about the huge reaction she has had from her article—particularly from women who are now moms but who were themselves “raised to believe they could compete on any terms they want—their teachers, parents and society expected it.” 

Think about the range of experiences of women currently in the work force.  Think about the differences in how women like Dr. Slaughter were raised compared to these moms who’re responding to her article.

Women like Dr. Slaughter were essentially raised as second-class citizens.  There was not an expectation that they would rise to elite levels of education attainment and professional success.  When they went to grad school and pursued ambitious careers, they were really breaking down barriers and defying the expectations of their culture.  They had been raised with the clear understanding that men got the lion’s share of education, and it was only the men who would have careers.

But somewhere in the 1970s that all changed.  Title IX was enacted in 1972.  That federal statute prohibited gender based exclusion in educational settings if federal funds were received.  Dr. Slaughter doesn’t allude to Title IX in this interview.  But my sense is that after Title IX, there was a huge attitudinal shift.  Gender-based discrimination in educational settings was no longer permitted in most cases.  As a result, an attitude emerged that everyone was equal regardless of gender, there were no longer formal barriers to females. 

I began grade school just a couple years after Title IX was enacted.  I certainly don’t ever remember thinking that my gender closed any doors.  We were all encouraged to think about what we wanted to be.  No one laughed if a girl said she wanted to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer.  Why not?  There were not explicit barriers.  Lots of my female classmates excelled in school and strove to get college degrees.

But when I look back on it now, I realize we were really living a lie.  We thought everyone was equal because there were no formal barriers.  But there were still plenty of subtle barriers that I for one just did not recognize at the time.

First, our parents and teachers seemed to groom the boys for a different type of professional success than the girls.  I remember right before high school graduation seeing a list of all the seniors’ post graduation plans.  The list indicated where they were going to college and what they were going to study.  I distinctly recall being stunned because many of the males were listing “engineering” as a major.  This may sound pathetic, but I had actually never heard of that discipline at the time.  I was about to graduate from high school, already had firm plans to attend a competitive state university, but I had absolutely no clue what engineering was.  I had some vague notion it might have something to do with working on a train.  (Sadly, I’m quite serious; that is not a joke!) 

By contrast, the majors listed for the female graduating seniors were more diverse.  There were a bunch of us who were going to study various liberal arts or fine arts.  A few mentioned being pre-med or pre-law.  Some were undecided.  A couple might have mentioned something involving business or science.  I myself was in the  liberal arts camp, but I didn’t have a solid plan.  I ended up changing my major half a dozen times my first few years of college.  I had no real clue what I was going to do professionally.  Teaching seemed appealing because I wanted to help people.  And frankly, I just didn’t have a sense of what career options there were.

I don’t think these experiences were unique.  Similar things happened around the country around the same time.  In a very different community, far from where I went to high school, my husband and his brother were encouraged to go into professional degree programs like engineering and business.  On the other hand, his female friends from their rural high school pursued fine arts, liberal arts, agricultural science, and/or education.  Many of them apparently dropped out before finishing their degrees.  Alternately, some finished their degrees but only worked a few years before staying home full-time as new moms.  Before staying home, most of these women apparently worked either dead-end clerical jobs or had been grade school teachers.

The second major barrier I wasn’t aware of in my early adulthood was the huge disparity in household responsibilities.  I vaguely remember hearing from time to time in the media that there were statistics indicating women on average did more housework than men.  Those media reports did seem to jive with the families I knew.  As a result, such statistics therefore seemed pretty unimpressive.  Duh. 

When I heard about such trends in the media, I don’t recall anyone ever connecting the dots to point out that they undermined women’s ability to have a career outside the home.  No one ever made the link between what was happening at home and what was happening in the workplace.  The attitude seemed to be that whatever happened at home was a private, personal matter and was irrelevant to the workplace.  These types of stats seemed to be reported in an almost comical vein.  It was sort of a human interest item to fill in after the hard news and before signing off for the night.

But now I realize that attitude was pretty short-sighted.  In the past, the model of professional attainment has always been a white man with a spouse devoted full-time to handling all the household responsibilities so he is liberated to focus on his career.  If that spouse is now pursuing her own career, but is still having to feed everyone, clean all the clothes, help with the homework and tend to the boo-boos, something has to give.  In essence, women were given this unrealistic role to fill—they could have a career as long as they continued their previously assigned homemaker jobs.  That is pretty crazy if you think about it.  In essence, modern women are doing the jobs that our grandmothers did full-time plus the jobs that our grandfathers did full-time.  We’re doing the work of two human beings.  That is not sane.

But what I’ve come to realize is that our society so undervalues the role of homemaker, we don’t think that it is important.  And frankly, because we so undervalue it, we don’t think it should take much time.  The attitude seems to be that homemaking is a personal responsibility not meriting discussion outside the home.  Moreover, it is viewed as such a simple, small responsibility, it doesn’t merit much thought or effort:  Homemaking is not brain surgery.  Any moron can do some laundry and whip up supper.  Kids are in school most of the day, they don’t really need much care or oversight. 

Though I vehemently disagree with such sentiments, I think that they are subtly pervasive in our culture.  They do much damage to children, to families—and yes, to women’s ability to maintain a professional career.

Romans 12:4
We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Dr. Slaughter’s Interview with Terry Gross

This summer, Dr. Slaughter appeared on the NPR program “Fresh Air” to discuss her article.  The program is available at the link below.

Several points caught my attention.

First, she notes that the parental balancing “extend[s] beyond the first months of parenting.”  She describes “deeper problems” that are “more cultural.”  I whole-heartedly agree.  People who are not parents often seem to think there are issues right after a baby is born, but after about 4-8 weeks everything is a go and parents are on cruise control.  Not so.  Raising a family takes time and it doesn’t happen in six months.  It takes years.

I also could related to the female reporter who wrote to Dr. Slaughter to express her work guilt for leaving at 6 p.m. to catch the end of her son’s baseball game, as well as guilt from other parents who thought she was not a good mom.  The female reporter struggled because of the perception she was not adequately “committed” to her job or her child.  It is a no-win situation.  There is plenty of judgment and very little support of parents.

I don’t understand such attitudes.  Being a parent is not some indulgent hobby.  Being a parent is a demanding and powerful endeavor because for better or worse parents are shaping the next generation.

People who take on the tough job of raising the next generation should be commended.  But as the two points from Dr. Slaughter’s interview suggest, parents instead get judgment.  Instead of support, they are barely tolerated.  The attitude seems to be that if one makes the decision to be a parent, that is some personal quirk that is distracting and annoying to the rest of society.  It inspires more contempt than support or commendation.

Such attitudes are nuts--even if one does not share Christ's values about the dignity and preciousness of all human beings.  The children of today are our society’s future.  If they grow up in a stable, secure environment, the odds are that they are the people who will be caring for us as we age and contributing to the economy.  But if their upbringing is traumatic or neglected, things are more likely to go awry and they may be a burden to the rest of society.  No family is an island.  Why not work to make the former a reality and the former less likely?

I appreciate that individualism is a core trait of our culture.  But taken to an extreme, it is counterproductive and warped.  In other countries, there is an understanding that parenting is not easy and families need support.  Why in our country is there this crazy situation that each family is on their own?  We’re all interdependent. 

Romans 12:5
In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.

Friday, September 7, 2012

“God-Talk” at the Conventions

Ok, I’m coming out of the closet.  I’m a Democrat.  That may surprise some.  I’m a Texan, a corporate tax lawyer, a Christian, a homeschooling mom and I’ve lived in Red States all of my adult life. 

I’ve been semi-closeted about my politics for much of my adult life.  When I was in practice, I was always in the political minority.  As a professor, I don’t like to advertise my political affiliation because it can be a distraction to students.  I strive to engage people of various backgrounds and perspectives.  Unfortunately, it may be human nature that we sometimes (consciously or unconsciously) close our minds to people who believe differently from us.

Regardless of one’s political preference, I think that all of us should pay close attention to what is going on in government and take elections seriously.  That is the right of a people living in a country with a democratic form of government.  That is a right for which our forbearers died and made many other sacrifices.  Even in 2012, many of our brothers and sisters around the globe still do not have that same right.  Some of them are making huge sacrifices to achieve representative government in their nations.  They lose their livelihoods, they are tortured, they are killed.

So, because I take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously, I’ve been watching bits of and reading a lot about the two major American political parties’ recent national conventions.  One thing that struck me about the Democrats’ convention was the mention of God.  After some controversy, the phrase “God-given talents” was included in their official party platform.   And several speakers referenced prayer or quoted Scripture. 

This sort of “God-Talk” is not the norm for Democrats.  The party is relatively diverse and not everyone is religious.  Political pundits have noted the Democrats’ hesitancy to reference religion and have concluded it has harmed them politically in recent years. 

By contrast, Republicans have been eager to invoke religion for decades.  President Nixon broke new ground in courting Billy Graham and his followers to win votes.  Ronald Reagan broke new ground in courting Evangelicals and cobbled together a new voting block: “Reagan Democrats.”  All major Republican candidates have had to follow suit—even Senator McCain, who seemed particularly loathed to do it, tried to court Christian voters when he ran for president.  Of course, George W. Bush’s courting of Evangelicals took the political practice to a new level altogether.  It is widely acknowledged that the younger President Bush would never have won a second term but for his campaign’s success in getting socially conservative Christians to the polls on election day in 2004.

Many Christ followers have been uncomfortable with this mixing of religion and politics.  Certainly, we Christians should strive to live lives of integrity—integrating our faith into every aspect of our time on this planet.  That includes politics.  But to many people of faith—myself included—there is something horrifying about the prospect of a politician exploiting his faith to win votes and accumulate political power. 

I believe firmly in a loving God.  I know he is the overjoyed father running to meet his Prodigal Son with open arms.  I believe God sacrificed to send his Son to live among us.  There is nothing God wouldn’t do for us.  He is not out to get us, he is out to help us in our struggles.

Even though I don’t believe in a vengeful, angry God, I do believe God is omnipotent and I don’t think we should test him.  I don’t believe it is in his nature to condemn or harm his children; his nature is constantly to seek reconciliation.  But exploiting God for earthly gain (e.g., in the political realm) is so fundamentally wrong.  It is blasphemy with a capital “B.”  It is sacrilegious.  It is playing with fire--perhaps literally. 

For this reason, I truly worried for the soul of George W. Bush when he was running for president.  Perhaps most egregiously when he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and in the Republican debates, the younger Mr. Bush repeatedly invoked the name of Jesus.  Because he often did so when his references didn’t even seem relevant to the questions posed to him, they appeared to me as forced and even insincere. 

Let me be clear in what I mean.  I'm not saying Mr. Bush is not a fellow Christian.  If he says he's a believer, I accept him at his word.  (I do the same with Mr. Obama's profession of faith.)  What I am saying is that, to me, Mr. Bush's references to Jesus in such secular, political settings seemed calculating and designed to exploit religion to gain earthly power.  In my mind, that is just a line you don’t dare cross. 

I’ve had similar concerns for the late President Reagan.  He was never a regular church-goer as an adult.  He was extremely close to his second wife, who was a serious adherent of astrology, which is a belief system at odds with Christianity.  Mr. Reagan was a divorced man, who was admittedly not close to his children.  Despite all this, during his political hey-day, he actively courted socially conservative Christians in a way that brought to my mind the term “pandering.”  Again, I’ve really feared for his soul.  I just cannot fathom exploiting God to get elected. 

As a result of all this, I’ve had mixed emotions about the Democrats’ unwillingness to indulge in the type of “God-talk” that Republicans have to get elected.  A friend of mine in Texas—who is also a Democrat and a Christian—has noted that this reluctance has led to the perception in some folks’ mind that Democrats are all atheists.  This friend and I roll our eyes and shake our heads at that notion.  Plenty of Democrats are Christian.  And frankly, there are plenty of Republicans who are atheist or agnostic.

Some Democrats have tried to take a different approach.  Back in the day, Bill and Hillary both suddenly became active in their respective churches after socially conservative Arkansas voters rejected Mr. Clinton for another term as governor.  Indeed, he famously even began singing in the local church choir.  (Around the same time, Hillary also changed her last name to her husband’s in an apparent effort to appear more in step with Arkansan culture.)  To me, that sort of thing also smacks of political opportunism.   I am encouraged when anyone returns to the church of their childhood.  But the thought of someone doing so just to get back into office is beyond offensive and disrespectful.

Like many, I found it ridiculous when Howard Dean tried to talk religion when he was a presidential candidate.  When asked to name his favorite book in the New Testament, he famously cited the Book of Job.  I’m not even sure where to start with that one.  Dr. Dean’s nonsensical response speaks for itself.

So with this background, I’ve been intrigued and frankly challenged by the “God Talk” at the recent Democratic National Convention. 

In their convention speeches, Ted Strickland and Elizabeth Warren both quoted Scripture in ways that did seem very apropos to me.  Those references to Scripture, to me, are important considerations when I personally discern what I believe the best policy choices to be. 

However, I recognize we live in a pluralistic nation and I would never want to force my own theology on anyone else.   I’m torn about whether a secular political convention is the right place for such references.  I worry about alienating Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Hindu citizens (among others) who may not believe the New Testament has any relevance in their lives.  I would never want such Americans to feel that this country is any less theirs simply because they are not Christ followers.  (Moreover, as a Christian, I don't believe we make disciples by force or cohersion.  That would go against the teachings of and example set by Jesus.)

I may be biased because I’m a native San Antonian, but I appreciated Julían Castro’s references in his key note speech to parental blessings of their children as they leave for school.  That was really touching in my opinion.  Lifting our children up in prayer is a beautiful, sacred thing.  But I am not a complete Pollyanna.  I grew up inside the Beltway.  I support Mr. Castro politically, but recognize he is a politician and may have added in such lines to his high-profile national speech simply to appeal to people of faith.  If that was the case, I would worry for him, as I’ve worried about Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan (and the Clintons).

The bottom line of all this is I’m torn.  On the one hand, a Christian’s faith is supposed to be central to his life and integrated in all aspects.  Though I don’t believe we should force our beliefs on others, Christ’s teachings should guide us in our own voting and other activities outside the church walls.  We are supposed to witness to others, so it seems like we should be open with others about our influences.

But there is a huge danger.  To the extent we are open about the influence of our faith on aspects of our lives (including our politics), we risk exploiting our faith for earthly gain.  To purposefully exploit our faith in that way is just incomprehensible and frankly terrifying to me.  But I think there is a risk of inadvertently exploiting our faith as well.  Perhaps the intent is not to achieve earthly gain by referencing religion, but such gain may accrue nonetheless because most Americans do consider themselves to be religious.  That inadvertent earthly gain should also be considered.

Matthew 6:16-21


`And when ye may fast, be ye not as the hypocrites, of sour countenances, for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men fasting; verily I say to you, that they have their reward.

`But thou, fasting, anoint thy head, and wash thy face,

that thou mayest not appear to men fasting, but to thy Father who [is] in secret, and thy Father, who is seeing in secret, shall reward thee manifestly.

`Treasure not up to yourselves treasures on the earth, where moth and rust disfigure, and where thieves break through and steal,

but treasure up to yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth disfigure, and where thieves do not break through nor steal,

for where your treasure is, there will be also your heart.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Labor Day

Tomorrow is Labor Day.  In our country, most of us get so few days off that we’re thrilled at the prospect of a rare three day weekend and we infrequently give a second thought as to the occasion.  Even for Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, most folks are focused not on the holidays themselves, but on the ability to catch up on some sleep or other aspect of their personal lives. 


Moreover, in the United States our modern culture celebrates capitalism and anything remotely resembling a Marxist attitude is held highly suspect.  The holiday was originally proposed in the 19th century as labor unions began to organize.  It was meant to celebrate the American workers’ many contributions to our country.  During my life time, however, it has simply been the official end of summer and for many the start of a new school year.  No one I know has ever taken time to celebrate workers on Labor Day.  That sounds somewhat Marxist to many.  And these days unions are vilified widely.


I think the status of Labor Day is unfortunate.  Most people spend the majority of their waking hours as adults doing work of some kind.  I’ve traveled abroad and have noticed that we as a people work more than most other developed, prosperous nations.  We end up with little time left over.  We neglect our health and our families as a result.  We work, work, work.  And much of it seems to be driven by fear.  Compared to other nations, our workers have fewer protections and fewer benefits.  It is a dog-eat-dog world in the American work place.  Because people make such sacrifices for their employers, I don’t understand why we’re hesitant to take a day and just applaud all that hard work.  You don’t have to be an adherent of Lenin or Mao to just be grateful for all the hard work folks in our society perform.


Our nation was founded on revolutionary principles that all men are created equal and deserving of a voice in how our country is governed.  Despite this egalitarian ideal, I’ve noticed in recent years that we’ve grown more like older, less democratic nations in being very class-conscious.  Comedians ridicule “Bubba” and people who wear a uniform with their name.  Living in a trailer, not having clothes with the right labels and not having an educational pedigree are all reasons to look down upon others.  Not only do these attitudes clash with my religious beliefs, I find them offensive on a personal level.  I actually have a relative named Bubba, and a number of my relatives have uniforms with a name tag.  I spent about the first seven years of my life living in a trailer (in Texas no less!).  I’m fairly sure I don’t own any designer clothes.  I was educated exclusively in public schools throughout grade school and for all of my degrees.  I am not embarrassed in the slightest by any of these facts, but instead find them to be a source of pride to a certain extent.  (As a Christian, I recognize the pitfalls of pride and strive to rid myself of that trait.)


I think this increased class consciousness is another reason we as a people are reluctant to celebrate the achievements of workers.  On some level, many of us just don’t respect blue collar or hourly wage earners.  We actually look down on people doing unpleasant tasks, so why would we celebrate their work?


My maternal grandpa grew up on a rural farm during the Depression.  Times were tough.  Everyone had to work hard to pull together.  Even at an early age, kids had to pitch in.  Because of this up-bringing, my grandpa taught his children the importance of a strong work ethic, and the respect that we should all have for the work that others do.  He emphasized that we should never look down upon someone for what they did for a living.  Instead, he taught that we should be grateful for their contributions, whatever they were.  Grandpa would tell his kids how he admired the men picking up garbage and the men repaving the roads during the South Texas summer.  Grandpa would note those were not things he would necessarily want to do, but they were critical to our society.  Someone had to do them, and grandpa was so appreciative of the men that did them.  Those men did everyone else a huge favor.  Grandpa had a great attitude, which I wish more folks shared.


This weekend I was out running errands with my kids.  We had a Christian radio station on and a familiar song played: Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Do Everything.”  As I listened to the lyrics in the car, they seemed so apropos for Labor Day.  Mr. Chapman sings about three main types of workers: a stay-at-home mom, a man whose work uniform has his name on it, and a respected business executive.  Of the three, our society really only admires and celebrates the latter.  But Mr. Chapman’s point is that all three are equally valued by God.  Amen! 


A video of Mr. Chapman’s song is available at the link below.  Enjoy!



Proverbs 24:27-29

Prepare in an out-place thy work, And make it ready in the field -- go afterwards, Then thou hast built thy house.

Be not a witness for nought against thy neighbour, Or thou hast enticed with thy lips.

Say not, “As he did to me, so I do to him, I render to each according to his work.”