Irony and Elian

Longtime watchers of American religious forces learn that they tend to line up predictably and stereotypically. Thus from conservatives, for example, one can expect strong support of "family values." By "family," they of course mean the traditional nuclear family: mother, father, children. Naturally they cherish other relatives, but they don't want anyone shifting the definition of family away from the classic modern instance, circa 1950. With this stress on the family, the child "belongs" to the parents, and no one else. If there is manifest love, and unless there is a record of abuse, mother and father win over all others.

Predictably and stereotypically, religious liberals test such family values. They more readily posit new, post-nuclear definitions of family, which might include surrogate parenting or different patterns of education and nurture. For example, liberals may have fewer qualms about day care, which can separate children from parents for several hours a day. And liberals are more ready to cry "abuse" and look for substitutes for life under biological mothers and fathers.

Another predictable, stereotypical lineup: Protestants on the right preach patriotism, loyalty, devotion to country, and the rule of law. They are very nervous about dissent. Those on the left, while also patriotic and supportive of law, might find more reasons to dissent against national policies in the name of a "higher law" or global outreach.

We now have a case, already over-commented upon, that will certainly leave its mark on the national psyche for a long time. Lovers of irony have much to love in the case of Elian Gonzalez. Read the editorials and comments from both Christian left and right and you will find, with few exceptions, complete role reversals. The "family values" and "rule of law" patriots tend to argue that returning a boy to his father in a regime everyone agrees is repressive would not be the right thing to do - psychologically for Elian, religiously for the religious, and politically for the nation. Never mind that the law is clearly on the other side: here are "new morality" and "situational ethics" in spades.

Meanwhile, religious liberals suddenly have acquired strong family values and devotion to the rule of law, strictly applied. Will they keep these new characteristics in other instances after Elian?

Questions come with such ironies. Have both sides, as claimed, really grounded all these "values" in religion? Or do positions match up better with political commitments, loves, and hates? And were the predictabilities about both camps and all sides all that predictable? How accurate were the stereotypes in the first place?

In the game of American religion you cannot tell the players without a program ... or, sometimes, with one.

* Martin E. Marty, Lutheran minister and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, is the author of 'Politics, Religion, and the Common Good' (Jossey-Bass). This article first appeared in 'Sightings,' a free e-mail publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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