Among political conservatives and evangelical Christians, the term “family values” is often used. Certain people are said to believe in and promote these values, but I don’t believe I have heard anyone attempt to define just what values are recognized in the “family pac” thereof. However, from the way the term is often used I conclude that so called “family values” would include: “respect for authority”; proper discipline of children; the sanctity of marriage (no divorce and no same sex marriages); patriotism; personal responsibility; commitment to hard work as the means to support one’s self and one’s family; and a firm belief in God; democratic government; and free market capitalism. In other words, to many the expression “family values” means the summation of the key cultural norms of American society. It is a list of those beliefs and characteristics which we Americans like to propose as defining us as a nation historically. Of course, each of the “values” listed above would lend itself to a considerable evaluation and discussion before anyone would really understand what that particular value really means and includes. Like so many words or expressions we incorporate in our vernacular, this one is elusive in its definition and understanding.
Having raised the issue of “family values” in general, I’d like to focus now on two key ones which we often hear discussed in connection with the integrity and operation of the family unit. These values would seem to be the core of any set of so called “family values”. The two values I have in mind are the discipline of children and the sanctity of marriage, or more specifically the disparagement of divorce. These two specific examples point to a paradox in terms of how the church often expresses itself in relation to these “virtues”.
In the case of the issue of child discipline, we so often hear the church preaching the need for sound, swift, and sure discipline of the young as a means of insuring their proper learning and acceptance of the cultural norms cited above. Of course, these proponents view these values as God mandated which makes them much more than just historically accepted virtues. In connection with the parental responsibility to raise their children properly, the use of corporal punishment is generally encouraged by many in the church. The older generations are very fond of declaring the fact that they survived many “beatings” and were made the better for it. The more recent focus of society and government on the question of “child abuse” and parental malfeasance of various sorts have obviously brought much of this old way of thinking about parenting into question. The church has responded in the way it generally has done, by speaking disparaging about the proponents of a new way. Even egregious abuse of children by church groups can be justified in the eyes of many church people because parenting carries this duty to discipline and because they see a lack of discipline as the “road to Hell”. Additionally, Orthodoxy’s promotion of the doctrine of eternal punishment would naturally lead one to the conclusion that drastic punishment can always be justified. If God punishes so horrifically, what constrains the parent in their role as discipliner? The obvious message is that God loves but His love has limits. Thus, on the subject of child discipline, what we hear from the church does seem to mirror their doctrine and associated picture of God and how He operates.
However, when we consider the Orthodox Church’s position on divorce, we often see a less consistent picture. Many in these churches speak of the prevalence of divorce as a key cause of the disintegration of family values in general and a sign that God’s wrath will soon descend on our country. Again, we are often exposed to comments by the older generation to the effect that in their day marriage was a life long commitment. Marriages did not just end because someone felt like their partner was suddenly “incompatible” or displayed “irreconcilable differences”. By implication, this picture of marriage involves a willingness, even a requirement to love no matter what and to make it work. A marriage under this paradigm obviously involves an abundance of forgiveness. This view of the sanctity and function of marriage is in marked contrast to Orthodoxy’s doctrinal position on how God operates in His relationship with man. The God of Orthodoxy is the foremost proponent of a conditional love, one which demands perfect behavior and absolute compliance with the His needs lest relationship be severed. Being consigned to eternal punishment because of “irreconcilable differences” with God is the ultimate divorcement and a clear demonstration of a type of so called love which would never satisfy the need to maintain an earthly marriage beyond the first week or so.
Ironically then, when considering these two specific values, we see an inconsistent consistency between what is promoted within society and what is taught doctrinally. Admittedly, we all are subject to numerous inconsistencies in our stated beliefs and our actions, so this observation is not particularly astute. The only lesson, perhaps, should be that such inconsistencies, when noted, should prompt some reevaluation of either belief or action or maybe even both. Inconsistency is not bad, per se, but just a flag to spur our minds to reconsider and grow.