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A Christian think tank makes the case for better child care policies.

A prominent Christian think tank has come out fiercely in favor of better family leave policies, defending federally mandated family leave policies on theological grounds.

“Christian families can form themselves along a divine vision of work and family as holistic complements,” a report released Tuesday reads, “As citizens and culture-shapers, Christians should advocate for and develop policies and practices that protect, rather than fragment, family time.”

The report, authored by Katelyn Beaty and Rachael Anderson of the Center for Public Justice, advocates for changes both on a federal scale, calling for an expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act. Pushing beyond public policy, though, the report also specifically targets gender imbalances within families.

The report follows a Senate finance subcommittee hearing last week on paid family leave, and a growing debate over the government’s role in providing resources for child care. Prominent figures on the right, including Sen. Joni Erst (R-IA) and first daughter and presidential advisor Ivanka Trump, as well as Democrats like Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) have made the expansion of paid family leave a cornerstone of their policy strategy. Gillibrand’s bill with House cosponsor Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) — calling for at least partial payment to workers on leave for up to 12 weeks — was introduced last year.

”Christian teaching recognizes families’ crucial role in society to nurture and protect the sacredness of life at all stages,” the Center said in an email to journalists. “Paid family leave is an important way to promote family life and family cohesion, particularly for the many households that cannot otherwise afford to elect family care over paid work.”

But the relationship between child care, family life, work, and the evangelical community in America has not always been so straightforward. The history of the relationship between labor, parental support, and government programs to support family life in America has, for the past several decades, been strongly influenced by evangelical opposition to any perceived threat to the nuclear family.

While the authors represent just one Christian think tank among many, their report suggests that, for many evangelical communities, the “traditional” family model — a heterosexual married couple, with a husband who is a primary breadwinner and a wife who is a primary caregiver — is increasingly unsustainable, especially under current American economic conditions and family leave laws.

The report echoes a critique of capitalism, and of the devaluing of family life, heard elsewhere across the contemporary Christian world. Pope Francis, for example, has been a frequent critic of capitalist pro-corporation policies that minimize work-family balance.

However, this point of view has not always been prevalent among Christian leaders. It’s impossible to understand the history of family policy in America without recognizing the role that the nascent Christian right played in advocating against federally-mandated interference in childcare policy, and in advocating for the near-unbridled liberties of corporations. The relationship of Christianity to work-family balance, particularly when it intersects with state interference, has long been a complex and ambiguous one.

The report sharply critiques America’s current family leave structure

After decades of incremental steps and compromises, the current federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, allows employees working at least 25 hours a week with companies with at least 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family medical reasons. These include childbirth, adoption, and family illness. This is among the least generous policies in the world.

Meanwhile, the US lacks any semblance of universal child care, which can be a burdensome cost for many families. In fact, according to the report, “child care in the United States costs on average $9,589 per year, a significant portion of the annual income of a working-class couple. Yet if one parent stays home, one salary may not be enough to support the family.”

Still, the authors say, Christians have a role in reversing course in public policy around paid leave and child care as a way to uphold its value of families as a cornerstone of Christian life. “Christians who recognize the socially foundational nature of family,” the report urges, “must not only talk about the importance of family, but enact policies and create cultures that tangibly demonstrate its importance. Protecting and enabling family time at crucial moments — whether birth, adoption, illness or death — is one essential way to uphold the enduring value of the family.”

The report advocates for equal family leave for both mothers and fathers. It urges change in policy at both corporate and governmental levels to ensure that mothers and fathers alike are uniformly given the opportunity to, for example, take maternity or paternity leave, or take leave to care for a sick child.

In addition to advocating the broadening of family leave, Beaty and Anderson specifically target issues of gender imbalance in child care, including the expectation that working mothers work a “second shift,” balancing the bulk of housework and parental duties with a full-time job.

“A biblical account of work and family life … [reminds] us that work and family were each designed for good purposes,” the report says. “God did not intend work and family to be experienced as competing spheres of responsibility, but rather complementary ones. Christians believe that every sphere of life falls under the lordship of Christ and is thus a place of God’s blessing and provision. God calls many people to enter into a marriage covenant and to bear and raise children; God also calls many people to work ‘with willing hands’ (Proverbs 31:13) in order to provide for family needs, effect cultural change and take the gospel into the marketplace. Church teaching honors these calls of responsibility.”

Beaty highlighted the importance for Christians of challenging an unquestioning adherence to capitalist approaches to worker productivity. “Christians across the board would agree that the workplace should be a place of a humanizing effect on a person’s life rather than a dehumanizing effect. And so obviously any kind of work that creates physical or mental or emotional harm for a worker is to be critiqued and to be changed,” she told Vox in an interview Wednesday.

Still, she acknowledged that Christian leaders have work to do in ensuring they practice what they preach.

Citing the mixed track record of some faith-based organizations of providing sufficient family leave, Beaty said, “We see that there is often a gap between what Christian leaders say and believe theoretically about the primacy of the family, and the workplace, and cultures that they create that take time away from the privacy of the family. So we want to help address that gap.”

The Christian right was behind the vetoing of universal child care

That gap has, historically, been tied in part to the “culture wars,” and the Christian right’s role in it.

The early 1970s ushered in a growing new wave of feminism and gender equality. With it also came the very beginnings of evangelical activism, eventually taking on the moniker of the Moral Majority, a coalition of evangelical Christian leaders and figureheads who actively sought to bring a (largely white) evangelical Christian perspective to the Republican Party, and into government more broadly.

The issue of government-backed child care rose to prominence in the “culture wars” as early as 1971, as more middle-class women pushed for the ability to choose between homemaking and pursuing careers outside of the home.

As Nancy L. Cohen recounted in 2013 in the New Republic, Congress passed a bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971. The act earmarked $2 billion (or about $10 billion in today’s economy) to open a network of federally funded child day care centers, to provide education, food, and medical care to all children on a sliding financial scale. The bill seemed like a shoo-in.

Then, President Richard Nixon vetoed it. Why? According to Cohen, the president’s special assistant and speechwriter, Pat Buchanan convinced Nixon that universal child care opened the door to government control of child-rearing and the collapse of the nuclear family. Buchanan (who is Catholic, but is often associated with the largely evangelical members of the Moral Majority movement) has frequently characterized his opposition to the act in the bombastic language of the culture wars.

In his veto statement, which was drafted by Buchanan, Nixon argued that if the federal government plunged headlong financially into supporting child development, it would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing, and that it would in turn lead to the collapse of family structures.

Buchanan frequently made ominous reference, too, to communist systems of indoctrination, telling interviewers, “I had been to the Soviet Union, spent 18 days there. … They took us to the young pioneers, (laughter) and these 5-, 6-year-olds were chanting Leninist slogans. And you said, you know, what is going on here? It was eerie.”

Years later, Buchanan defended his position and took full credit for Nixon’s actions, saying, “The federal government should not be in the business of raising American’s children.” He added, “If we hadn’t stopped it, I think you’d have an entitlement program now of enormous size with these federal day care centers, and they would be growing and growing and growing once you got it on the books.”

Not only did Nixon veto the bill, but he reportedly rejected the pleas of his other advisers, who urged him to leave the door open to less costly alternatives. Federally provided child care in America was deemed not just pragmatically tricky, but ideologically unsound.

From then on, as Gail Collins writes in her history of the 20th-century female experience, When Everything Changed, debates over childrearing became central to the American culture wars. During the Gerald Ford administration, congressional leaders tried to resuscitate a more moderate version of the bill, only to face extreme backlash from grassroots religious groups. Thousands of letter-writers contacted their representatives, falsely accusing Congress of trying to make it possible for children to sue their parents for making them do chores, or creating “a godless Russian/Chinese type regimentation of young minds.”

Much of the outcry, according to Collins, was inspired by a hoax flyer about the bill, evidently authored by a Bible camp director from Kansas, that seems to have circulated around South and Midwest. The bill failed.

In an article in the journal Feminist Studies, Rosalind Pollack Petchesky explores how the Christian right became defined by two “interlocking themes”: opposition to feminism (and thus to provisions that would threaten the female-homemaker model) and opposition to government intervention in private corporations.

A “pro-family” ideology characterized by opposition to abortion, divorce, feminism, and homosexuality became de rigueur for Moral Majority figures like Buchanan and Jerry Falwell, linking Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Or, as the 1980 Republican party platform would have it, “We oppose any move that would give the federal government more power over families.”

While the Christian right never explicitly condemned family leave policies the way it, for example, mobilized against federal childcare, it nevertheless made firm its commitment to minimizing any mandatory or federal interference into family life. The preservation of “family life,” in the abstract — which is to say, as an anti-feminist, libertarian ideal — became increasingly synonymous, with the privileging of corporate license to set family policy as it saw fit.

Beaty stresses that her work at the Center for Public Justice is non-partisan, and that they do not formally endorse any particular policy position. Still, she said, “some of the [right’s historical] emphasis on protecting the free market, protecting corporations’ freedom — I think that’s giving the market too much control … over the primacy of the family. As Christians, we think that solutions to social problems are not just problems of individuals making decisions, but that there has to be kind of a concerted, common-good effort to create standards, policies, ethical, moral commitments for workers to choose time with their families.”

Noting that too many families don’t have the financial option to have a parent stay home with their child, Beaty said, “Pat Buchanan and other more politically conservative evangelical leaders of the ’80s and ’90s assumed too much about individuals’ ability to be with their families.”

While, of course, the report represents just one Christian point of view, it represents an avenue of possibility for Christian discourse, and the “pro-life” agenda, in America: a willingness to treat issues of life and family, and the structural inequalities government them, beyond the traditional American “hot-button” issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. In so doing, Christian advocacy groups have the opportunity to broaden and diversify their political reach, and speak out (as many did about family separation) about issues that transcend sectarian lines.

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