We’re All Detroiters Now

The big news this afternoon is that the Emergency Manager of Detroit, Kevin Orr, has received authorization from Governor Snyder to pursue a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing (the most recent story from the Detroit News is here.) Orr has been EM since March 1 and has been trying to restructure Detroit’s debts with limited success.

Chapter 9 only applies to municipalities. It’s similar to other forms of bankruptcy. It puts creditors’ claims on hold while working out some unusual plans to restructure the organization. According to Wikipedia, in Chapter 9

Municipalities’ ability to re-write collective bargaining agreements is much greater than in a corporate Chapter 11 bankruptcy and can trump state labor protections, allowing cities to renegotiate unsustainable pension or other benefits packages negotiated in flush times.

This is a key factor. The story in the News includes the following:

Unsecured creditors could take the biggest hit in bankruptcy court. Orr wants them to share a $2 billion payout on approximately $11.5 billion worth of debt, which includes an estimated $9.2 billion in health and pension benefits and $530 million in general-obligation bonds.

The story describes how some corporate creditors have agreed to take 75 cents on the dollar for what they are owed. That’s a significantly better deal than the 17 cents on the dollar the unsecured creditors may face.

Yesterday, driving from Kansas City to Indianapolis, we listened to Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. It’s a tough story. My wife was asking hard questions about why it’s so depressing to teach social problems. LeDuff looks at Detroit through the lens of someone who grew up in the city proper and not in the affluent suburbs. He recounts difficulties with economics, lack of support for the above-mentioned civil servants who depend upon collective bargaining, corruption among civic leaders too often replaced by other corrupt civil leaders, drug culture, decline of the manufacturing base, white flight to the suburbs, corporate decision making (or lack thereof), and the failure of the press to address any of these issues. Many of these issues are explored through the vantage point of LeDuff’s family or his reporting, but he still touches on all the right issues. While he observes that the city motto speaks to “rising from the ashes”, the litany of concerns raises questions about how that will occur this time.

LeDuff spends a great deal of time on the story of a particular fire station. Underfunded, they make do with equipment that doesn’t work (the alarm has been jerry-rigged for when calls come in). They are mostly ignored by department bureaucrats and are disciplined when it’s learned that they described their situation to a reporter. But when one dies in an arson fire in one of the hundreds of houses they deal with, he is a hero. No recognition at all of the neglect that contributed to the firefighter’s death.

Charlie also does a good job of unpacking the city’s growth and eventual decline. The growth comes from Ford’s $5 per day minimum wage, the Great Migration  of the Southern blacks and Appalachian whites, and the dominance of the auto industry. But the seeds of difficulty were already there: Long term racial issues, corporate economics, the impact of the auto on urban sprawl and resulting suburbanization, and government corruption. The suburbanization of the late 60s, helped by white flight response to the 67 riots (meticulously kept as an urban problem within the Detroit city limits), is followed by the construction of McMansion suburbs far removed from Detroit’s urban challenges (which still benefit from the limited cultural and economic life).

Last year, on another drive, I listened to the audiobook of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. I didn’t like it, as I explained here. Murray, the author of such gems as The Bell Curve and Losing Ground. He follows his normal libertarian stance but part of his argument is worth attention. He observes that the richest segments of society are becoming increasingly separate from the poor. He mistakenly puts too much emphasis on value deficits of the poor while failing to examine the structural correlates of those issues. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the residential and cultural segmentation of the upper and middle classes lead directly to a declining tax base and reduced civic services. Those left behind in this new migration are those with limited options in terms of jobs, family, mobility, and even grocery stores. Let’s call it the Great Abandonment.

Two years ago, I wrote this piece the day Newt Gingrich announced he was running for president. As part of his announcement, he said this: “I know how to get the whole country to resemble Texas,” he said. “President Obama knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit.”  As I wrote at the time, Texas was seeing purported economic growth by driving down wages, lessening safety net supports, and limited educational programming.

While Detroit’s crisis is real, it’s the natural outgrowth of poor economic planning, residential segregation, political gerrymandering, and an inability to address issues of racial inequality.

Sound familiar? All of these issues remain the real issues confronting America in the 21st century. I wish I had an example of a major metropolitan area that could be our model going forward, but nothing comes to mind.

Over the last 35 years, sociologist William Julius Wilson has been arguing that we need to address the concerns of the underclass. Outmigration would increase economic isolation, the black middle class would abandon their extended families, economic opportunities would drive up, and a group of people would give up on the American dream. I worry that Detroit is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

If it is that canary, we can expect more problems at firehouses, more fights over pensions, more inner city crime. As I’ve been writing this, Christianity Today has posted a story about Christians working in Detroit. I haven’t read it yet but I appreciate their efforts. Identification with the problem is better than finger-pointing. Because we’ve all got an interest in Detroit. It might just be our national future.

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Sociological Ruminations on a Certain Trial in Florida

I have made a point not to watch any of the George Zimmerman trial, even though it’s been all over the media. I’m not a Trayvon Martin apologist. I don’t wish ill for Zimmerman. As others have suggested in the last eighteen hours, a not guilty verdict doesn’t mean there was no guilt present. It means that there was not sufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof written into our judicial system. There are only two people who really know what happened that night in February and one of them is dead. Everyone else is guessing.

There is still much for a sociologist to reflect upon. So here, in no particular order, are my reflections.

1. This was a local story. It’s a tragedy, of course. Regardless of the narrative that saw Trayvon as an aggressor or the one that saw George as a vigilante, it was an event in a small town in northern Florida. It never deserved to be the latest source of our national fascination with crime. It used to be that to avoid such exaggerations, I just had to avoid Nancy Grace. Now I can’t watch television or use the internet.

2. The story that should have been covered by the media involves the implications of Stand Your Ground laws. While the racial backdrop of the story is real (more below), the context of a bad law creates the context for the encounter. It’s worth looking at the actual wording of the Florida statute, even if Zimmerman used a self-defense strategy rather than SYG. Here’s the relevant passage for the Florida criminal code:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

This law is pretty much the model the conservative group ALEC has been providing to state legislators. But it’s bad law — not just because it deals with SYG but because there’s so much inference necessary in its implementation. When I first taught criminology, I told my students that good law had to be specific. Instead, we have a statute dependent upon what the actor “reasonably believes” about “himself or herself or another or to prevent a felony”. Who determines reasonable belief? Who evaluates whether necessity exists? What is the deal with “death or great bodily harm”? Where are those lines?

3. The social psychology of perception is the centerpiece of the case. Both Martin and Zimmerman had to take in a series of environmental cues (race is a key one) to determine a definition of the situation that would then frame potential courses of action. As W.I. Thomas wrote in the 1920s, “if  a [person] defines a situation as real it is real in its consequences”. The Thomas Theorem helps explain why Zimmerman would assume a young black man was a threat. It can explain why Martin felt force was necessary in striking back. There are far too many stimuli in an ambiguous situation allowing people to misread the situation. This was consistently shown in the innovative bystander intervention studies social psychologists conducted in the 1970s. Ambiguity is the enemy of rational action. Of course, SYG legislation raises the stakes in this otherwise uncertain situation.

4. The Criminal Justice system is not good at moral evaluation. This piece by Andrew Cohen from today’s Atlantic makes the case brilliantly. When one considers the structure of the adversarial system, the limitations on evidence, and the difficulty of demonstrating clear intent on the part of the accused, it’s hard to make a clear case. Restorative Justice advocates like Howard Zehr observe that the victim (in this case Martin’s family) has little role in the criminal justice process. Their needs are irrelevant to the back-and-forth of the two teams of advocates (the defendant is also a curious bystander encouraged to show no reaction at all during months of trial). Victimizing the victim is a legitimate defense strategy used when the goal is to introduce reasonable doubt.

5. The cable news networks  damaged the ability to explore the moral dynamics of the case. The unnecessary wall-to-wall coverage with their pet legal scholars failed in the essential task to inform. It was a blatant attempt at ratings manipulation — first in the discussions of whether charges should be filed and then in the day-to-day coverage of the trial itself. Their focus seemed on propelling a narrative more than exploring what happened. In the last two days, I heard Fox commentators denying that race is a factor in American Criminal Justice and complaining about politicization of the arraignment process (“Did you ever bring charges as a result of political pressure?”). CNN folks brought back Marcia Clark from the OJ trial (apparently without disclaimers regarding her expertise in sensational cases). They brought on racial experts to talk about assumptions about black youth. They brought on others to dispute that claim. Never did they explore the realities of a complex case with lots of moving parts. During the prosecution’s case, they piled on Zimmerman. During the defense, they picked holes in the prosecution’s case. Like sportscasters, they reported on which team had momentum without addressing what they talked about last week.

6. An unexplored component of this story is our fascination with guns. In spite of good evidence about victimization, we still celebrate the “heroic” effort of someone who used a firearm to stop the bad guy. It’s not surprising given our fascination with the tough guy image in entertainment culture. Try counting up the damage and dead bodies in an average hour of crime television (NCIS Los Angeles is my best illustration — they run about 6-8 dead bad guys a week). Even the Lone Ranger killed the bad guys (which he didn’t do on television).

7. We used this local story as a lens through which to identify our national inability to deal adequately with the complexities of age, race, and class. Too much time was spent picking winners and losers. Martin was an innocent or a thug. Zimmerman was a hero or a police-wannabe infatuated with his own supposed authority. The world is complex. As long as our discussions involve the choices of a) calling people racist who act on racist motives and b) declaring that we’re now in a post-racial society, we will never begin to deal honestly with what it means to live in a racially and ethnically diverse society. There are byproducts of privilege (check out Christena Cleveland’s excellent piece here) and its opposite that filter throughout the social fabric. That’s part of this story but not all the story is about.

When stories like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case polarize the nation, we should be exploring why people come down in such different places. If we’d spend time on Facebook, Twitter, and Cable News exploring the reasons for these different views, we’d make progress. If all we do is to nod at our own folks and call others names, we can expect more of the same.

Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword

[Written as my July contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on “Evangelicals and the Modern Study of Scripture.“]

My fellow essayists this month have raised some interesting questions. What are the logical limitations of inerrancy? Are these important? What makes many evangelicals skittish about modern biblical scholarship? Are there valuable lessons to learn? What does it mean to “stand under” the text? Why is understanding original language important? How do we recognize the role of culture in biblical text while guarding against the tendency to read scripture only through our own cultural lenses?

This essay will explore the ways in which many evangelicals use scripture as a rhetorical weapon. In short, scripture is too often used as a conversation-ender and not a means of hearing God speak to all listeners. This rhetorical stance is relatively new in Church history and has distorted the meaning of scriptural authority. In the process, the scripture has become a tool to use on behalf of a position rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to deeper understandings.

The title of my post comes from Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (NASB).” This verse, along with others I’ll explore, provides insights into how evangelicals USE the scripture. I have often heard people quote this verse as a declaration of the Bible’s authority. Never mind that commentaries describe the broader Hebrews 4 passage as being about sabbath-keeping as instructed in the Law. The phase “word of God” becomes synonymous with the Bible and any verse is then a tool used to divide soul and spirit or judge hearts.

Yesterday, Christianity Today posted this story announcing that YouVersion had achieved the 100 million mark in downloads of this popular bible-based mobile app. They also released their newest list of the most popular verses sent via text or twitter or posted as a Facebook status. CT expressed concern that John 3:16 didn’t make the list. The most popular verses were Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

First of all, the very idea of something called YouVersion is the absolute epitome of the Extreme Individualism which has so colored American Evangelicalism. The scriptures thereby become MY possession, readily available for me to use as necessary. It is just that much easier for my to take these verses and make them about promises TO ME.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future (NIV).”  In spite of all the gifts we give to high school graduates anticipating college and beyond, this verse is written to the people of Israel collectively. Too often, we take the verse as a stand-alone tool to give comfort in anxiety or to somehow make prosper into a guarantee of riches to those who are obedient.

Biblical scholarship would have us recognize the specific role Jeremiah’s words of comfort played to the exiled Israelites. It’s a promise to God’s people collectively not to me individually. As Andre the Giant says in The Princess Bride, “I do not think that means what you think it means.

The YouVersion list illustrates something very important about evangelicals’ use of scripture. We really don’t know much about the Bible at all. That has been regularly demonstrated in research by Stephen Prothero and many others. Modern biblical scholarship that looks for the context of the biblical narrative isn’t particularly interesting to the folks who’d be attracted to YouVersion.

I’ve often joked that it would be interesting to put together the list of verses most often repeated by evangelicals (so I guess I should thank the YouVersion people). It’s an easy list — Proverbs 3:4-5 (used by Nic Wallenda in walking across the Grand Canyon), Psalm 139:13, Romans 8:28, Romans 5:23, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 5:22, Isaiah 6, Revelation 3:20, and many others including the verses mentioned above. I figure I could publish the Real Evangelical Version is about 22 pages!

So where does this approach to scripture come from? I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of biblical authority combined with a utilitarian view of evangelistic argument.

The latter is a direct expression of enlightenment era rationality. It’s caught up in the phrases”evidence that demands a verdict” and “God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” In this sense, scripture is a tool to use. Because it’s God’s Word, it automatically trumps any other appeals. A sword is valuable when it is used, either offensively or defensively.

Fundamentalism has reset definitions so that the only view of biblical authority seems to require a belief in inerrancy. This was a point of conflict at one of my colleges when we thought we’d done a good thing by emphasizing the commitment to the authority of scripture as core institutional values. The immediate response from students and other conservative critics was that we ought to immediately fire the non-creationist faculty members because that’s what authority demands.

Justin Barnard’s post makes great use of C. S. Lewis. I was already thinking about how different Lewis’ rhetorical style in Mere Christianity is from the style of modern apologists. How many scriptures are cited in MC? Why doesn’t his argument include the obvious top ten list from YouVersion?

Not to make C.S. Lewis the model for evangelical rhetoric. Many others have observed his own limitations. But it’s striking that we use that sword as a tool that makes folks in Game of Thrones seem passive.

John’s gospel recounts how Peter responded at the point of Jesus’s arrest. Peter draws a sword and attacks the guard. Jesus rebukes Peter and restores the ear. Shortly thereafter, as he is being interrogated by Pilate, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place (John 1:36 NIV).

As Amos Young observes, maybe attentiveness to the Spirit can lead to a new rhetorical style, one that seeks to engage the other rather than winning argument. I’m reminded of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. They knew their scriptures and had a means of understanding them leading them to believe their side was winning. Now Jesus was dead and their understanding was shattered. When they encounter Jesus on the road, they stop worrying about what they thought. He leads them to understand all of scripture in a new way. Not only are they restored, but they reverse course and return to the scary place that was Jerusalem.

As they follow the Spirit’s lead, the wind up not needing a sword after all. Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, they don’t have a need to fight. Modern biblical scholarship, in this view, is not a threat but another means through which the Holy Spirit bears witness.

Emile Durkheim Likes “Man of Steel”

Fourth of July we went to see Man of Steel with our son and daughter-in-law. Overall, a good retelling of the the Superman legend with some interesting twists. I particularly liked the flashback scenes where young Clark learns the power of his special gifts and struggles with not-fitting-in; an awful thing for a teen, even if you are a superhero. And I didn’t hate Kevin Costner!


Crowe

I was a bit leery to see the movie because the previews had made a great deal of the Messiah references. Every time Russel Crowe speaks as Jor-El, you learn that Clark was supposed to be the model who would tell humans how to live. He came from another place and had powers that nobody understood. His family crest means Hope. And he came to earth but they didn’t understand him.

The backstory of Krypton was particularly telling. The planet had not cared for its environment and had so overused their natural resources the planet was destroyed from the inside out.

A critical point of the story is the presence of the Codex. All babies born on Krypton were genetically developed to fulfill specific roles: soldier, scientist, politician, etc. It’s a remarkably rigid class structure. There was no individual choice as General Zod observed — all he knew was to be a soldier for that’s what he was created to be.

Superman (Kal-El) was different. He was born in freedom because his birth was unlike anyone else’s (miraculous?) — apparently his parents made a baby the old fashioned way that no one had successfully done in hundreds of years. Somehow the entire Codex was merged into Kal-el’s genes so that he individually represented all aspects of Krypton society. It survives in him even though the planet doesn’t survive.

I won’t give away the rest — although Lois Lane is there,  Superman doesn’t die, and the military is inept. (One surprise is that something made Larry Fishburne really heavy unless I was supposed to be watching in HD!)

The contrast between Superman and General Zod made me think of Emile Durkheim and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Using Marcel Mauss’ data on Australian Aboriginals, Durkheim observed the overlap of community (clan) values with those reproduced through religious ritual. Through some detailed analysis, he comes to his conclusion that “Religion is Society Worshipping Itself.”

I’ve always explained to my students that while I don’t hold to Durkheim’s analysis with regard to Christianity, we must be vigilant against the elevation of cultural values to sacred realms.

It’s interesting, then, that the backstory of Krypton is between class immobility and the freedom to be fully human. When we create a Messiah-type of Superman, the language we use in describing him is about hope and freedom, individual achievement, overcoming obstacles, and being able to use your gifts for good. That’s set against the no-choice, bull-headed, selfish, brutal Zod (not his fault — he was created that way and can’t be anything else).

The Messiah imagery breaks down at several points. Russel Crowe isn’t a creator per se. The love interest is well done (interesting that Amy Adams is way smarter and braver than Margot Kidder in the original). And there is a key point where Superman tells a minister that he’s the guy they’re all looking for (after Zod gives his “Surrender Dorothy” message to the world) and there are huge stained glass images of Jesus.

But the Messiah imagery DOES work as a Durkheimian Civil Religious symbol. Superman is the expression of American ideals set against a totalitarian vision. His shows us what it means to be free and the pursue individuality even at the expense of all the innocent victims in the streets and in the buildings that were destroyed.

There were a number of media reports about the religious connection. Tom Krattenmaker did this interview on how the movie was promoted to evangelical churches. But it strikes me that more insidious than the direct Christ-parallel story is the substitution of American individualism, which is then somehow morphed into a Christ figure. The implication is that Christ would celebrate the individualism represented in Russel Crowe’s vision. As Durkheim would suggest, we’ve made our religious figures endorsers of our values — thereby worshipping ourselves.

And I still thought the movie was pretty good. Miles better than The Lone Ranger, which had too many holes to analyze.

Hosea: The Reality Show

Today provided an interesting convergence of stories on the Huffington Post. Tom Krattenmaker wrote this piece which is a summary of folks from his book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know (my Amazon review is here). Tom points out that for all the media coverage given to folks like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Westboro Baptist, and the like, the real story of influence is about folks like Gabe Lyons, Jim Henderson, and Kevin Palau. They are taking a very different approach to evangelicalism that is just as orthodox but less combative. It’s a positive sign for the next decade. Why don’t we know those names? How can thousands of people gather at Gabe Lyons’ Q LA last spring to explore new understandings of evangelical engagement and receive so little coverage? (I couldn’t find anything on the LA Times website but only did a cursory look.)

Tom tweeted about this HP story by Skye Jethani. Skye, who works at Christianity Today, explored the myth that evangelicals have been too political and that, in the wake of DOMA and Prop-8 decisions, may have learned their lessons. He correctly identifies the negative association that Kinnaman’s You Lost Me picked up. But he goes on to suggest that it’s not evangelicals in general that are encouraging the positions that drive folks away but the vocal minority the media likes to play on (the HP is notoriously guilty of this — they should read Skye’s article that they aggregated).  Skye observes that Meet the Press had Rachel Maddow and Ralph Reed in a DOMA discussion on Sunday — and surprise — they didn’t agree! It makes for conflict TV but misrepresents reality and slows collaboration.

Last month, Sarah Palin returned to her spot on Fox News. That night, John Oliver (filling in for Jon Stewart) fretted for a bit and then concluded “we could all just [expletive] ignore her”. I loved it. It was going to be my new mantra for all of the folks listed above who become divisive evangelical voices. Just Ignore Them. Hard work for sure — but way better for the blood pressure.

But today’s third story got me thinking that ignoring, while satisfying, was inadequate. In that piece, fellow Despised One Zach Hoag wrote about Christian Celebrity. He shares a picture of Joel Osteen praying with the producers of The Bible miniseries. He discusses the connection between Grand-Canyon-Wirewalking Nik Wallenda and Justin Bieber. And he shares an absolutely frightening vido clip advertising a reality series about LA prosperity preachers (scarier than zombie movies!).

I realized that ignoring the celebrity wasn’t enough. So I spent time thinking about how to co-opt the media fascination.

I’ve decided that we need a reality show based on the Old Testament prophet Hosea. We’d take some nice evangelical pastor, freshly out of Christian college and seminary, and have him start a nice little church. Then he’d marry a drug addicted, undereducated, flamboyant, abrasive, streetwalker. I see the concept as a Ryan Gossling type as the pastor and Snookie’s less stable little sister as the wife. Each week we’d tune in to see what would happen. Could he change her ways? No, she’s letting him down again. Having children with another guy. But somehow, our pastor keeps loving. He forgives and shows what it means to stand in as God’s agent for compassion and justice. He’d explain his longsuffering attitude and his commitment to Christ. They wouldn’t have money. Lindsey Lohan wouldn’t drop by. Just neighborhood folks and family members who keep telling him to dump the wife but he remains faithful in taking her back. Viewers would wonder why he keeps letting her come home. We could have them phone in votes on what he should do like American Idol or Do You Think You Can Dance?. But regardless of the vote, he’d take her back. And he’d explain that he’s doing so because that’s what God does with us.  This is the Good News.

Maybe then we’d get to know the evangelicals that Tom, Skye, and Zach want us to pay attention to.

Worship Is Aligning With Those in Need

(This is my second post for The Despised Ones synchroblog. This month’s topic is about solidarity — what does it mean to truly identify with others? Check out all of the blogs on this Facebook Page)

I’ve never been a follower of Christian Worship Music. I can’t tell you who the best new voices are. I don’t even listen to the Christian Radio station my university sponsors. My knowledge is limited to the praise choruses sung in my local congregation.

It’s not that I’m stuck on traditional hymns. It’s true that I’m 58 and remember many great hymns of the church. But I also remember some that weren’t very good and a few that were terrible.

A variety of things have gotten me thinking a lot about the assumptions involved in Contemporary Christian Worship. I’m hopeful that readers who know the history and theological foundations of the movement can help fill in gaps in my understanding.

So these are nothing more than some reflections from an evangelical sociologist of religion. But I think they point out the challenges we have achieving a sense of solidarity with those outside the church.

1. It’s curious to me that Worship has become bounded by a particular set of rituals, time commitments, and performances. This is a relatively new phenomenon (dating to the late 60s) and become normative in modern evangelicalism. We have a “time” for Worship, which is set apart from the preaching of the Word.

2. There’s a curious connection between the excessive self-focus on American society and the Worship choruses. Many of them contain phrases encouraging the people in the congregation to set themselves aside and bracket the experiences of life in order to focus exclusively on worshipping God. But the critical work is done by ME being aware that I’m giving everything up to worship.

3. In the same way, the choruses reflect an unusual tendency to focus on singular pronouns. It’s rare that a chorus is sung AS the church but as a collection of INDIVIDUALS who happen to be singing next to one another. As a result, we miss the opportunity for solidarity with fellow congregants as the exercise calls us to focus inward. This is especially annoying when the praise song is based upon a scripture verse that was written to the People of Israel or the Church in Philippi.

4. Our worship is necessarily a vertical expression of Love for God but rarely is that matched with the command Jesus said was like it, to love the neighbor as oneself. The horizontal dimension is almost never expressed.

5. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is a sense in which the subtext of our singing borders on a celebration of the fact that we have the secret decoder ring that others don’t know they’re missing. Too many of the worship songs have a tad too much triumphalism and self-reference for me to be comfortable.

6. The sermon yesterday made reference to “building a mission at the Gates of Hell”, which I have to admit came from a Christian musician years ago. As I bounced this off the first five points, it made me wonder where God’s interest was. Does God celebrate our devotional focus if it comes at the neglect of those around us?

7. I guess what I’m calling for is for worship expressions built around care for the orphan, widow, and stranger. What if our singing was about how God is redeeming all of creation and that we are mysteriously partners in that endeavor? Has anyone ever written a praise chorus around Matthew 25?

I know that many good Christians take great solace in their praise songs. It’s helped a number of folks deepen their devotional life. And as I said above, there are lots and lots of hymns and gospel songs that run afoul of my above points.

But I still wonder what would happen if our worship to God was seen as an expression of love for those at the Gates of Hell.

“I believe that children are our future…”

So sang Whitney Houston in 1986. The song, “The Greatest Love of All” is actually about self-actualization: Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

But I want to stay with the opening refrain. Not just that it is tautological — children will be future adults and the absence of any children means that the race has no future. But that we jump through hoops in social policy to ask “But what about the children?

Or sometimes we ask. About some children.

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision on the unconstitutionality of DOMA, many critics have suggested that we are no longer caring for the children. They point out that “research” shows that children are healthier when raised in homes with two parents: the biological mother and father.

There is good social science literature that supports such claims. A quick Google search led me to a nice summary article written last year. But that article, like most of the research on two-parent families, has nothing to do with same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples or single adults. It contrasts intact families — that is, still in the initial marriage — with single parents, reconstituted families, or cohabiting parents. When we make that comparison, the two parent families provide better support.

There are economic factors in play here, of course. Not all two-parent intact families are equal. Some struggle financially, live in bad neighborhoods, and have limited opportunities for advancement. It stands to reason that families in those circumstances might not be as beneficial as a reconstituted family with more monetary resources.

There are historical factors in play here as well. Children in the first part of the 20th century were an important part of the labor force. Women were treated as an appendage of the husband (read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) and were legally property. Men were distant and followed the prevailing thought that showing emotion wasn’t manly. The first time I saw Rachel Held Evans was a video of a presentation she’d made a Fuller Seminary as her Year of Biblical Womanhood was coming out. It was clear that the “Biblical version of family” had far more to do with June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson — Father Knows Best — than timeless traditions. (These also reinforced the economic lessons — the Cleavers and Andersons were homes of professionals that quickly became normative within society).

There are also psychological limitations. I’ve been reading the late Brennan Manning’s memoir. It wasn’t a happy home. His mother was impossible to please and his father was distant. In other families, you could have a father who was overly controlling (or, heaven forbid, abusive) and withheld love to maintain the control over the household. I’ve had far too many conversations with  young evangelicals to know that there are a lot of stories out there just like what I’ve suggested.

So here’s what I think we’re really saying. It’s best for children to grow up in middle-class, emotionally stable, affirming homes with parents who are loving and psychologically healthy. Start switching out those variables and you get different outcomes.

What does this have to do with children growing up in same-sex households? First, it’s too soon to tell. Recent research, even the controversial stuff that came out last year, doesn’t disentangle the same-sex relationship from any social stigma that might have attached. Furthermore, we’d really need to be able to disentangle the various dynamics described above.

There’s reason to suspect that Modern Family’s Cameron and Mitchell provide at least the same level of support as the Cleavers. On the other hand, Jay Pritchard’s first show, Married with Children was as dysfunctional as they come (which was the joke). Roseanne and Dan Conner fell somewhere in the middle.

One more thing. Children are resilient. While the advantages of “growing up Cleaver” are many, there are also millions of stories of children growing up in homes without those advantages. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, LeBron James. And those are just some famous examples.

The number of children growing up in poverty line single-parent households continues to grow. That is a real concern and we need to find ways of guaranteeing those children a future as well.

But simply wishing they were all like the Cleavers isn’t the point. And suggesting that because we aren’t celebrating the Cleavers that society is doomed is not just short-sighted — it’s sociological cherry-picking.