Tony Perkins & the Anti-Gospel of Individual Responsibility

Tony Perkins

I read a piece by Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, in which he describes what “values voters” supposedly want, and it’s gotten me riled up. I think of myself as a social conservative, but it has a specific meaning to me. I believe that the free market has made sex into a commodity and an industry and ruined for many people its capacity to be the most sacred physical intimacy that two human beings can experience. I deplore the way that the fashion and entertainment industries have turned into a demonic synergy that promotes debauchery. I’ve worked with economically disadvantaged teenagers for half of my adult life and I’ve seen first-hand how the “bling” culture promoted by the mainstream hip-hop industry has caused kids to define themselves in harmful ways and engage in risky behaviors that either put them in jail or keep them in the ghetto with babies they’re not old enough to raise.

So when I read Tony Perkins say that “government policies foster a deficit of character” that makes “mothers avoid marriage, and fathers flee responsibility,” I have to cringe. Poor girls are not going out and getting pregnant out of wedlock because they’ve calculated ahead of time that Uncle Sam is going to bail them out (which is largely a thing of the past anyway). The irresponsibility that leads to teen pregnancy has nothing to do with whether the public school has a daycare program so that teen moms can finish high school or whether they can get a discount for baby food through the WIC program when they go to the grocery store. They do what they do because they live their lives in emulation of the “gangstas” and “divas” in a globalized pop culture that has been produced by the invisible hand of the market place. If Tony Perkins gets his way and all the safety nets for poor people get cut, it’s not going to change the lifestyle choices of “mothers who avoid marriage” and “fathers who flee responsibility.” It will just ensure that once they’ve fallen in a hole, they’re not getting out of it. And then all of the “value voters” can look down on them and judge them with a clean conscience because “focusing on their own families” has helped to immunize them against any possible outbreak of mercy.

I’m very concerned with figuring out how to protect vulnerable kids from the nightmare world of commodified sex and glorified violence that surrounds us. Every day I worry and pray about the youth that I used to work with. And that’s why it’s preposterous to me that so-called “social conservatives” like Perkins promote the laissez-faire capitalism that very astutely uses sex and violence as its best marketing tool for selling products to adolescents. I’m not saying that the solution to the problem is to create more government bureaucracy. But laissez-faire capitalism and government bureaucracy are not the only two options we have for ordering human community. As Christians, we have a third option: the body of Christ, the form that human community takes when we renounce the delusions of self-sufficiency and individual responsibility (that people like Tony Perkins promote) to accept the fact that we are all entirely dependent upon God for any success we have ever had and consequently we should take responsibility for others in God’s family regardless of how or why they’ve come to be in a hard place.

Jesus says in Mark 3:35, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” His “family values” are straightforward: come be in My family because I value you. Jesus didn’t say that if we wait till we’re married to have sex and keep our kids from getting in trouble and becoming a burden on the state, then we earn the right not to be bothered by other peoples’ problems. That’s the anti-gospel of individual responsibility. That’s the way that people come up with the strange idea that fighting for lower taxes is somehow the highest expression of moral virtue.

The real gospel says that because of God’s recognition that we’re weak and broken people who live in a fallen world with dangerous temptations, He sent His Son to help us come together as one human family through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice that made it safe for us to be vulnerable with fellow redeemed sinners who become our “brothers” and “sisters.” Each of us has some kind of biological family within the mix of God’s family and we have a sacred calling to care for our spouses, kids, siblings, and parents in a unique way. But we have accepted an anti-gospel that opposes God’s kingdom if we idolize the nuclear family and think that our lives are supposed to revolve around saturating our kids’ lives with activities and achievements to put on their Ivy League college applications, which we start writing when they’re five years old. Tony Perkins has no answer for the epidemic of helicopter parenting, probably because “family values” like his are the basis for that phenomenon.

If we want to promote Jesus’ “family values,” then we will invest time and energy into being God’s family for those who don’t have stable biological families. We will raise our kids to be merciful towards less fortunate people and not to presume that misfortune signifies moral shortcoming. Our energy should be focused on neither defending the free market nor government programs (though I am interested to read Miroslav Volf’s new book on “how Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good”). We should be focused instead on building the kingdom of God where people are valued, where teenagers grow up in a dignity not derived in sexual desirability or gangsta toughness but in God’s love for them. We cannot build the kingdom of God if we buy into the anti-gospel of individual responsibility that tells us the most virtuous thing we can do is stay inside our white picket fences and focus on our nuclear families. Focus instead on the body of Christ; focus instead on God’s family; focus instead on the Kingdom.


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