MAY 19, 2003
A Good Report?
Martin E. Marty
Next week Presbyterians will meet in Denver to kick off the denominational convention season and, as part of their agenda, vote on the findings of a Presbyterian Church (USA)-sponsored report called "Living Faithfully with Families in Transition." My non-Presbyterian colleague Don Browning sees so many public consequences coming from this report that he has critiqued it in various Web and print media outlets.
Browning, who heads the Religion, Culture, and Family Project of the University of Chicago (and similar projects at Emory), typically draws on the research of these ambitious projects to frame his critique, but, with regard to the PC (USA) report, here he writes on his own. The "Living Faithfully" document, based on a five-year study, provides him with an ideal denominational case study. And he is not cheered or charmed. Let's listen in.
Space is limited, so, in summary: 1) Browning finds that, while the report claims to rely on social scientific data and biblical witness, it is inaccurate about the former and selective about the themes and interpretations in the latter. 2) The document depends too much upon the language of "therapeutic acceptance" and support, and is too limited and illiberally mild to do justice to the problems of families in all their forms. [MEM: does it do justice to the great resources of the Presbyterian tradition on justice?] 3) It spends more energy on the form of families than on dealing with the real issues and problems that plague all their forms. 4) Its drafters tend to slight the word marriage, in favor of "committed relationships," and glosses over the data that reveal enormous advantages to the marital form of committed relationships.
Further, 5) Pollyanna and Pangloss inspire the report writers to assure the public that the majority of families are getting along fairly well, without addressing or ministering to the needs of huge minority groups whose families are not doing well, and who require solutions that the report fails to give. 6) The report is elitist in that it takes the pretty good world of Presbyterian (and other mainline Protestant) family life more or less for granted. (Did you know that mainline denomination families are closer to the "Fifties"-style family than others? They have far lower divorce rates than born-again evangelical, Pentecostal, and Southern Baptist types for reasons, including those of class, too complex to go into here.) 7) It does not relate well to law and to what likely, forthcoming legal definitions will do to the "cohabiting" forms of commitment in many states. This report is unready for such clearly foreseeable changes.
In sum, it is a report by the privileged in a denomination that lacks racial and class diversity and overlooks problems within their ranks; it has little to say to less privileged, less homogeneous, stressed, and poorer population cohorts. Browning hopes the PC (USA) will vote to go "back to the drawing board" and interpret data and the Bible better.
Presbyterians, it's your turn. We'll listen in.
"How Inclusiveness becomes Elitist: Reflections on the Presbyterian Report on Families" by Don Browning is available at the Religion, Culture and Family Project web site: www.uchicago.edu/divinity/family. Shorter versions will be published later this month in the Wall Street Journal and The Christian Century.