I saw a TV commercial last week featuring small children quoting and commenting on John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have life eternal.” Now, I have no brief with people of any religion expressing their faith. But did the kids in the commercial have any grounding in the complexities of theology, or did they merely serve as cute mouthpieces for what adults have scripted for them? I think I know the answer.
Who brought us this message? Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian organization founded in 1977 by James Dobson. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family’s advertising theme is “helping families thrive.” Now I like the concept of family. Carolyn and I have three adult children. We stay close to my extended family, too. Family represents one of our closest-held values.
But what families does Focus on the Family actually focus on? If their TV ads brought us messages advocating parents being responsible for their children’s wellbeing and playing active roles in their lives (so many don’t), honoring one’s father and mother by being helpful around the house as children and being attuned to elderly parents’ needs as adults, and the joy of extended families sharing various milestones and celebration—if the ads did that, I’d say, amen.
Not that the commercial addressed any of that. Its focus was singular: The only religious truth is that Jesus is humanity’s savior; everyone should be a Christian. I saw no recognition of the universality of family values—and I don’t mean conservative social issues, such as banning abortion and gay marriage that the Christian right wants to impose politically.
As it happens, Jews prize family values. So do Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and people of other religions—and of no religion. Of course, too many people fail their families. They cheat on their spouses. Beat or abuse their spouses and children. Squander family resources on alcohol, drugs and gambling. Or desert the ones they’re supposed to love and cherish. So any advertising that reminds us of our family responsibilities and the important role they play in keeping strong the nation’s social fabric is welcome. But America is composed of all kinds of people and all kinds of families. These “others” also deserve recognition and respect.
The Christian right complains with great frequency that it does not receive this kind of respect from the rest of the nation. How can it? In the name of the one, universal God, it divides humanity into “us” and “them.”
The Talmud teaches that God created all humanity out of Adam/Eve so that no one could say that his ancestor was greater than anyone else’s (Sanhedrin 4:5). Likewise, taking an absolute approach—believing that “our” religion is right and all others are thus by definition not different but wrong—shames rather than praises God. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of Judaism’s leading ethicists, warns, absolutism in itself is “tantamount to idolatry.” Focus on the Family might do well to focus on that.
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