Rick Santorum has traveled the length and breadth of Iowa during the past… – God, how long is it? – making his case as the purest and truest “family values” culture warrior among a batch that has no shortage of that species. And, with the corn state’s caucuses mercifully upon us, it seems Santorum has finally found some tinder to set off the spark he’s been trying to ignite all this time. He might even win the blasted thing.
So, naturally I’m drawn to ask: What would Rick Santorum think of the Gallaghers?
That family, nominally led by dissipated patriarch Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), is featured in the Showtime series “Shameless.” About to begin its second season this coming Sunday, “Shameless” is a weekly reminder that, absent sufficient resources and high-functioning parents, bigger families aren’t always better than smaller ones. The six-kid family’s survival depends on a toxic mix of petty theft and fraud, and the oldest sister, 21-year-old, Fiona (Emmy Rossum) who (barely) keeps the whole thing glued together, hasn’t the maturity to deal effectively with her siblings’ manifold dysfunctions. The alcoholic Frank is mostly a destructive force, and his wife, Monica (the rarely seen Chloe Webb), is a walking compendium of serious psychological issues who ditched her family some time ago.
What has any of this to do with Santorum? I’m coming to that.
Santorum’s moral universe is a simple and clear one, where no one uses contraception (much less aborts any fetus, no matter the circumstances), no one has sexual relations before marriage, and marriage is the norm to which everyone aspires. Gender nonconformists – for him, that’s everyone except devout heterosexuals – don’t exist, at least not as beings who act on their innermost emotional truths. Lifelong abstinence should be our aspiration.
To his credit, at least Santorum’s own marriage and life appear to reflect his own ideals. He’s the father of seven kids, the youngest of whom has a serious condition not unlike Down Syndrome; I’m confident in thinking that the Santorums never seriously considered abortion.
But not every family has the emotional, financial, and physical resources that the Santorum family has. Some are, tragically, too much like the Gallaghers. Should similarly situated folks really decline to use contraception, even while their resources are strained and they and their families are falling apart? Is abortion never to be a legal option for anyone, no matter what? Santorum might respond that families that can’t bear the weight of additional kids should abstain from sex, but that’s neither a realistic option nor, we should quickly add, an emotionally healthy one. Indeed, once we get beyond Santorum’s abstractions we can see that uncontracepted sex is often less emotionally healthy than the alternative. Couples may better enjoy sexual intimacy with their partners if it’s not shadowed by the possibility of bearing a child that the couple – for whatever reason – is ill-equipped to deal with.
That’s not the worst of it, by a long shot. Santorum is also notoriously against support programs of all sorts – and by this I mean government assistance and the kind of social capital on which so many families rely. He’s railed against welfare, food stamps, and – of course – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare.”)
His positions don’t make any sense, but they make good red meat rhetoric. His argument against food stamps (so many people are obese, so no one needs more food!) operates in blinding ignorance of public health research about food choices in poor neighborhoods, while his assertion that health care reform would mean compromised treatment for people like his disabled daughter are directly contrary to fact. And his dismissal of the idea that it “takes a village” to raise a child because the phrase comes from “an African proverb” combines barely veiled racism with a pie-in-the-sky faith in families that’s belied by the facts. Many families want and need that village, and kids, especially as they get older, need other healthy adult influences.
Even stable opposite-sex couples whom you might expect to marry are moving away from the institution. Barely half of all adults are married now, and, as I discuss in this article over at Slate, some straight folks are even starting to choose civil unions over marriage – even though civil unions convey fewer benefits and were intended as a compromise for gay and lesbian couples shut out of marriage. An institution in this much trouble needs more than Santorum’s naïve homilies, which do nothing to encourage marriage but may drive even more people in the other direction by making matrimony seem out-of-touch with the complexities of today’s families.
Of course, Santorum’s not going to be the President. A win in the Iowa caucus would, in the end, provide only further ammo for the argument that this unrepresentative quadrennial political event only serves to drive the Republican party into the embrace of evangelical Christians at the expense of alienating almost everyone else. But his views are a damaging distraction from the real and serious debates that we need to have about marriage and how to value all families — and the villages that sustain them.
Image, top, via Facebook
Were he born 10,000 years ago, John Culhane would not have survived to adulthood; he has no useful, practical skills. He is a law professor who writes about various and sundry topics, including: disaster compensation; tort law; public health law; literature; science; sports; his own personal life (when he can bear the humanity); and, especially, LGBT rights and issues. He teaches at the Widener University School of Law and is a Senior Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson School of Population Health.
He is also a contributor to Slate Magazine, and writes his own eclectic blog. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter if you’re blessed with lots of time.
John Culhane lives in the Powelton Village area of Philadelphia with his partner David and their twin daughters, Courtnee and Alexa. Each month, he awaits the third Saturday evening for the neighborhood Wine Club gathering.
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