L.B.: Inhumanly profamily

L.B.: Inhumanly profamily April 20, 2004

Left Behind, pg. 45

Rayford Steele and Hattie Durham make the long walk back to the terminal, carefully threading their way past the smoldering wrecks of various crashed planes. "All around were ambulances and other emergency vehicles trying to get to ugly wreckage scenes," LaHaye & Jenkins tell us.

One pictures Rayford wheeling his little pilot's bag behind him, muttering G-rated curses under his breath as it pops up onto one wheel and drags on its side after bumping over the still-twitching body of one of the thousands of injured. "Two square miles of tarmac," Steele thinks, "and this jerk has to drag his fatally wounded self right here so I have to wheel around him? Like I don't have enough trouble already?"

Okay, that last scene doesn't actually appear in the book. LaHaye and Jenkins, like their hero, are wholly focused on moving along. The "ugly wreckage scenes" are not explored in any further detail — they exist only as obstacles between Rayford and his family.

Here we see the "profamily" ethic of Timothy LaHaye's brand of religious conservatism at work. Rayford is, first and foremost, a husband and a father. The dead and the dying who surround him at the airport are strangers, untermenschen. They are not his family and therefore, according to LaHaye's profamily view, Steele is right to ignore them on his way back to Irene and the kids. (Even though, by now, Steele has a pretty good idea that Irene and the kids are long gone.)

Rayford Steele's single-minded tunnel-vision — his ability to avoid even seeing the suffering of those outside of his immediate family — is typical of the worst extremes of this profamily ethic as applied by the outer wing of America's religious right.

I don't wholly reject the idea at the heart of this "pro-family" approach. Marriage and parenthood are extraordinary bonds that would seem to entail some extraordinary responsibilities. Some of our obligations to our families do seem to take priority over some of our obligations to others.

Yet when these obligations are allowed to trump every other claim, something has gone horribly wrong.

I would suggest that what has gone wrong for "profamily" types like Steele and LaHaye is that they have confused priorities with boundaries.

My friend Dave Gushee is an ethicist, a Southern Baptist moderate who was among those purged in the conservative takeover of Southern Baptist Seminary. Dave's dissertation work, expanded into a book, involved the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust. Specifically, he explored why it was that some people, at great personal risk, helped their Jewish neighbors in Nazi-occupied Europe while the majority did not.

Much of Dave's study involves what he calls "boundaries of moral obligation." One such boundary, for many, was the fear of putting one's own family at risk in order to rescue a neighbor or a stranger from certain death. Many of those who remained bystanders did so due to a kind of "profamily" ethic. They allowed a legitimate priority of moral obligation to become an illegitimate boundary of moral obligation.

It is only by erecting such boundaries that Rayford Steele is able to sidestep the suffering of strangers, picking his way across the airport to the terminal and refusing to let his gaze dwell on the "ugly wreckage" that surrounds him.

There's something deeply perverse and inhuman about a story in which we are asked to consider such a man "heroic."

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