Tea Party Family Values and the World’s Greatest Freak Show
On fundamentalist counterculture & juvenile black market adoption fantasies …
Do you remember when it first dawned on you that your relatives are all a bunch of crackpots and weirdos? Seems like I was around 8 or 9 — my mother worked all night in the casinos and slept most of the day, leaving me alone to protect my naïve older sister from the depraved advances of Mom’s alcoholic boyfriends and worry about my big brother’s drug addiction. I couldn’t count on my grandparents to help — they were too preoccupied with their own divorce, dating, and remarriage dramas.
“Holy sugar,” I thought to myself, “these people are seriously messed up!”
That’s about the time the fantasies began. My home, I imagined, was a three-ring circus — and my relatives were the freaks and the clowns. In my daydreams, I was not really one of them. No — surely, I was of aristocratic origin. My REAL family were royalty in a faraway Kingdom and I was born a beloved Princess in a fancy castle with many servants and my own Fairy Godmother. Somehow, I’d been separated from my blood kin as an infant — I was captured by gypsies and sold in a black market adoption — that’s how I ended up being raised by this group of crazies!
ABC’s Primetime Nightline recently aired a segment featuring the Gil & Kelly Bates family — a conservative, Evangelical mega-family of twenty. The Bates, who are close friends of JimBob & Michelle Duggar of TLC’s “19 and Counting” fame, hold to the extreme fundamentalist ideals of the growing “Quiverfull movement.”
During the one-hour special, Gil, Kelly, and their children explained the family’s lifestyle which, to all modern appearances, represents a throw back to the imaginary 60’s-style “Leave It to Beaver” family combined with strict, Victorian Era sexual mores and the atavistic gender roles of ancient goat-herders. The Bates eschew all forms of birth control and adhere to the marriage model of the biblical Patriarchs — with Gil as family leader and Kelly as submissive “help meet.” Kelly and the girls adorn themselves in modest, hand-sewn dresses, while Gil and his clean-cut sons teach bible study and participate in local Tea Party politics.
Aren’t they lovely? Don’tcha wanna be just like them?
The Bates Family
I sure did! I left home at 15 and embarked on a quest to recreate my long-lost perfect, happy family — my REAL courtly family, where I truly belonged. After a false start involving marriage at 16, a baby at 19, and divorce after seven years of abuse rivaling the most astonishing freak show acts Mom’s circus family had ever performed — I remarried, found a “bible-believing” church, and worked hard within the Quiverfull counterculture to implement the best of the best biblical family values into our home life. I had six more children. I homebirthed, homeschooled, and home-churched. I submitted to my husband and joyfully sacrificed my time, energy and talents to build him up and help him to succeed. I published a “pro-life, pro-family” Christian family newspaper to inform and encourage other Christians to defend “Traditional Family Values.”
In 2003, we were honored as Family of the Year at the Nebraska Family Council’s “Salt & Light” awards. I’d finally made it! I had built my own Magic Kingdom where my husband reigned as King and I was his Queen, the children were our loyal subjects and we could all live happily ever after …
Like the Bates family, we were the perfect picture of the “biblical family values” fantasy — an idealistic vision of big, happy families: devoted husband and wife surrounded by a passel of respectful, obedient children — we were all sweetness and smiles. It is this mesmerizing dream world which energizes and motivates Tea Party Republicans like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann to work tirelessly to implement the “pro-family” theocratic agenda into every aspect of American society: not only in politics, but religion, family, media, education, business and entertainment.
Fundamentalist Christians are convinced that contemporary American society is the World’s Most Spectacular Display of hideously mutated, diseased and anomalous freaks. “Step right up folks!” the preacher yells, “and witness a grotesque parade of ho-mo-sex-uals, lesbians, Wiccans, radical feminists, godless liberals, secular humanists, and …” (congregation gasps!) “Muslim extremists!!”
Simultaneously fascinated and horrified, respectable religious parents scramble to shield their innocent children’s eyes and ears from the depravity and corruption of “The World.” They homeschool and form special Chastity and Creation Science clubs designed to insulate and isolate their vulnerable young from the miscreants and most depraved elements of popular culture.
It’s completely understandable and normal for preteens to create imaginary worlds — their own private, safe hideout where they can dream of nobility, of rising above and doing so much better than the clowns running the Big Top’s Museum of Mutantstrosities. The grown-ups watch in silent, knowing amusement as kids disavow their relatives as “psychos” and “bozos.”
But when otherwise responsible, Christian adults in recent years set out on a mission to create a radically distinct way of life based on “biblical family values,” the resultant countercultural movement known as “Quiverfull” has become an all-too-real Hall of Mirrors horror show.
In my own life, perpetual pregnancies destroyed my health, and my indiscriminate acquiescence to my husband’s every whim transformed him from a loving father into a tantrum-throwing tyrant. Burnout and disillusionment led to abuse, neglect, family disintegration and a particularly nasty divorce.
When the dust settled, I took a good look at myself in the mirror. I could no longer deny the strong family resemblance — I saw my mother in my own face staring back at me. After all those years of fighting and denial, I had to finally accept the fact that I really am one of them — I belong to these crazy people. I, too, am a conspicuous oddity — a bizarre spectacle and an embarrassment to my own noble children.
Funny thing is … these days, I don’t mind so much being associated with my misfit clan of circus freaks. Life experience has given me perspective and a deep appreciation for the inevitable realities and desperate circumstances which deformed and mutated Mom and the rest of us into shocking and extraordinary creatures worthy of society’s disquietude and awe.
Black market adoption fantasies and youthful idealism are important wayposts on the journey to adulthood. Rebellion against blatant injustice, hypocrisy, moral compromise and the myriad of other common grown-up failure is a healthy manifestation of a kid’s personal power and strong moral agency. Arrogant and annoying, yes — but in moments of truth we have to admit, the kid’s got a point.
Society sucks. Bigotry, racism, inequity, corruption, greed, depravity, malevolence, and all manner of evil abound. Let’s just face the fact that in many ways, the contemporary American social and political scene has devolved to become the World’s Greatest Freak Show.
No wonder Tea Party Patriot families like the Bates and the Duggars escape into their own personal fantasyland.
Ironically, with maturity comes humility — along with a profound sense of connection and belonging to that wacky bunch of buffoons who share our DNA. We see our people with new eyes. Sure, Grandma’s got a beard and Uncle Stan is a charlatan — Aunt Betty’s such a lunatic, she may as well have two heads. But in the end, they’re all we’ve got. That perfect, royal family whom we imagined searched frantically for us for years and never gave up hope that one day we would return to our true home? They’re not real. Cousin Roger is real — never mind that he doesn’t have a lick of sense and the only thing he’s good for is shoveling elephant shit — he’s the one who truly understands you, knows all about you, and loves you anyway.
Tea Party family values are the fundamentalists’ desperate attempt to deny their own imperfections, vulnerability, and their inescapable mortality. Sure it hurts that they look down on us regular folk — those of us who make no pretense of actually having our acts together — they avoid being seen out in public with us, they disown us, and they shrink away in fear of catching our cooties.
But take heart — perhaps they’ll grow up.
I did. Not saying I don’t still sometimes get all starry-eyed and visionary over the possibility of influencing our society for the better — I’ve got a bit of spunk left in me and I’m doing what I can to stick it to The Man. But I no longer think of myself as qualitatively different or “other” than all the rest of my fellow human beings — my family. My freakish, crazy, wonderfully imperfect people.
I don’t believe in God anymore, but I still have faith. I have hope and I trust that collectively, we’re all gonna make it — we are learning from our mistakes and growing more compassionate. Our shared experiences make us wiser and I have confidence that better times are just ahead.