Whenever I hear or read the words “traditional family values” I cringe. I was raised in a traditional family, one which, on the surface at least, appeared to correspond with the powerful religious ideologies of the time: husband as dominant male patriarch; wife being dutiful, hard-working and subservient, and two polite, well-behaved children. However, like many such families, the reality was different. The traditional family life of my childhood was often dysfunctional and oppressive; involving emotional abuse, physical abuse and its constant threat, and a great deal of fear. What was missing was happiness.
As I grew older, matured, became a husband and father myself, I realized that the concept of “traditional family values” invariably concealed some pretty nasty realities for many others also. How many of you reading this are carrying emotional pain and baggage from your upbringing in a “traditional family?” Most, I suspect. The current debate in Taiwan concerning the legalization of various forms of “non-traditional” civil partnerships, including same-sex marriage, powerfully illustrates the gap in modern society between those who desire freedom to love and to have that love recognized by legal union, and those who are fearful of anything and anyone which does not adhere to their notion of “normality.”
For me, the former — the progressives — are the force which will enhance the prospects for love and happiness in our world, while the latter — the traditionalists — are living in a confused and unsettled state, unable to face the fact that thinking people are no longer going to be cowed by outdated, irrelevant, religious ideology.
This is not just a theological argument — the issue is quite simply should we mindlessly promote “traditional values” as a “good thing” or do we recognize that love can and does come in many forms? It always has. Is it not time that we recognized this and ditched traditional values in favor of human values? Being traditional does not automatically make values good — often just the opposite.
All religions should have one aim: to encourage love, peace, belonging, togetherness and understanding between people and between societies. Organizations and their representatives that fail to do that, or encourage the opposite, are not religions, they are oppressive and limited political ideologies of which we should be very wary.
Religions and religious leaders do not hold society together; people do that through their love for each other, their desire for peace not war and their willingness to accommodate difference. Unfortunately, love for one’s neighbor too easily breaks down when we consider our neighbor to be inferior to us; when we think our ideology is the only right one and when we apply negative judgements of others based on their gender, sexuality, race or culture.
I fully appreciate and to some extent sympathize with the situation now being faced by religious groups and their leaders everywhere. The world is quickly changing. However, I say to such religious leaders: You are now faced with a stark choice: Be part of the present and therefore the future. Embrace difference. Alternatively, face becoming increasingly irrelevant to the spiritual needs of those who have, thus far, allowed religion to thrive.
Stephen Whitehead is a visiting professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University.