Reviews > Culture

Lessons from Elián

Culture | There is more to right and wrong than "family values"

Issue: "CCM: Salt or sugar?," May 13, 2000

Cultural conservatives horrified by the Justice Department's treatment of young Elián Gonzalez are being ridiculed by the liberal establishment. "We thought you people believed in family values," they say. "So why don't you think he should be given back to his father?" "We thought you liked guns, law and order, and a tough stance against crime. Why are you all of a sudden squeamish about a SWAT team upholding the law?"

But if conservatives are being inconsistent, this is nothing to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the liberals. Militant feminists who have been arguing for women's custody above all and for children's rights against the rights of the parents are now waxing sanctimonious about father's rights. Civil libertarians who demand that criminal convictions be thrown out at the slightest procedural legal flaw are silent at the blatant illegalities of Janet Reno's raid of the home of American citizens. Multi-culturalists who urge the value of America's ethnic diversity are demonizing Cuban-Americans. And one of the most law-breaking administrations in American history is piously invoking "the rule of law."

It is surely a good thing for liberals now to acknowledge the rights of parents, and of fathers in particular. But the Elián tragedy has lessons too for conservatives.

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Tangible facts have a way of challenging well-meant abstractions. The photograph by reporter Alan Diaz-one of the most compelling pieces of photojournalism since the Vietnam War and certainly deserving of a Pulitzer Prize-puts a terrified and a terrifying human face on the controversy and crystallizes some important lessons.

Though Christian activists have pushed their agenda in the name of "family values," as a way of being credible in the secular arena, Christians know that family ties are not, in fact, the highest ultimate value. Jesus Himself talks about the need sometimes to leave one's father and mother-even to "hate" them-in order to follow Him (Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 10:37).

Elián's father, Juan Gonzalez, is a member of the Communist Party, in a nation where the Marxist doctrine of atheism is still insisted upon and taught in the schools. The church is persecuted. (A brief spell of tolerance upon the Pope's visit has now been halted, according to Cuban dissidents.) Political prisoners report that getting them to renounce God is one of the goals of their torture.

A Cuban immigrant tells about a typical atheism class in grade school (of the sort that Elián would be attending). He recalls how the teacher asked the class how many children believed in God? Most everyone raised their hands. Then she told them to close their eyes and pray to God for candy. They did, but nothing happened. Then she told them to close their eyes and pray to Fidel. They did, and when they opened their eyes they found candy placed on their desks. "See," the teacher said, "there is no God. You need to look to the State, not God, to give you what you need."

In Miami, Elián was going to a Christian school and was being raised by a devout family. Though such a concern can have no standing in the secular arena of public policy, Christians have to consider his spiritual well-being to be a major priority, even over parental rights.

Conservatives often worry about the flood of immigrants into this country, worrying that American culture might be undermined by all of these non-English-speaking foreigners. But the Elián debacle reminds us that immigrants are often stronger advocates of American political and cultural values than are many complacent life-long citizens. The Miami Cubans know tyranny firsthand, from their own bitter experience, and their commitment to freedom, capitalism, and the Constitution is second to no one. Immigrants who come to the United States because of what it stands for and the opportunities it provides can be better citizens than native-born Americans who scorn their country and who think that the United States is no better than communist Cuba.

Conservatives can also learn from the debacle that civil liberties are important. This can often be forgotten in the indignation against criminals, such as drug dealers, whose rights are often trampled upon. Human-rights laws that protect minorities, the unpopular, and the dissident may well someday apply to Christians, who may become the most unpopular dissident minority of them all.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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