The recent situation with Sarah Palin's family has brought up within the conservative community the question of whether there should be a stigma on illegitimacy and what that might mean. I believe that some of my (and others') disagreement with Lawrence Auster on Palin's situation springs from a disagreement over what it should mean to disapprove of illegitimacy.
My impression is that Auster definitely believes that there should be a stigma upon pregnancy out of wedlock per se, as opposed to there being only a stigma on sex outside of wedlock per se. I may be misunderstanding him here, but this seems to me to be the best way of understanding his insistence that Sarah Palin, by continuing to be John McCain's running mate with a pregnant teenage daughter, is requiring conservatives to abandon a condemnation of illegitimacy. It also helps to explain what seems to me to be the oddity of the following exchange:
Me: You state that I am the one who wishes to get into a discussion of Palin's personal virtue. But I, in making my point about whether Palin was neglectful and the like, was thinking of comments of yours like this:Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Palin raised their children with so much love and discipline that their 17 year old daughter went and got herself knocked up. Maybe if the family had actually been spending time together, and if the parents had exercised real discipline, as Laura W. powerfully argues, this would not have happened.
See? This isn't just saying she's got too much on her plate or even that we should not approve of illegitimacy. It's a lot more than that.
Auster:Yes, I was expressing diapproval of their daughter's illegitimate pregnancy, AS ANY NORMAL MIDDLE CLASS AMERICAN WOULD HAVE DONE 50 YEARS AGO, and I was making the larger point that regardless of whether their situation is ok or not, regardless of whether Bristol is "ok" and her baby is "ok," the larger social impact of this situation is to legitimate illegitimacy for the whole country
This seems to mean that, to show genuine disapproval of illegitimate pregnancy, we should express scorn for the opinion that the parents of a pregnant teenaged daughter raised her with love and discipline. We should conjecture about just how they were neglectful parents, and we should demand that the entire family be disgraced to the point that the parents (or is it just the mother?) cannot run for a new major public office as a result of the disgrace.
So, what should it really mean for us, as social conservatives and moral traditionalists, to disapprove of illegitimacy?
The severe stigma on a girl's being pregnant outside of wedlock in former years served to emphasize two important truths. 1) Sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. 2) Children need a father. But let's face it: Heaping severe social disgrace (not to mention worse penalties) upon an unwed pregnant girl was a clumsy and in some ways a cruel and unjust way of expressing and upholding these important truths. Nineteenth century novels (The Heart of Midlothian, Adam Bede, and Tess come to mind) are full of legitimate, implicit criticism of the severity of the penalties enacted upon girls for turning up pregnant, the almost inevitable sexual double standard whereby male seducers got off scot free while the entire life of the young woman was ruined, and the lack of concern for the horrific consequence of infanticide that often resulted.
It was always the case that the argument from silence--"Jody hasn't turned up pregnant, so she must be a good girl"--was highly fallible. Plenty of young women who were outright promiscuous managed one way or another to get away with it without getting caught, and plenty of basically "good girls" who sinned one time ended up pregnant. In our own day and age such an inference is so unjustified as to be nearly a joke, to the point that a special stigma on unwed pregnancy as opposed to a stigma on unwed sex is very nearly an advertisement for the liberal value of safe sex. Who is doing the greater wrong, the young thirty-something woman living in flagrant and unreprentant sin with her boyfriend who doesn't get pregnant or the 17-year-old Christian teenager who gets pregnant with her boyfriend? What did the Clintons probably teach Chelsea about sex outside of marriage? Were they doing her more harm than the Palins are doing to their daughter by supporting her through her crisis pregnancy?
What we want, then, is a way of affirming the two above truths without, as conservatives especially, treating babies as a punishment, condemning getting caught rather than doing wrong, and getting our priorities upside down.
Here are several ways that I think we can do that. First, we can simply state, to our children, on blogs, and in conversation with friends, that what this young girl and her boyfriend have done is wrong. I don't quite understand why why the question, "What do we tell our children?" should even come up. Assuming that your children know the facts of life, you tell them that this young lady now in the national spotlight and her boyfriend had sexual intercourse outside of marriage, that this is contrary to God's plan for sex, but that they are now to all appearances trying to go on and do the right next thing. Is this so hard? As far as I know, in her first public announcement of this matter Mrs. Palin did not say anything negative about the behavior that led to the pregnancy. Unlike some, I'm not going to make a huge deal about it, but I am willing to say that there probably would have been some gentle and graceful way of saying that the young people, when they came and told the parents what was going on, realized that they had fallen into sin, had not followed God's plan, or something to that effect. And that might well have been better and might have avoided some of the criticism from the right. On the other hand, perhaps she thought we could take that as read.
Whether we can "take it as read" that people in such a situation know that sex outside of marriage is wrong and are not asking us to think anything else depends heavily on the context. I would say that it is not only charitable but also justified to assume this about a devout Christian family, where it would not be justified to assume it about a secular "hot" movie star, and all the less so if she continues living with her boyfriend. Context is everything. Which leads me to number 2: We can speak out especially loudly about situations where the sex outside of marriage itself is absolutely clearly not being repented of. This would include both celebrity unwed pregnancies sans husband for the sake of having a cute baby and inner-city serial pregnancies with multiple fathers.
Third, we can speak out clearly in support of the need of children for a father when we see that need being flouted, and we can promote adoption. Of the three options that even are options (killing the child being not an option)--placing the child for adoption, marrying the father and keeping the child, and keeping the child and raising him without a married father--the last is the most problematic from the perspective of the second important truth above. Ironically, in our own otherwise less life-affirming day and age it is easier than it was in the supposed "good old days" for an unwed mother to avoid this situation. Adoption was not widely facilitated for newborns a hundred years ago, and there were even some people who thought that a woman pregnant out of wedlock should not place the child for adoption because she literally "deserved" to raise the child herself as a punishment for her fornication. The difficulties of adoption and the extreme stigma for the child on bastardy led to all manner of strange situations in which children were silently adopted by relatives or friends who then lied to the child about his parentage. Dorothy Sayers had an illegitimate child like this who was raised for part of his life believing her to be his aunt. Whether such a situation promotes family values I (don't really) leave it to the reader to decide for himself.
So we should speak out about all those happy and fancy-free women on the covers of the magazines in the checkout lanes having and raising babies with either no man in sight or with only a boyfriend in sight whom they apparently have no intention of marrying and no intention of ceasing to sleep with. We should tell our kids that they should place the child for adoption by a married couple instead. And we should speak out still more loudly against situations where women deliberately undergo fertility treatments such as artificial insemination in order to have a baby when they are not married. All of this is flouting the truth that kids need fathers in a way that Bristol Palin certainly is not.
Fourth, we should promote chastity as opposed to promoting non-pregnancy. Is this so difficult a distinction to draw? It does not seem so to me. I'm not, myself, attracted to the whole "silver ring" and chastity oath scene, but some families do promote pre-marital purity with their children in this way, and I sympathize with them. We should certainly teach our children and the young people with whom we have influence the beauty and nature of sexual purity, we should shield them from "comprehensive" sex education, and we should loudly oppose such sex education. We should make it so clear where we stand that no one could possibly accuse us of "Oprah-izing" or sentimentally approving of sex outside of marriage.
Fifth and finally, we should make distinctions among sins and understand the profound importance of redemption and forgiveness. Why are so many conservatives saying the things that seem to be outraging Auster so much? I think one reason should be brought out frankly: Fornication between two teenagers presumably in love is a sin, but there are many worse sins, including sexual sins. The seduction of a young girl by an older man is worse. The seduction of a girl by a young man who cares nothing for her and would never even consider marrying her is worse. Recreational sex between two hard-hearted young people who care nothing for each other and who have bought the liberal line on the meaning of sex is worse. Adultery is worse. Leaving your wife is worse. It would be more justifiable on the basis of traditional morality to call for John McCain to resign from the race because he, himself, had an affair, divorced his wife, and married the woman with whom he was having the affair, than to call for Sarah Palin to drop out because her daughter is pregnant.
And for Christians, the necessity of repenting and moving on to pick up the pieces of our lives and protect the innocent in this broken and fallen world is one of the most important truths we can affirm. That is what it is all about, and that is what Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston appear to be trying to do, while the Palin family helps them to do it. Have many sappy, sin-excusing sermons been written on this subject? To be sure, they have. But that doesn't make the truth that the preachers distort any less a truth: Life is messy, we sin, we need forgiveness, and we need help to put things back together and go on as best we can after we sin. God loves us. God forgives us. God helps us. We need to do the same for one another, and broken-hearted parents who do so are truly living their faith.
I will close with a recommendation that you read this article over at First Things. No, I do not agree with the woman's conclusion that she should vote for John McCain (which is what she is saying she will do). Everyone knows by now where I stand on John McCain. But the article is eloquent and puts this final point I have been making very well, especially here:
I will vote for Sarah Palin because she has guts. We’ve never met, but I suspect I know something about her life, and so do a great many other women. I know what it means to have a son with Down syndrome. I know what it means to talk a good line about religious faith and then be asked to prove it. I know what it means to have a daughter pregnant and unmarried.
In fact, while we’re on the subject, I also know what it means to have two grandchildren born out of wedlock, a son struggling with alcohol, two grandchildren with serious disabilities, putting myself through graduate school while simultaneously caring for a husband and children and teaching full time—and a whole lot more. This is the stuff of real human love; this is the raw material of family life. And those who think that Palin’s beliefs and family struggles are funny or worth jeering at, simply reveal the venality of their own hearts.