The tradition of the “Roman father” is long gone and so utterly forgotten today that most of us don’t even remember what the phrase means. It goes back to the early days of the Roman Republic, when Lucius Junius Brutus executed his own sons for plotting to restore the monarchy. We no longer expect public officials to rule impartially upon the guilt or innocence of our own family members. Instead, we often require them to recuse themselves from any case in which they have even a hint of personal involvement.
A couple of recent instances: a student of mine twenty-odd years ago, who was a strong evangelical Christian, who told me that if his daughter came home pregnant, he would certainly not stop loving her, but he would tell her to leave his house. And then, on the other hand, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose son “came out” to him as homosexual a couple of years ago, has recently announced his support of same-sex marriage.
I certainly don’t blame Portman for taking his current position, which is one that I share. I would never expect him, or anyone else, to cut off all contact with a child who had done something he disapproved of, however strongly. What raises questions for me is his previous position of opposition to same-sex marriage. How much principle could have been involved in his fervent backing of the GOP’s opposition to gay rights, if he could abandon it to spare his son pain? After all, every homosexual is somebody’s son or daughter. My student in the previous paragraph shocked me by his willingness to sever connections with a pregnant daughter. But on the other hand, I had to respect the seriousness of his principles, even though I do not share them.
I think most Americans these days side more with Portman that with my unnamed student. It used to be fairly common for gay teenagers to be thrown out of the house by their parents (usually their fathers.) It doesn’t happen much these days. We don’t do a whole lot of “never darken my door again” to any of our family or friends, for any reason, these days. I think that’s generally a good thing, a sign that our “family values” have become kinder and gentler.
But it’s also a sign that most of our principled positions have limits. The Wired Daughter says that most conservative legislation or proposed legislation includes in invisible ink the phrase “except for me and the people I care about.” Most of us are willing to accept not only same-sex marriage, but abortion, unwed pregnancy, and cheating on taxes from our nearest and dearest, no matter how enthusiastically we denounce such behavior among strangers.
Portman’s move is, one suspects, the death knell of cultural conservatism. We are no longer up to the demands of Roman fatherhood. We are becoming nicer people than our grandparents raised our parents to be. Ain’t that too damn bad1