Okay, so I’m back in my hometown visiting my mother, right? And we drive by the church where I grew up. It’s a Southern Baptist church, and my mom is still a member there, but I have moved in a different direction over the years, and it doesn’t feel anything like home to me anymore. Anyway, we’re driving by and I see that they have a message up on their sign. It reads: THE FUTURE OF OUR NATION DEPENDS ON GODLY DADS or something like that.
Two things strike me when I see this. First, the word “godly.” It occurs to me that it’s a word that is more apt to be used by Christians of a certain variety. It puts me in the mind of a certain type of person—a paragon of morality, a reliable, upstanding citizen, a pillar of the church. A person who uses without embarrassment phrases such as “Father God” and “the Lord laid such-and-such on my heart.” You know the type.
Now, just because someone is described as godly, it does not follow that he or she is hypocritical or judgmental. Sure, some people who have the traits I mentioned in the last paragraph are wolves in sheep suits, but by no means is it an ironclad rule or anything. I know plenty of “godly” people who are genuinely good, caring, and compassionate, with no alloy of seaminess beyond what is common to all of us. (I know plenty of the other kind, too, and I’ll get to them in a minute.) My point is simply that the term “godly” characterizes a particular brand of Christian. For others, myself, for instance, the word does not exactly roll off the tongue.
I have a friend who does use the word “godly” quite often and is absolutely a stand-up guy. He and I grew up in the same church, but his apple fell a lot closer to the tree than mine. He is a solidly conservative evangelical, bordering on fundamentalist, with a ready smile and an aura of clean living and holiness. Not holier-than-thou, just holy. Godly, you might say.
Still, there’s something troubling about that word, and the connotations that go with it. I always feel that I am being judged by it. I look at my life and it appears, at least by the standards of those who use the term “godly,” as particularly ungodly. I drink beer (and sometimes bourbon). I smoke cigars. I curse. I watch movies and laugh at jokes that godly people eschew. I’m worldly. I prefer “earthy,” but the godly (including my godly friend) would undoubtedly call me worldly.
So there’s a distance that gets created when one simply uses the word “godly.” An existential distance between the real—the earthy, the worldly—and the ideal (or at least what the person who uses the terminology considers ideal). I can’t say whose fault this is, if anybody can be said to be to blame at all, but there does seem to be a broken connection somewhere.
But there’s something else about that sign’s message that bothers me. The second thing that strikes me when I see THE FUTURE OF OUR NATION DEPENDS ON GODLY DADS is … why? Not why as in why are “godly dads” essential to our nation’s future, but why as in why go there? I recognize that the message is a holdover from Father’s Day, and maybe the sign carried a similar sentiment on Mother’s Day, but there just seems to be something unnecessarily divisive about it. When I read it I feel as though I am being dared to disagree. I also think I can discern the looming shadow of an oppressive paternalism. The patriarchy is here to save us and our nation from the disaster being brought on by secular humanists, democratic socialists, theological liberals, and the forces of ungodliness that pervade our culture. We need a few butt-kickin’, gun-totin’, red-blooded American men to pull us back from the brink and restore some good old-fashioned morality before the gays and pro-choicers and gun-control bleeding hearts bring our country down. Our church still has a few of those, thank God, which means there’s still hope. You’re welcome, ladies.
Now, I tend to think (and you know this already if you have any familiarity with my work) that our country is in more danger from these Chuck Norris wannabes than from the liberal “snowflakes” that the former find so abhorrent. But in a larger sense, the future of the U S of A is not my biggest concern. My concern is that the church, and more importantly the reign of God, is being discredited by the “godly dads” who raise their children to deny white privilege and climate change, oppose any restrictions on gun ownership, say asinine things like “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and march in lock-step with a President who poses a greater threat to democracy than anybody since the Fascist era and is a moral train wreck to boot.
I also have a problem with the latent sexism in the message. If godly dads are the hope of our nation, it must mean that they are more important than godly moms, and men are more vital than women in general. It’s the same sentiment that gave rise to the Promise Keepers phenomenon back in the Nineties. Certain passages of the Bible declare that men are to be the leaders in the family, so it’s time to step up and become a “godly” husband and dad, for the sake of the weaker ones who depend on you. After all, if there’s no man to provide direction, what on earth will become of them?
A better approach, I think, would be to encourage people of all stripes—male, female, and nonbinary; gay and straight; cisgender and transgender; black, brown, yellow, and white; rich and poor; conservative and liberal; and so on—to work together to advance the reign of God in our midst. In fact, one might say that seeing people with all these differences working together rather than at cross-purposes would be hard evidence of the advance of the reign of God in our midst.
So I would like to offer a modified version of the church sign quoted above: THE FUTURE OF THE REIGN OF GOD DEPENDS ON ALL GOD’S CHILDREN REALIZING THAT THEY ARE ALL IN THIS THING TOGETHER.