Briefly Noted: R. R. Reno on Elshtain, Feminism, and the Family

One gets tired of the usual feminist twaddle and of the mainstream press, which unfailingly describes feminist intellectual gyrations with unctuous laudatory descriptive modifiers such as “bold” and “undaunted.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, however, strikes a different path than most feminists, a path that is more humane and more Christian. This is R. R. Reno’s point in his recent First Things editorial concerning Elshtain’s lectures on “The Nature and Meaning of Loyalty.”[1]

Elshtain, who Reno describes as “a feminist willing to criticize feminism…a contemporary academic willing to talk about God,” argues that one must be loyal to the smallest unit of society—the family—rather than denigrating it and treating it as inferior. Elshtain describes the work of Progressive era feminist Jane Addams, who recognized that “women must often endure very concrete conflicts of loyalty.” The conflict for women is between contributing to society at large, on the one hand, and taking care of one’s family, on the other hand. Elshtain lauded Addams’s realism “and for her conviction that we should never assent to an ideology that demands that we forsake our loyalty to the little platoon of the family.” Reno notes that while this argument does not automatically answer the hard questions of marriage, family, motherhood, and vocation for all women everywhere, it does take a step in figuring out “which paths, often alluring and full of promise, lead in the wrong direction.”

The second key moment from Elshtain’s lecture illustrates the first moment. Elshtain recounted the story of Le Chambon-sur Lignon, a small Protestant village in France that hid Jews during World War II. For Reno, Elshtain’s recounting illumined the meaning of Le Chambon-sur Lignon in a new, fuller way. That is, this small village of French Protestants, “undoubtedly a community of inwardly focused loyalties,” applied its inwardly focused loyalties to the lives of strangers–Jewish neighbors in danger of extermination. As Reno states, “as it turned out, the bonds of family, village, and faith that defined Le Chambon were precisely what provided the indispensable basis for their courageous actions.” Faith in God exercised in the family thus offers the locus for us to work out the right kind of loyalties, in the right way. Or as Reno says, “Loyalty’s disposition of devotion can prepare our hearts for higher loyalties, wider loves.”

I’ll second Reno’s thoughts and add another, taken from Martin Luther. In Luther’s sermons he often talked about the Christian’s multiple callings—callings to family, church, workplace, and citizenship. For Luther, each of these callings is precisely that—a calling from God—and each of them should be regarded with appropriate loyalty. Luther was right. God calls each of us to service in multiple realms; one of life’s most important tasks is to fulfill each of those callings simultaneously without giving inordinate weight to any one of them. Any ideology is fundamentally flawed that causes a person to denigrate one of their fundamental callings. To denigrate the worth and significance of family nurture is deeply inhumane and, more to the point, deeply un-Christian.

[1] R.R. Reno, “The Virtue of Loyalty,” in First Things (December 2012), 7.


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