I love political songs from the cold war era, they are so grounded in the moment they were created and capture a vivid bite of anger or paranoia or gallows humor. Who doesn’t love Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, or Metallica’s “Don’t Tread on Me”, or the giddily inappropriate atomic bomb ode “Thirteen Men and Me the Only Gal Around” by Ann Margret? I think the one that sticks the most with me, though, is Sting’s “Russians” with its industrial scoring, the Prokoviev themes, and the jarring, plaintive, and retrospectively over-dramatic rhetorical wish “What might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too.” Of course, having served a mission in St. Petersburg, Russia, I can unhesitatingly confirm that indeed, the Russians love their children too. Phew.
Dehumanizing an enemy is one of the first steps to preparing soldiers or a society for war. But the loss of individual identity and value isn’t only a casualty in wars of arms and weapons, it is also a casualty in wars of words, and this concerns me. I know of too many stories of Mormon parents preventing their children from playing with non-Mormon kids; too many stories of neighborhoods with insular groups of close Mormons who may not realize how profoundly they are excluding those near to them. I still remember pretty vividly the few times I played with non-Mormon kids when I was little, and how nervous I was. How “other” they seemed to me with their Catholic prayers over dinner or more strangely no prayers at all. I wasn’t rude, nor was I taught to be. I just felt different. Their families were not like my family. There was a wall between us that prevented real friendship, and I didn’t realize until I was older that I had built that wall.
Of course, the older you get, the more you realize how much of an idiot you were as a kid. Thank goodness. Now, most of my Mormon friends in the area I live in are single, and most of the married people I am friends with around here are not LDS. I watch these non-LDS parents dote on their babies, cheer on their potty-training toddlers, attend parent teacher conferences, and drop their children off to college with slightly misty eyes. At every milestone they are struggling with the same concerns that Mormon parents struggle with. Am I teaching them right from wrong? Do they know how to care for themselves? Are my children empathetic and kind to others? Am I a good parent? What more can I do? And in praise of my friends, both LDS and non-LDS, I’ve seen some awesome examples of selfless parenting, and I’ve watched them raise great kids.
I worry that in our efforts to define ourselves as “peculiar people” who are teaching our children not to be “like the world,” we are actually cutting them off from kind examplars and a more supportive community infrastructure. I worry that in our rhetoric about how much family values mean to us, we might be making the mistake of assuming that other people don’t value their families. I wonder if we are creating a straw-man, or rather a straw-family that assuages our own fears by setting us up against a theoretical selfish and dysfunctional “other” type of family, but in the process we are unwittingly offending our neighbors by painting them as different and therefore worse at family-ish-ness.
Can we all agree to take that straw-family out to the trash where it belongs? Because I’d like to unhesitatingly confirm that indeed, the gentiles love their children too. Phew.