Gloria is angry.  This is nothing new, of course, but these days her righteous indignation is directed against Hollywood.  She is angry at Hollywood stars who adopt children only to neglect them, and she is outraged by stage parents who prostitute dim-witted girls like Britney and Lindsay and Miley to the entertainment “industry.”  She says as a nation we cannot stand idly by while wicked parents ruin their children.  These families need counseling and, in some cases, intervention.

You have all met Gloria somewhere.  You may have run into her at a Sarah Palin rally or at the soccer games and practices that consume so much of what would otherwise be her family life, or perhaps it was at the fairly conservative Novus Ordo church she attends.  She believes in doing good by sharing her conservative “values” with unenlightened liberals.  She is very pro-life and a defiant defender of the rights of children, born and unborn.  There is no policy too costly, too stupid, or too destructive that will not win her support so long as it is advertised as being “for the children.”  She remains a great fan of George W. Bush and supported the Iraq War, to rescue the women and children being oppressed by Saddam Hussein, and, whenever a welfare mother or psychotic abuses or kills a child, Gloria will campaign for any law that strips parents of their traditional rights and duties and transfers them to the highly overpaid and underqualified social workers who devote themselves to destroying Christian morality.  Gloria is a kind person, a good mother, and a patriotic American, but her entire social ethic can be summed up simply as minding other people’s business and taking care of other people’s children.  If this country has a future, it rests in the hands of all the well-intentioned Glorias (and their husbands) who want to make the world a better place.  If they cannot be cured of their obsessions, they will remain, like most self-described conservatives, part of the problem.

There is no point in arguing with Gloria.  The nominally Catholic university where she got her degree in “religious studies”—Notre Dame, Georgetown, Fordham—did not teach her either logic or history.  She knows what she knows, though she cannot say how she knows it or by what or whose authority the self-evident truths that make up her moral universe were promulgated.  If you are unwise enough to point out that neither the Scriptures nor Tradition nor the greatest moral philosophers of the Church have ever taught anything like what she believes, she will explain that while they may not have used the language of children’s rights, Paul, Augustine, and Thomas acknowledged a natural law that is really just a different way of making the arguments we associate with John Locke and Martin Luther King.  It does not occur to her that apostles and theologians could have used the language of natural rights and the social contract, if they had wanted to.  What she will not admit to herself is her blind faith in progress: If Christians from Paul to Thomas did not speak of natural rights, it is because of their ignorance.  Locke, Smith, and the libertarians have taught us better.  She makes the same mistake made by “Christian” or “Catholic” libertarians who prefer the moral philosophy of Mises and Hayek to the Sermon on the Mount.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if Gloria—or her Lutheran or Baptist counterpart—could be persuaded (more likely compelled) to listen to the counterargument that any historically literate person could offer.  If we could take her back in time, either to the 15th century or to the ancient world, she would discover that parents—ancient and medieval, pagan, Jewish, and Christian—once had primary and sometimes exclusive responsibility for rearing their children.  There were laws, it is true, against murdering or seducing one’s children, but these did very little to limit the authority of normal parents.  Children (apart from orphaned heiresses) were not wards of the state; they were the subjects of their quasisovereign families and entirely dependent on their parents.  Children were expected to obey their parents, who were—law or no law—expected to care for their offspring.  Children, born or unborn, had no “rights”—a word that in the degraded modern parlance almost always means claims against someone—but parents had duties.  There have always been bad parents, but some of their failures or misbehavior could be limited or checked by other members of the family, by community disapproval, or, in extreme cases, by law.

Whatever legal or communal intervention might have been possible in first-century Rome or 18th-century Virginia, both law and tradition acknowledged parental authority, and, in the United States, judges were reluctant to intervene, even in families where the father beat his children severely, because they understood—as everyone had always understood—that parents who have authority over their children are more likely to fulfill their duties than parents whose authority and responsibility have been reduced to the status of overregulated caretakers.

The mischief began in partisan ideology masquerading as political philosophy.  When advocates of royal absolutism based the king’s authority on paternal right, propagandists on the other side (notably John Locke) responded by denying the premise.  In “nature” (and, by nature, Locke meant an imaginary state of nature no one has ever witnessed), children, though they are not born in a “full state of equality,” are, nonetheless, “born to it.”  Parents “have a sort of rule” over their children, but it is temporary, rather like swaddling clothes.  “Age and reason, as they grow up loosen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a man at his own disposal.”

I wonder what kind of children Locke had observed, to assume they could be morally and economically independent upon reaching physical maturity—from the age of, say, 18.  At this point, presumably, the parents no longer have to pay their bills, much less provide for them in their wills.  “Ironically” (in the sense in which Christian Kopff uses the word, that is to say, as effect follows from cause), the more governments have intervened to protect children from their parents, subsidize their education, feed and clothe them, the longer it takes for children to grow up.  Look at photographs of American high-school seniors in the 1940’s.  The boys were men at the age of 18, by the early 60’s maturity was delayed several years, and by my class at the College of Charleston (’67), most of us were still kids at 21.  Even old age does not appear to ripen some of the Baby Boomers: Before his death, the broken-down rebel Dennis Hopper (at least he played rebels in the movies) was shilling for retirement accounts.  As the background music swells (the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’”), Hopper, walking on the beach, wearing very groovy shades, tells us, “Your generation is definitely not headed for Bingo Night.”  I was reminded of college friends, who got together down to the early 80’s, to smoke dope and listen to Hendrix while their children ran wild.  Somewhere in the mistakes of my generation (and in the generation that failed to rear them properly), a clever person ought to detect the results of more than one liberal fallacy.

Locke’s reasoning drives us into a dichotomy that reduces complicated social relations to simple nonsense.  Are the only two choices really either that children possess natural equality or that they are slaves to fathers who abuse the power of life and death they have over their children?  There are, of course, degraded societies in which neither parents nor children care about each other and, at the other extreme, where a father exercises permanent legal and political jurisdiction (at least nominally) over even grown children.  But, in any of the societies to which we used to look back for examples—Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian-European—parental responsibilities over teenage children were a good deal more extensive than Locke’s metaphor of swaddling clothes would admit, and a grown child’s duty to revere his parents and respect their wishes was taken for granted.  If you wish to take the measure of Locke’s triumph, consider only the American public’s voracious appetite for vindictive memoirs by the children of Hollywood stars.

Locke and others of his ilk laid the groundwork for the children’s rights revolution, and his successors, to convince ordinary people, needed only to add sentimentality to the propaganda.  What was needed was not so much logic as irrational passion, and J.J. Rousseau was just the boy to dish out the passion good and hot.  In his Second Discourse, he angrily rebuts the old idea that the sovereignty of commonwealths is derived from paternal authority.  Rousseau, who had a way with paradox superior even to Chesterton, turns the tradition on its head, arguing that a father’s rights were granted by society.  If we suspect that Jean-Jacques—among the worst of fathers—was only fooling, we can see from his notes to the Discourse that he was offended by any exercise of parental authority that interfered in the rights of children, once they were physically mature, to make their own decisions.

Like virtually every other bad political idea, the idea of children’s rights—or rather the state’s ultimate “parens patriae” authority over children—crystallized in the French Revolution.  Children were no longer a family’s investment in the future but a debt owed to the nation.  In the children’s literature and republican catechisms of the day, children were to describe themselves as “children of the Patrie.”  According to Robespierre’s more radical colleague Saint-Just, children belong to their mothers until the age of five, after that to the Republic until they die.  The institutional innovations actually carried out by the Jacobins, distracted by wars and domestic crises, were more modest—civil marriage, no-fault divorce, and a rudimentary state system of public schools—although some of them, at least, must have sympathized with the suggestion that suspects be deprived of the right to rear their children.

It has been left to men of the post-Christian West (Europe and North America) to finish the job the Jacobins started.  Sentimental campaigns to save Hollywood children are only the latest phase in the centuries-long campaign to destroy the family.  Gloria, momentarily taking the fingers out of her ears, shakes her head sadly.  “You don’t understand.  If we can just save one child, no sacrifice is too great.”