The New Yorker’s Diary

Save Me!

I’m Hooked On

Christian Talk

Trotting through Prospect Park with my Walkman, I tune into Focus on the Family, that daily talk show of pop psychology, national politics and the Word. The lineup includes pontifications on a variety of topics sure to rattle any liberal sophisticate: It’s anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-feminist, pro–corporal punishment. I would tell anyone-I tell myself-that what I hear outrages me. And it’s true.

But also-really!-I am tranquilized.

A little about me: I’m a feminist. I’m a stay-at-home mother. My husband is my equal. My husband supports me. He has to work long hours, of course, and travel far, far away. So there he goes, off to some palatial compound to sip iced coffee with the Crown Prince of Jordan, while I’m left to swill out the poop my son let loose in the bathtub. My husband is the man in the suit who jets to Geneva and lays over in Istanbul; I am the harried loony who hauls her kids out of Key Food by the hoods of their snowsuits. Of course, I’m also the lovesick mom who gets to play “kidnap Barbie” with her girl and boy late into the morning, all of us still in pajamas, while my husband is getting nipped by bedbugs in a Kyrgyz Ho-Jo’s. My situation is my choice. But is it a stupid choice?

Here is the future I secretly fear: Some years from now, my husband leaves his nagging bitch of a wife for a professionally impressive little slut. Divorced, I discover that my life’s sole accomplishment is two grown children who resent and condescend to their inconsequential, needy mother. I become a bitter old power-walking muffinhead whose half-written novels are only read by the other harpies in her writing group.

So I tune in to Focus on the Family, and the honeyed tones of Dr. James Dobson soothe.

Men and women, he tells us, are simple. And different. But different in that divinely crafted, complementary way: His pokes out, mine goes in. In other words, I wave the pom-poms, he makes the touchdown. I get the playground, he gets the empire. After all, he needs respect, while I need love. I trust, he is trustworthy.

Oh, sure-there’s more to bedrock Christian family values than that. And it’s sobering to consider that Focus on the Family is not actually piped in from my degenerate unconscious, but comes from a real, and nearby, place. I get my daily dose from WMCA 570 AM, which emits its signal from somewhere out there in New Jersey. (The show itself, however, is taped in Colorado City, Colo.) I am always jolted to hear that the on-air sponsors-God-fearing personal-injury lawyers, divinely inspired hair-replacement specialists-hail from Jersey or Queens or even my home borough, Brooklyn. Sin City, slapped by the Bible Belt. And I’d feel more comfortable if I could believe that Focus on the Family’s fantasies hurt no real people.

But still, it would be nice, wouldn’t it, if those messed-up, complicated women and girls who want to get abortions needed nothing more than a little Christian love? Wouldn’t it be nice to save all those unborn babies? Wouldn’t it be nice to save all those innocent boys and girls from turning gay? Isn’t it nice to know that there are occasions-National Days of Prayer-when many of our Congressmen fall to their knees in the Capitol’s Rotunda and beg God’s mercy? There sure are days I’d like to embrace the concept of “loving spanking.” There are words from Dr. Dobson’s on-air guests that strike me deep: Raise your children in the Lord; that’s your only chance to be with them for eternity.

I think: Wouldn’t it be nice to believe, for like five minutes, that it’s God’s plan for my husband to live in one world and for me to live in another, and that all I need to ease my fears right now is faith?

I hang out with other mothers who are, like me, well-educated, politically aware. Some days I look around the playground and I think, “Let’s see … she used to be an editor; she made a film once; she used to practice law. Her husband is, what, a vice president now? Her husband is headed for partner; her husband is key grip. Now, tell me again: How is this different from our mothers’ lives?”

It’s hard to get into anything deep, talking with moms on the Third Street Playground. There’s always a bagel I need to wrestle from a squirrel, a runny nose I have to wipe against my hip. I never find the right moment to ask my question: Sisters, is it just me, or does anyone else here ever idly wonder something like, “That husband of mine, he won’t betray the reckless trust I displayed by setting my professional life aside during these crucial career-building years … will he? He wouldn’t cash me in for some bright-breasted young thing who finds his grooming rituals charming … would he? I’m not going to be left in middle age with traumatized kids and half the earning power of my erstwhile better half … will I?”

Is everybody else living out this fantasy of the seamless, lifelong wedded union built on perfect trust? Does any other mother wonder if she’ll look back on her playground years and think: Damn, that was dumb! Didn’t our feminist foremothers warn us about this? Does anyone beside me sometimes need to reaffirm her existence by listening to Christian talk?

I hear the answer in the chaste cheerleader chirping of the ladies who sometimes join Dr. Dobson on his show: Have faith. You are safe being dependent. You and your husband are a team. He’s out in the world, you’re stuck in Park Slope, but you’re working together. Your futures are inseparably entwined. His interests are your interests. You have nothing to fear, least of all from him.

And by the way, did you know that your inspiring story of the spiritual transformation that God’s Word has wrought in your life just might win you a full makeover, courtesy of Dr. Dobson’s sister ministry, “Renewing the Heart”? Shuffling, listening, as fleeter runners spring past, I think: How about that?

By the way, I don’t scorn religious people. I come from a Catholic family. I pray. I’m searching for meaning, too. It’s just that I can’t imagine anything farther from my own muddled sense of the holy than Dr. Dobson’s God.

Back at home, after my run, I switch on the kitchen radio. The kids bellow for their Elmo vitamins, but Dr. Dobson’s country twang goes on lulling. The man I love knocks over his coffee, picks up a phrase-something about a “godly husband”-and barks, “Is that NPR?” If I’m smart, the ladies of Focus on the Family would say, I’ll go over now and give him a kiss.

The truth is, I do need to have faith-just not Dr. Dobson’s brand. I know that. Really. But for the time being, I don’t mind his company.