September 2, 2003

Beyond ‘Sex, Marriage and Family’: Saving Our Children

By April Bogle & Eliza Ellison

In 1997, Newsweek magazine carried a major story on “lost children” in America. These were children born in poverty and in broken households; they were more likely than not to drop out of school, out of step and then out of society altogether.

At the time, that number exceeded 15 million little souls. The number would double in two decades, the story predicted, unless states and churches, agencies and academies gave children a new priority.

The Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory (CISR) is giving children a new priority in a major three-year study on “Saving Our Children: The Role of State, Church and the Arts.” This project, which began in August, will involve two dozen senior faculty from across campus, including the School of Law’s new Woodruff Professor, Martha Fineman, as well as law professors Frank Alexander, Michael Broyde, Johan van der Vyver and Karen Worthington. The project will be led by CISR Director John Witte and Martin Marty, Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Religious Studies.

“Saving Our Children” will involve an intense faculty seminar and four or five public forums each year, and will culminate in a major international conference in 2006 as well as a new series of volumes.

The project builds, in part, on the momentum of CISR’s first project on “Sex, Marriage and Family & the Religions of the Book,” which aimed to summon the wisdom of Judaism, Christianity and Islam for their enduring insights into hard questions surrounding sex, marriage and family life. These questions addressed marital formation, maintenance and dissolution; children’s care, control and custody; sexual identity, performance and expression; intergenerational rights, duties and expectations, and more. The project now is in its research and writing phase, with 30 new volumes in press or preparation.

“Saving Our Children,” as the name implies, focuses more specifically on children.

“Children were not absent from our first project,” Witte said, “but they were often treated incidentally or instrumentally. We were mostly concerned with children as the goals of marriage and sex, the objects of contraception and abortion, the subjects of affection or abuse, the models of innocence and piety, the gravamens of separation or divorce, and more.”

The new project focuses on children as children—in their being and becoming, in their birth and growth. It will study the rites and rights attached to birthing and naming, baptism and circumcision, education and discipline. It will study the steps and stages in a child’s physical, emotional, sexual, moral and spiritual formation, as well as the rituals and ordeals, and the rights and responsibilities, attached to each.

Further, the project will examine the pathos of child abuse and rape, child poverty and homelessness, juvenile delinquency and violence, and illegitimacy and infanticide. Finally, the project will look at the mystery of the child—that combination of innocence and imagination, acuity and candor, empathy and healing, and sharing and caring that uniquely become a child.

Like other CISR projects, “Saving Our Children” will be interdisciplinary in methodology, drawing especially on the insights and methods of law, theology and the humanities. It will be interreligious in inspiration, looking at the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism and the Enlightenment. And the project will be international in orientation, placing the American discussion of the child in an emerging global conversation.

As part of “Saving Our Children,” Marty will host the Family Forum Series, a schedule of public lectures, headlined by former President Jimmy Carter, running throughout 2003–04 and centering around the theme of children. Joining Carter in the series will be Fineman, former CDC Director William Foege and Habitat for Humanity Founder Millard Fuller. Scheduled lectures include:

Sept. 22: “Who Cares for the Children?” Presented by Browning and Fineman. Noon–1:30 p.m.

Oct. 14:
“What Happens to Children in Peril?” Presented by Carter and Marty. 2–3:15 p.m.

Oct. 27: “Children: Will We Ever Get It Right?” (Currie Lecture) Presented by Foege. Noon–1:30 p.m.; a reception will precede the lecture, starting at 11:30 a.m.

Feb. 17: “Where Do the Children Live?” (Decalogue Lecture) Presdented by Fuller and Marty. Time TBA.

All Family Forum Series lectures will be held in the law school’s Tull Auditorium. For more information on the series or on “Saving the Children,” call CISR at 404-712-8713.