Sometimes Getting Along With Family Means Shutting Up, And That’s Okay

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As Mary Cheney and her wife, Heather Poe, learned after Mary’s sister Liz announced her anti gay marriage stance, it can feel like a gut-wrenching betrayal when a loved one’s allegiance to an ideology contradicts your way of thinking, let alone living. Whether you savor conflict or detest it, clashes of conviction with family members (public, or private) typically hit us harder than those involving outsiders. (Hence the hoards who take the self-protective, numbing measure of getting high while home for the holidays!)

One reason for this may be that we yearn for the unattainable: a romanticized type of connection to blood relatives forged through alignment on every issue that matters—as determined by each of us, of course. Another possible explanation is that we’re automatically armed with the power to hurt those we love on a visceral level by way of knowing them so well. Since we tend to assume that an adversary within our tribe will forgive us eventually, we’re also more likely to bend the rules by embracing low blows.

As the daughter of an Atheist woman and a devoutly Roman Catholic man, I’m no stranger to the awkward moments that arise when two people with disparate core beliefs live under the same roof for 30-plus years. Growing up, whenever Dad referenced a religious happening or uttered one of several trigger words (heaven, hell, sin, Jesus, faith, God, apostle, bible, Christ, cross, pope, holy, etc.), Mom would usually roll her eyes and offer a disparaging remark about the number of priests who have been convicted of pedophilia. Even “unnecessarily biblical names” (Andrew, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, etc.) sometimes sparked an enthusiastic rant. In response to such “predictable displays of paganism,” Dad might say, “I’ll pray for the salvation of your soul later.”

But while my parents’ sparring is consistently tinged with a certain amount of resentment, it is rarely, if ever, mean-spirited. Because underlying the ideological chasm between them is an ocean of tolerance—one that might swell and recede, but never dries up completely. Regarding religious outlooks, neither Mom nor Dad possesses a particle of respect for the other, but they most certainly respect each other as human beings. As a result, I can say that most of what I’ve learned about acceptance—and the all-important art of shutting the f*ck up and stepping aside when necessary—was gleaned from the experience of being raised in an “interfaith” household.

Throughout childhood, my two siblings and I sat with our dad in the front pew of the local Catholic Church every Sunday without exception. Though my mother never accompanied us, she supported the decision to expose her children to religion so we could make informed choices about whether or not to worship in adulthood. (She also supported fooling parishioners into believing that her husband was a single father, a widespread misconception that gave her a laugh.) From the beginning, I didn’t exactly take to religion. I joined the choir and became one of the first few female altar servers—not because I wanted to get closer to God or to do things in His service, but because I was bored out of my fucking mind and singing or ringing bells on cue beat pretending to listen to yet another tedious homily. I pled with Mom constantly to excuse me from attending weekly Mass, but in spite of her staunch atheistic stance, she refused to subvert Dad. There’s a lesson in open-mindedness and restraint tucked inside there that took me more than two decades to grasp.

Since earning the right to vote—and, more importantly, to skip Church—I have not stepped foot in a building lined with stained glass windows depicting the seven sacraments unless obligated to attend a wedding, a funeral, or some other milestone in the life of a friend. Today, if I were to construct an altar in my home today, it would probably honor Christopher Hitchens, the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It goes without saying that many of my views differ from those of my father, whose religious fervor has only magnified with age. Dad now goes to Church daily, works with various Catholic charities, participates in a men’s only Saturday morning bible group, and is a Eucharistic minister, which means that he hands out those circular Styrofoam-like wafers that are the body of Christ. In the fall of 2011, the man was inducted into the exclusive international Order of the Knights of Malta. I know that he donates money to pro-life organizations, whereas I am decidedly pro-choice, and that his position on marriage is not exactly progressive, whereas I rushed to become an officiant so I could preside over one of New York’s first legal same-sex unions.

In light of the holiday season and the potential for dinner table debate, I rang Dad to ask whether it bothers him that not one of his children became a practicing Catholic adult. In response, he said, “The authoritative teaching of my Church is religious freedom, so I have to respect your choices.” With a self-deprecating chuckle, he added, “I struck out. But I’m hoping that God, in his mercy, will forgive me.” On being married to a non-believer, he offered: “Twenty minutes into any debate, I hear that I’m delusional, but I don’t let it bother me because while I believe that Catholicism has been good for me, I cannot force anyone to follow the path I have chosen. She has her own views and I cannot change her.”

It follows that the rest of us should lend my dad the same level of respect without hesitation. This is hard to do on the occasions that he forwards an email we interpret as overly preachy, or when too much booze is consumed and a safe subject is abandoned for a contentious one, such as the papacy, or women’s right to choose. But what I’ve learned from my parents is that there’s strength in acceptance, which sometimes requires ignoring the portions of a loved one’s identity that don’t sync with your own. Ann Friedman seems to get this, as does Maureen Dowd.

Is it phony to steer discourse away from delicate matters? Maybe. But it’s also peaceful—and peace, if not more important than ego, is definitely more pleasant than spite. To put it in Dad’s words, “There are only so many times you can have the same argument.”

If the Cheney sisters are planning to eat turkey together, the tension looming in the dining room might be too thick for the world’s greatest chainsaw to carve—unless both parties can recognize that shelving their beliefs temporarily doesn’t have to mean compromising who they are. The fight for equality doesn’t hinge on anyone’s Thanksgiving table. So if I were Mary, I would shut the f*ck up about gay rights until it’s time to part. Then, on my out, I would casually ask Liz whether it troubles her that turkeys, like most things in nature, are known to exhibit homosexual behavior. TC mark

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