The XX Factor

Paid Parental Leave: What Would Jesus Do?

Daniel Murphy, #28 of the New York Mets and vocal supporter of family leave.  

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Daniel Murphy, the Mets second baseman who was slammed by some boneheaded sports radio guys for taking his contractually obligated paternity leave, was at the White House on Monday speaking at a forum on working fathers. He offered rousing support for family leave. “When [my son] Noah asks me one day, ‘What happened? What was it like when I was born?’ I could have answered, ‘Well, Stephen Strasburg hung me a breaking ball that day, son. I slammed it into the right field corner,” Murphy told the audience. But instead, he continued, he can tell his son, “I am the one who cut his umbilical cord.”

Murphy didn’t just stand up for a more modern, egalitarian view of parenting; he  framed his decision to take paternity leave as a religious one. “We try to take Jesus Christ and we try to put him in the center of everything,” he said. “So instead of okay, I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a baseball player—I just try to take Jesus, put him right in the middle,” he said. Is Murphy on to something? Could Christian ethics be used to reframe the paid parental leave debate?

In general, “pro-family” religious conservatives have not been so supportive of federal paid parental leave. Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, a Methodist who has a 0 rating from an organization that tracks the separation of church and state (meaning, zero support for that separation), has argued against giving federal employees four weeks of paid leave, saying in 2009, “Maybe we just ought to let federal employees take 16 years off.”  Family values Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who attended a conservative Christian college and has had three children while in office, voted no on giving federal employees paid leave, too.

A recent publication put out by the YG Network, a conservative policy nonprofit, called Room to Grow, argues that paid family leave from the government is a bad idea because, “while it would assist some women, it would also disrupt the employment contracts of the majority of working Americans who currently have leave benefit [sic]. This new federal entitlement would encourage businesses currently providing paid leave programs—including more generous leave packages—to cease doing so.”

First of all, the majority of working Americans don’t have leave “benefit,” unless you count unpaid FMLA leave, which doesn’t cover about 40 percent of employees. Oh, and some studies show that almost 20 percent of employers don’t comply with FMLA leave anyway. So then, YG Network is actually talking about the 11 percent of pretty exclusively upper class workers who get paid family leave, and who might lose some of that leave in order for 100 percent of workers to get any paid leave at all.

Elizabeth Stoker, a writer and a student of Christian ethics at the University of Cambridge, points out why that stance doesn’t exactly square with Christian morality:

You can see very clearly that this is not a pro-family or pro-life policy plan. It aims to secure the interests of the wealthy by ignoring the needs of the poor, and in doing so disciplines an underclass into resisting family life (because they can’t afford it). It is not reflective in that it doesn’t drill down to the moral core of its own question, that is, what obligation does a state have to promote the concrete availability of family life? Instead it presupposes its own conclusions (the wealthy are absolutely entitled to the luxury of family) and glosses over the people it throws under the bus. Pro-life? Hardly.

Certainly it’s not a direct or easy line from “Pro-baseball player takes a few measly days of paid parental leave and also talks about Jesus” to “Getting conservative Christians to agree that paid parental leave is worth their support.” But maybe it’s a baby step (sorry) toward broader support for something that pretty much every study shows is important for children and families. And certainly Murphy—a Christian baseball player—is better positioned to change minds than someone like vocal paternity leave proponent and MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who is already preaching to the choir.