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May 11, 2012

Julia’s Monochromatic Life

Last week President Obama’s campaign website premiered “The Life of Julia,” a slideshow in which a fictional everywoman character benefits from a government program at every stage of life.

Each slide contains a retro-chic illustration of Julia against a pastel-hued background, but the slideshow lacks the full color of a human life.

Julia’s story focuses almost entirely on government policies and programs. In its own slideshow, “A Better Life for Julia,” The Heritage Foundation illustrates why these policies and programs are problematic and suggests how a better life for Julia is possible.

But the problem with the slideshow lies not only with the policies. The fictional account of Julia’s life shows an underlying way of viewing the world that is as revealing as it is troubling.

According to this worldview, only two primary characters appear on the stage of life: individuals and government. The relationships and institutions of civil society that animate life and promote flourishing remain hidden to the audience.

We don’t see Julia surrounded by any kind of faith community. We don’t see her volunteering at a ministry, nor do we see her encounter a crisis during which fellow church members bring over dinner or help out with transportation needs.

We don’t see Julia married. At age 31 “Julia decides to have a child,” but with whom? There is no mention of a husband. Better not tell Julia that raising a child outside of marriage increases his likelihood of child poverty six-fold.

We don’t see Julia calling upon her friends for help, and—other than being on her parents’ health insurance—there is no mention of a relationship with parents, siblings or other relatives.

We don’t see Julia donating time at the local Habitat for Humanity. We don’t see her asking her neighbors to watch her kids while she and her (non-existent?) husband go for a date night. We don’t see her approaching co-workers or local businesses to raise funds for her son’s band trip.

The only institution Julia seems to rely on is government.

In short, Julia’s life is monochromatic. Despite the different pastel backgrounds, everything in the slideshow appears in shades of government dependence.

The worldview that seeps through the slides of this campaign tool is that, for a full and happy life, all we need is a government that gives us more and more.

But experience teaches us that this simply isn’t true. There is a rich palette of other relationships and social organizations that give color to life. Marriage, family, neighborhood, church, and local non-profits may not appear in Obama’s narrative, but millions of Americans turn to and rely on these institutions every day for a myriad of needs.

America’s policies and policymakers should stand up for women throughout their lives. That starts with viewing women as more than isolated Julias and appreciating the many valuable institutions and relationships present in each phase of their lives.

A more accurate worldview is needed to improve upon the shallow, monochromatic lens of the Obama campaign and enable us to see Julia—and all Americans—in living color.

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil., is a Research Fellow in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

First Appeared on Mere Orthodoxy.

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