Chip and Joanna Gaines are the stars of the popular HGTV show “Fixer Upper.” The Gaines have come under fire recently for being members at a church where the pastor has publicly spoken out against homosexual activity. It should not be surprising in our present liberal democracy that not soon after this became public, HGTV made a statement to reassure the nation that the network does not discriminate against anyone in the LGBT community. In fear and loathing, perhaps we are waiting for Chip and Joanna to make a similar type of statement. Maybe they will denounce the pastor and his vision, claiming that while they respect his right to disagree with such a lifestyle, they affirm the LGBT community and its rights. They may even attempt to argue that they were unaware of such a position being held by the pastor, and they might consider leaving the church for speaking such vitriol.
It is also possible that the Gaineses could be very countercultural and affirm the Christian and natural law tradition that views homosexual activity as gravely disordered, as something that does not lead to happiness. The showdown at that point would be intriguing to follow. I hope that the family does not allow the intimidation and bullying mechanisms of contemporary liberal democracy to coerce them into speaking against the truth and the foundation of their beliefs. The incident is just one more witness to the totalitarian tendencies within liberal democratic societies that Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko layed out in his book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies.
The Gaineses’ show is tremendously popular and this is primarily because of the genuine love that is shared between the couple and their children. It is nothing short of refreshing to watch. While many commentators have highlighted this point, I have yet to see attention given to a distinct, but related, feature of the show and the Gaineses’ life in particular. I would argue that perhaps one of the most counter-cultural, and undetected, features of Chip and Joanna’s life is that their home is a truly vibrant place.
The modern and contemporary view of the home could be seen in the following light. Typically, both parents in the home are working full-time jobs. The children are in school five days a week, and the school day lasts from seven o’clock in the morning to anywhere between three and four o’clock in the afternoon. Following this school day comes more hours of extracurricular activities at various locations across town. Children and parents typically arrive home around the same time in the evening for dinner, usually around seven o’clock or later. It is important to observe certain essential features about this typical day in contemporary American life. First, the long school day that children experience seems to imitate and follow the long workday of the parents. The children and parents are out of the home from seven o’clock in the morning to seven o’clock in the evening. At first glance, seeing this fact describing the typical American family (of course it does not apply to all, but is just a generalization based on frequency) may not shock or disturb us. However, the effects that result from this fact display a rather gloomy picture. Since parents and children are gone for those ten to twelve hours five days a week, then this means that the home has been reduced to something more akin to a hotel. We eat breakfast (maybe) in the morning and return home at night to eat dinner and sleep, only to return to this cycle the next day. Moreover, since the home is empty, and frequently so, it begins to instill in children an idea that the most essential and human activities in life occur outside the home. Instead of the home as the locus of virtue, leisure, family work, rest, humor, and the fruits of the abiding presence of persons, it has become crippled and darkened. Little light shines from our homes, apart from those of the televisions or computers.
Combining the dominating forces of our technocratic culture with a loss of the home as a vibrant place of fulfilling and humane activities provides a uniquely crushing impact on children. Young people are not only growing up with unprecedented access to technology, but they are shaped by technology to such a degree that it has become the very medium through which they view the world. As a result, the ordinary yet enriching features of home life are no longer seen as such. Home life is boring and unfulfilling, especially when compared with the entertainment and power contained within our smartphones or iPads. Homes are now empty voids with little real activity occurring within them and little human warmth and charity provided by conversations and purposeful activities. More often than not, there is only emptiness, noise, and lights.
Contrast this contemporary image with that seen in the Gaines household. While Chip and Joanna are both working full-time, blossoming in their professions, they are doing so either within the home or proximate to it. Chip’s business of flipping houses and Joanna’s home-based business are done only locally, within Waco, Texas, the site of Baylor University, where both Chip and Joanna attended college. The proximity of their work to their home provides an enriching and fruitful element to their family life—the children are frequently with mom and dad. Although the Gaineses’ children attend a local Catholic school, they are intimately connected with and physically close to the work of both of their parents. Such an atmosphere builds a bond of love and intimacy between parents and children that is rarely seen anymore. It also provides a window for the children to see the virtues and good habits of their parents, and to see how they work together as a unified whole in both love and friendship.
The agrarian and cultural critic Wendell Berry comes to mind here. In writing about the status of the contemporary household after the industrial revolution, Berry portrays a view of American life that is the antithesis of the life of Chip and Joanna Gaines.
A woman’s work became less accomplished and less satisfying. It became easier for her to believe that what she did was not important. And this heightened her anxiety and made her even more avid and even less discriminating a consumer. . . . The man’s mind was not simplified by a degenerative process, but by a kind of coup: as soon as he separated working and living and began to work away from home, the practical considerations of the household were excerpted from his mind all at once . . . And in this division the household was destroyed as a practical bond between husband and wife. It was not longer a condition, but only . . .the site of mutual estrangement. . . . And it is important to recognize that this division—this destroyed household that now stands between the sexes—is a wound that is suffered inescapably by both men and women. Sometimes it is assumed that the estrangement of women in their circumscribed “women’s world” can only be for the benefit of men. But that interpretation seems to be based on the law of competition that is modeled in the exploitive industrial economy. (Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997), 115–16.)
For Berry, a life of integration means that our homes and places of work are united together in a community that is characterized by a genuine sense of membership. We love this particular town or neighborhood not only because we live there but because it is essential for shaping our identity. For Chip and Joanna, living and working within their local community, surrounded by their children and the love of their marriage, is the very integral life of which Berry is speaking. I would also add here that the Gaines family lives on approximately forty acres of land. Their children are surrounded by animals and daily household activities that reveal the robust nature of the home. The family is present and there at the home because many things need to be done for the home to be what it is. Along with this is the fact that Chip and Joanna refuse to allow their kids to watch television or to own any of their own technological devices. Contemporary technological devices do not foster culture, within or outside of the home.
The next few weeks in our American culture will be more than intriguing to watch. Chip and Joanna Gaines may be forced to comment upon whether or not they agree with their pastor’s views on homosexuality. Let us hope for their witness and testimony to the truth of things. At the same time, I hope that we can turn to them for the wisdom for which our culture desperately yearns. Those on both the political left and right agree on the need to build and sustain stronger, healthier communities. Yet, few seem aware that Chip and Joanna Gaines are living this truth right before us. They understand the fact that the key to building healthy communities is through cultivating local places, economies, towns, and neighborhoods. It calls to mind an image of American life seen and articulated by former president Theodore Roosevelt, an insight that has become one of the underlying features of the life of Chip and Joanna Gaines: “The primary work of the average man and the average woman—and all exceptional men and women whose lives are to be really full and happy—must be the great primal work of home-making and home-keeping.” (Theodore Roosevelt, The Foes of Our Own Household (New York: George H. Doran, 1917), 233–34)
Brian Jones is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is currently writing his dissertation on the political philosophy of James V. Schall. He is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and currently lives outside Houston with his wife and three girls.