‘Natural Family’ Feud
This little town in the red-rock bluffs of southern Utah ought to be predictable.
Nearly 97% of the 3,500 residents are white. About 80% voted for President Bush in the last election. Many families trace their roots back five generations, to the Mormon pioneers who laid out the town in the 1870s with wide streets, a prudent irrigation system -- and, as a historical account noted, “not a grog shop or gambling saloon or dance hall” to be found.
Conservative values run so deep that one business owner said she’s afraid to burn incense in her shop, lest she be dismissed as a New Age nut.
So members of the Kanab City Council hardly thought they were courting controversy when they passed a resolution proclaiming that their top priority was to protect and nurture the “natural family.”
The resolution described the natural family as man and woman, duly married “as ordained of God,” with hearts “open to a full quiver of children.” The council decreed that such households are to be treasured as “the locus of the true common good,” a bulwark against crime, delinquency, drug abuse and worse.
With rousing (if not always grammatical) rhetoric, the council promised to do all it could to promote the natural family: “We envision young women growing into wives, homemakers, and mothers; and we see young men growing into husbands, home-builders, and fathers.... We look to a landscape of family homes, lawns, and gardens busy with useful tasks and ringing with the laughter of many children.”
The resolution passed unanimously in January.
“My gut reaction was, maybe it’s a little chauvinistic,” said Councilwoman Carol Sullivan, a retired teacher. But her four male colleagues backed the resolution, and no one came to the council meeting to argue against it, so she ignored her reservations.
“I thought, maybe it’s just me,” Sullivan said.
The fallout divides Kanab to this day.
It started at the next council meeting, when dozens of indignant residents, some wearing buttons declaring “Quiverless,” called the resolution offensive. The opinion page of the local paper -- usually filled with letters thanking neighbors for casseroles and kindness -- sizzled with outrage:
“The embarrassment this has brought to many of the locals here is unforgivable.”
“The next step here is the city government going around and painting a red X on the non-natural family door.”
And: “God bless us every one.... We certainly need it.”
Matt Livingston, a 17-year-old intern at the Southern Utah News, wrote a column that chided Mayor Kim Lawson for intolerance: “I would expect a more Christlike countenance on your part.” The mayor responded by writing to the school superintendent and the teen’s church leader, suggesting that they ought to bring the young man in line.
“Aren’t you stooping a bit low, mayor?” Editor Dixie Brunner taunted in an editorial.
Business owners struggled to avoid offending customers with their stance. Insurance agent Colt Henderson, 26, told his clients they weren’t “any less of a person” if they didn’t belong to a natural family. “But there’s nothing wrong with saying that’s the ideal,” he said. His support for the resolution brought in at least one new account.
As word of the resolution spread, the Southern Utah News began running letters from out-of-towners who pledged to visit Kanab to honor the council’s courage.
“Finally, a ray of hope for the family unit! Two thumbs up for Kanab,” a man from Provo wrote, adding that he planned to cancel his tickets to Disneyland and take his family to southern Utah instead.
But others vowed to boycott the town; syndicated travel columnist Arthur Frommer urged tourists to stay away. At the Shilo Inn, manager Tammie Leslie faxed several canceled reservations to the mayor. The biggest blow came when a classic car club scrapped a convention here, costing the hotel $14,000.
Just when it looked like the anger was subsiding, a conservative talk-radio host in nearby Cedar City stirred the pot this month by organizing a showcase of local talent that he dubbed the “Celebration of the Family” -- the natural family. (Turnout at the performance was sparse.)
The same week, Kanab conservatives started their own newspaper to counter Brunner’s weekly, which is viewed in certain circles as a liberal rag, and a saucy one at that. (Brunner said she exercised restraint: She printed nearly 300 letters -- but not the one claiming “the mayor has excrement for brains.”)
Amid all the shouting, some residents have found themselves quietly thinking through their core values about faith, family and the public good.
For Sullivan, 65, the doubts began almost as soon as she came home from the council vote. She and her husband had been unable to have children. Did that make her less of a citizen?
She began to hear similar questions from constituents, especially single mothers. Did the council disdain them because they had no husband? Were they truly contributing -- as the resolution implied -- to “serious public pathologies” because they worked two jobs instead of staying home to tend the garden?
“It made some women feel like a failure,” Sullivan said. “For many people, it brought forth emotions of inadequacy and feelings that they don’t fit.”
Even some who did fit were uneasy with the resolution.
Kort Stirland, a local pharmacist, is a father of five, a solid Republican and, like the mayor, a Mormon. His church considers the family eternal, the foundation of life in heaven as well as on Earth. Stirland is proud of that. He’s also proud to honor his church’s decree that fathers provide, mothers nurture and married couples have an obligation to “multiply and replenish the earth.”
But when he hears that same language coming from City Hall, Stirland bristles: “I don’t think politicians have the right to dictate to the community.”
He’s offended, too, at the implication that family values mean valuing only one type of family. “I don’t support gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean I don’t support single mothers,” said Stirland, 56. “The resolution was in poor taste.”
“The Natural Family: A Vision For the City of Kanab” did not originate here. It was written in Salt Lake City by Paul Mero, president of a conservative think tank called the Sutherland Institute.
Mero sent copies of his vision to cities across Utah last fall, urging local officials to consider it as a basis for public policy. In Mero’s view, that means zoning for big homes with space for plenty of children. It means subsidizing stay-at-home moms and encouraging home schooling.
Taken to a logical conclusion, it could also mean denying licenses to day cares so mothers find it hard not to stay home. Mero says he can’t see any city going that far. But he is wistful for the days when it was legal for Ford Motor Co. to pay a father of five more than a bachelor working the same assembly job. “We like that idea,” said Mero, 48.
And what of gays and lesbians, divorced men and women, couples who remain childless by choice?
Mero argues that “society should maintain the expectation” that they will one day form a natural family. And if they don’t, well, they should accept that public benefits will favor those who get with the program.
“They ought to unselfishly set aside their own experiences in life and, for the greater good, say ‘Yeah, I get it. The natural family does benefit society.’ I don’t see what’s so hard about that,” said Mero, who has been married 30 years and has six children. “This is just so self-evident.”
It makes sense to Kanab resident Ande Beckstrand, a 36-year-old mother of four: “We live in a country where, unfortunately, we have to legislate a lot of things that seem obvious because people make such poor choices in life,” she said, buckling her two littlest ones into their car seats with a tickle.
So far, though, Kanab is alone in adopting Mero’s vision.
The four members of the Kanab council who still endorse the resolution would not discuss why they found it appealing. Many residents only wish the debate would die down so they can focus on a more important order of business: the summer tourist season.
Once supported by logging, uranium mining and ranching, Kanab now relies heavily on spending by visitors headed to nearby Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks.
Gas stations, souvenir shops and motels line the business district.
The residential neighborhoods are a hodgepodge -- a gingerbread-trimmed Victorian next to a brick ranch across the street from a ramshackle bungalow. Many driveways are jammed with boats, bikes, all-terrain vehicles and spare parts.
Residents still think of Kanab as a cozy, close-knit town, where everyone turns out for the Lion’s Club pancake breakfast. Children spend the summer hiking the bluffs and catching lizards in the creek. Retirees keep busy volunteering with so many civic and church committees, they can’t keep count.
But as more outsiders have discovered the quiet nights and majestic views of Kanab, tensions have emerged.
Old-timers blame liberal tree-huggers from out of town for shutting down the logging industry and scuttling a proposed coal mine in the desert. In 1996, the Kanab council went so far as to declare members of two conservation groups “persona non grata,” vowing not to recognize them if they tried to speak at a public meeting.
Anger peaked when President Clinton designated 1.7 million acres of wilderness a national monument shortly before he left office. County officials here launched a guerrilla campaign to reclaim some of that land by grading roads through the backcountry. Their standoff with the federal government continues.
Suspicion of outsiders is still very much alive. In particular, locals are wary of the “dog lovers” who come from around the nation to work at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
Located in a red-rock canyon just outside Kanab, Best Friends is the county’s biggest employer. But fifth-generation ranchers don’t know quite what to make of the shelter’s vegetarian buffets, its bunny rescues and its commitment to saving even the mangiest stray.
“It’s a different group,” said Truman Lynch, 79, who raised five children in Kanab. “Different standards. Different lifestyles.”
The newcomers haven’t much changed the look of Kanab. An espresso bar sells veggie burgers and stocks its magazine racks with the New Yorker. “But there are no New Age-y stores. No people walking around in freaky clothes,” said Catherine Ives, 65, who moved here from New York City in 1985 and still considers herself an outsider.
To Kanab natives, however, the threat is clear. They’ve already lost control of their land and their economy. They don’t want to lose the core of who they are.
The natural family resolution is one way they see to push back.
In a letter to the editor this spring, JoAnne Honey took the newcomers to task for rallying against the resolution with the slogan Take Our Community Back.
Noting that she has lived in Kanab for 78 years, she wrote: “Maybe (just maybe) when you have lived here even a fraction of that time, perhaps you will have earned the right to call Kanab ‘your’ community. That hasn’t happened yet.”
From the newspaper office, editor Brunner chronicles the bickering with wry wonder.
“They are good people here, and that’s all there is to it,” she said. “But sometimes, I pull my hair out.”
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