At what point do you disown your family?
November 11, 2008 7:00 PM   Subscribe

My father told me the other night that he considers himself a "failure" because of how I've turned out. This, among other things, makes me not want to go home for Christmas break and makes me wonder if our relationship should continue at all. Am I blowing this out of proportion?

Apologies in advance for length.

I'm 24. Grew up in a stable family in a Southern state. First in my family to go to college and am now about to graduate from a top 10 law school. Working next year for a big successful law firm in New York. I am kind and respectful of others and am well-liked by my peers. I have always been skeptical of organized religion and have not gone to church in years, although I believe that the Bible (as well as other religious texts) do offer some important moral lessons (although I do not believe that those moral lessons are necessary to be a morally good person).

I've never been particularly close to my family. I'm not close to my siblings at all and my dad and I never talk about much other than new gadgets and football. We just don't have that much in common. Since I've moved away from home, we usually talk once every other week and I go home to visit once or twice a year.

My mom passed away a couple years ago after a long illness. My dad has always been vaguely Christian but never very outspoken about it, nor did he ever go to church much. Since the time when my mom started getting really sick, he began to go to his local Southern Baptist church. For the past year, he's been dating a woman he met at this church. He now goes to church three or four times a week, attends lectures there put on by Focus on the Family, and basically organizes his entire social life around church activities (it's a small town--30,000 or so). Last year when I was home for Christmas, it came on the news that Edwards was leading in the Democratic primaries. My dad's reaction to this was "well, at least he's a white male." This was said lightly and everybody (my siblings and his girlfriend) laughed. But it was clear to me that the joke masked real feelings about minority groups.

Last weekend I called him up for our every-other-week chat. I tried to avoid the election, but it came up. To make a long story short, my dad is a bigot (although he won't admit it) and thinks that minorities (blacks, Muslims, and god, especially homosexuals) are destroying the country and the values it was founded on. He thinks the country is unambiguously a Christian nation, that the Founders were unambiguously Christian (the same way that he is a Christian), and that our leaders should reflect that by being openly Christian and using their religious beliefs to make policy decisions. He says the Republican party is the party of traditional Christian values and the Democrats are not. He told me that he supports every decision President Bush has ever made (despite having some "presentational problems") and thinks that Obama will bring about the total destruction of the country.

I support Obama for many reasons. My dad and I argued about his policies and about the intersection of religion and politics for 90 minutes or so. Near the end, he was trying to explain his fear of the destruction of the country and said that it will come about because the Democrats have no values and they will corrupt the country. He followed up by saying that he "feels like a failure as a parent" because of my political beliefs and because I don't have a personal relationship with (his) God. It was, obviously, really hurtful to hear this from him.

This admission, and his ardent adherence to a politics of intolerance, make me wonder about the possibility of a continued relationship with my family. I really don't want to go home next month for Christmas break (the plan was to go for three or four days). But I'm fearful that not doing so would be perceived as a really hostile act and that it might lead to no relationship at all.

So my question is: I'm sure some of you have parents with whom you have deep political and religious disagreements. If you've chosen to have a relationship with them in spite of that, how have you handled the disagreements? If you've chosen to distance yourself from your family, how has that been? What are the consequences of disowning your family? And ultimately: which course of action should I pursue?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (56 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I COMPLETELY understand where you are coming from. I am afraid it's one of those things that you'll continue to bang heads on. While you love your dad and he loves you back, you're a different person. He grew up in a different environment than you. Especially if you're more educated than he is, I am not sure if he has a sense of 'failure' in himself. While it's difficult to respond back with affection, you may have to limit your conversation to pleasantries. You shouldn't try to end your relationship, however, as he's still your dad, and regardless of what he says, he loves you. The conflict is with himself, not with you.

Go visit your dad. I am going for a short time period myself. Try not to talk about religion, politics, race, etc. Talk about sports, and pleasant things. Listen to him.

Yes, it's easier said than done. While it's difficult, try to look at it from his point of view. You'll have less regrets when you're older.
posted by icollectpurses at 7:11 PM on November 11, 2008

I have these disagreements. We generally don't discuss it. When we do, it often ends in shouting or tears or both. Despite this, I have never, ever considered disowning my family, not for one minute.

I think your dad saying he felt like a failure is a heat of the moment kind of thing to say. I can picture people in my family feeling like a failure if I was not going to church regularly, for instance. But they don't mean they think I'm a failure. If he had said that you were a failure, that would be different.

It's hard to respect people who have different beliefs and opinions, but you should try, especially with your family. maybe see them less, maybe don't engage, do what works, but try hard to maintain a relationship.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:13 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am also distant from my family for political/values based differences. I get together with them at Christmas but try to keep it focused on spending time together doing non-religious stuff (museums, botanical gardens, etc.) and only for 3-4 days. I also do 2X a month phone calls and keep it light. We, being my immediately family, all just try not to talk about it.

My extended family is another story. They are quite vocal about our differences. Most of the time I choose to not spend time with them, but on the occasion that I have to (every 3 or 4 years perhaps), I try to not engage them in such talk. Being "the bigger person" feels good.

I wish that I could help you figure out how you're going to make this work with your family, but as an outsider, there isn't much you can do. All I can offer is what I did.
posted by k8t at 7:14 PM on November 11, 2008

I walked away from my father about two and a half years ago (actually, he screeched out of my driveway, but you get the idea). A fight precipitated the "break-up," but our relationship had been very stressful for many years, and the stress might have continued to this day had the fight not happened.

We had no contact for about four months, and then he contacted me by letter to give me the conditions under which he would continue our relationship. These conditions were not ok with me and I told him so. We've exchanged Christmas and birthday cards but had not spoken or seen each other until this past August, when we met for lunch in a neutral location about halfway between our homes. And honestly, it was like having lunch with an old boss, or a friend's dad, or a person you're seated next to on a plane. There was no animosity, but at the end of the lunch I realized nothing had changed and it wasn't important to me to have him in my life at any level deeper than a birthday card. I wish him well and on many levels still do feel affection for him (my childhood memories of him, I guess), but he's just not someone I want to spend time with any more.

This may sound cold, but it has been so FREEING for me personally. You're an adult. You don't have to answer to anyone but your own conscience. You can't choose your family, but you can choose the degree to which you allow them into your life.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:15 PM on November 11, 2008 [16 favorites]

I just don't bring it up anymore, and keep my distance from them in general. However, I would try not to let it get in the way of having some positive relationship with your father. Go home for the holidays as planned, if he makes it miserable for you then leave, and tell him why. Hopefully he will be able to get past it and realize having a positive relationship with his child is more important than your political differences.
posted by sophist at 7:15 PM on November 11, 2008

I'm also from the south, from parents with similar views, and it seems my political leanings are similar to yours. And I have 16 years more experience than you, so listen to me now: Stay away from these subjects in the future if you want to have a relationship with your dad. If he brings it up without getting personal, just brush it off with a light comment. You cannot convince your dad of anything, just as he's not going to convince you, so there's no point in hashing it out until feelings get hurt.

About his calling you a failure, though: that's too harsh to let go, in my opinion. You should tell him he hurt you and give him the chance to apologize; we all occasionally say things in the heat of the moment that we don't mean. If he doesn't back down at all, you're going to have to decide what kind of hurt you're willing to tolerate from this man.

If he doesn't apologize, you should rethink any in-person visits with him. When my mom went through her born-again phase and told me I was going to burn in hell because I wasn't born again, I told her that I wouldn't be visiting her (nor she me) until she stopped telling her only daughter she'd wind up a crisp. After all, she couldn't possibly be happy with such a sinner in her house, right?
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:21 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's tough, but it's your family - that's something worth working to fix. I understand that you can't support his politics and feel insulted by his bigotry, but I don't see what severing ties will fix. It won't make your Dad any less bigoted, and it will only breed more bad feelings among your family that you may regret later.

I would continue to try and avoid politics, and show him through your actions and relationship why he should reconsider his preconceived notions of what Obama-supporting godless liberals are like.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:21 PM on November 11, 2008

I wish him well and on many levels still do feel affection for him (my childhood memories of him, I guess), but he's just not someone I want to spend time with any more.

Yep, and seconding the freeing nature of the decision to move on. I wish it could be different with my mother, but it isn't, and accepting that fact really removed most of the suffering I was causing myself by trying to change it into what it should be.
posted by headnsouth at 7:21 PM on November 11, 2008

Let people make what they will about parental relationships, but the truth is parents are—when you come right down to it—just people. When they do mean, hurtful things to their adult children, those same adult children are really under no obligation to stick around or "tough it out."

If it hurts you, it's probably because it's hurtful. So don't second guess yourself. In addition, understand that growing up and away from parents is normal and healthy.

Skip Christmas. Go be with friends. Have some drinks. Hang out with some folks who aren't all sad because our president isn't going to be a bigoted good old boy anymore.

I don't see what severing ties will fix.

It will feel better, for one thing. For another thing, since when are our broken families our burden to fix? Move on and don't feel bad for a minute.
posted by littlerobothead at 7:32 PM on November 11, 2008

Let me try putting the best possible spin on this: he's in a very conservative, politically active church that is deeply engaged in the "culture war." From the perspective of congregations like that, the single most important thing a parent can do is raise conservative children, politically and theologically. You are neither. Since he is being told that his success as a parent is judged solely by that standard (and since he has come to believe it) he feels like a failure.
Maybe you can think of it as a confession more than an accusation. He didn't pass on to you what are now his most important values.
Maybe you do need to just move on, but based on what you've written, I think it's a bit early for that. And he could be unduly influenced by his feelings for the woman he is dating. Yes, you have very different values, but so do many other people who manage to have a good-enough relationship. I'd change the topic as often as necessary, but I wouldn't close the door just yet. If anyone is going to be in a position to help him moderate his outlook, it's you.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:33 PM on November 11, 2008 [12 favorites]

If the inevitable topic has to come up, then do your best to either defer, placate, or ameliorate. Fighting illogic with logic is like oil and water, alas, and leads to these futile, and hurtful, episodes.

Easier said than done, for sure - especially in the heat of the moment. But you're a law student, so you have a leg up. Let him win: you have the virtue of your logic, and he wouldn't be swayed in the first place, anyway.

This is assuming you go the course where you maintain amicable relations. If you can find a way to skirt the issue (seemingly impossible), then I assume he'd appreciate a conflicted but friendly relation limited to sports and gadget talk over no son at all (would you?). Maybe this could be tacit, maybe explicit: "let's agree to disagree."

However, you don't provide details about how militant or proselytizing your father might be towards you when you visit. Focus on the Family is a giant red flag, though. If he's an evangelical bigot but keeps it to himself, other than fret and pray about you being a lost cause, then maybe it would be possible to maintain frayed relations. If he's going to give you shit from the moment you arrive, then this is another story. From your post it sounds like maybe this escalated, and not that he was explicitly opening with that rejoinder. A loaded gun is a loaded gun, though...

I guess the tactic would be to make an entreaty by not engaging the "lesser angels of his nature" - but if he is dogmatic, then it would be time to reconsider fading into the horizon.

If it were my folks, I'd kick them to the curb.
posted by softsantear at 7:37 PM on November 11, 2008

A case could be made that he only means to say that feels he failed you in as much as he didn't foster a strong enough church-going family structure when you were at an impressionable age. I think there's a distinction between that and saying that he despises you for what you've become.

I guess you could put him on the spot and ask him to be more concise about how he feels about you.....and having asked that, you might have to admit that you hate what he's become.

You're still young and it sounds to me like the family has been put through the wringer in the last few years. Unless your Dad is some kind of scary racist asshole who publicly belittles your opinions and makes your visits a living hell, I don't see much upside in cutting yourself off completely from your family.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:40 PM on November 11, 2008

When I was about 14 I decided (for a variety of reasons) that I was no longer a Baptist, and no longer a Christian. I felt like I could and should tell my parents. One evening I sat them both down in the kitchen and I told them these things. It was at this point that I saw my father cry for the first time in my life. He railed, he raged, he threatened to have me committed. He said he felt like a failure as a parent. My mother just cried and cried.

Eventually they calmed down. Daddy told me at first he and my mother thought that maybe I was just being a provocative teenager, but that now he was proud of me for sticking to my guns - even though he deeply disagreed with me.

Then came the endless books. My parents gave me books about Christianity and their particular values and views. They continue to this day to give me books like Dr. Laura's 10 Stupid Things Women Do. I usually says thanks, but I probably won't read this. They usually tell me to take it anyway. I give them books too. They're actually better about trying to read the things I give them, though they usually don't make it all the way through.

My parents both voted for McCain. We're in California, and they both voted yes on Prop 8. I voted for Obama and I voted no on 8. They both know what I voted and why. I know why they voted the way they did.

Mama and Daddy and I still talk about religion and we still talk about politics. They're worried I won't go to Heaven and that my name is not in the Book of Life. Although they do hold out some hope that because I was baptized I'll end up in the right place whether I like it or not. I worry that they're needlessly hateful and bigoted. Although I hold out some hope that their religious beliefs in peace and love will eventually end them up in the right place, whether they like it or not.

The key to our continued relationship is mutual respect and love, and also the knowledge that we're probably not going to change any minds. It's just important to us that we know and love each other and maintain the deep familial bond that we've always had.

Your mileage may vary.
posted by tinatiga at 7:47 PM on November 11, 2008 [7 favorites]

Jeez... I wouldn't abandon your family over this.

dpx.mfx and icollectpurses gave good advice I think. You would also be denying your own future family (and possibly kids) of their grandfather.

Just visit, and be nice, and stay away from politics.

I love my father dearly, but I often disagree with him. Amusingly, from the a different direction than you. He's a die-hard atheist and communist (I kid you not). I'm what you Americans would probably call an ultra-left, socialist, bleeding-heart liberal myself. But even I draw the line at defending communism. But I don't let that sour my relationship with my dad.

He's my dad after all...
posted by Mephisto at 7:51 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not parents, but a grandmother, and really was not in a position to disown her.

My opinion, you have more than a month to think about it and at least two more phone calls to make up your mind. If you can have a civil conversation, consider a one-day visit.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:53 PM on November 11, 2008

nthing bonobothegreat.

Try to listen to it again. He didn't say that you were a failure, just that HE feels like a failure. It still stings but it's not fatal.

People on the right side of the country are REALLY REALLY SCARED. I mean really. There are people who really genuinely believe that Obama is about to force everyone in the country to have gay sex and will abolish heterosexual marriage and force everyone to bow to Mecca four times a day. The disinformation out there is very real and very frightening to these people. For my job I happen to be in a position where I am reading some of these people talking to each other and they are freaking the fuck out and spreading every bit of disinformation out there.

I am coming down on the side of people being fully entitled to decide if they want to have a relationship with their parents or not. You can also manage that relationship and it can change. It's not black and white. Can you cut your visit down to half? Can you choose to do something else this year? Can you stay with friends or in a hotel instead of staying there?

Since your dad is the old-fashioned type, I would write him a short letter, explaining how hurt you were by the "failure" comment, and that you'd like to come home for the holidays but are having trouble reconciling this given his feelings towards you, despite everything else. Letters are good. They give you time to breathe. Resist the temptation to educate him, explain that you'd like to leave politics aside.

You are not the only person for whom Obama's candidacy brought up greater racist tendencies in parents than one ever could have imagined (I say greater because we are all struggling with our own internal racism and I don't want to be judgemental).
posted by micawber at 7:54 PM on November 11, 2008

Happy Christmas,


Your Son

OK, I know any of these may or may not actually persuade him, but, as long as you present them respectfully, maybe it wouldn't hurt. I found them by searching for [Jefferson religion] and [washington george religion].

A possibly constructive idea: find something else for him to do; folk dancing?
posted by amtho at 8:00 PM on November 11, 2008

That is tremendously hurtful, not to mention un-Christian. My own (dittohead, overbearing) father likes to bait me about politics and it took me years before I learned how to keep from getting sucked in. Whenever he starts, I say, "Daddy, I love you, but you know I'm just as hard-headed as you are and we're not going to agree on this. You want some more pie?" Repeat as necessary.

So I'd start there -- try to set up some firewalls around politics and anything related. Be prepared for WTF moments when the conversation takes a weird turn, and you have to shut things down politely but firmly. Practice a few stock phrases to do this, and come up with a handful of always-safe topics to bring up. You mention you're not close to your siblings but try feeling them out, at least to make sure they won't jump in on his side. (Politically, my brother is more aligned with our dad but he's always quick to cut things short if Pop starts getting all riled up at me.)

Mainly, give it time. Maintain whatever distance you need to right now but try not to cut him off completely, unless he just will not agree to leave it alone. When I was your age, I felt almost totally alienated from my family but now, over a decade later, we've all mellowed some and I've learned to let go of my fantasy family, and see and appreciate them as they are. And I have to say that at his very worst, my father would cut out his tongue before he'd tell me, "You make me feel like a failure as a parent."

Even given the current political climate, your father's reaction is so extreme, so irrational, that I suspect it's less about you and more about something going on in his head. Maybe he's having a form of midlife crisis--facing your mom's mortality and by implication his own, seeing you advance so far past his educational level, coming to terms with the middle-aged reality of narrowing choices. Who knows? But he may come out the other side of it, and it's worth giving him a chance to do that.
posted by dogrose at 8:06 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

You know how many of us have our years of adolescent rage, when we unfairly blame our parents for everything wrong with the world? I think this is the parental version of it.

In the past, I have been called a failure by my parents for the personal decisions I have made. And also that they themselves feel like failures because of ME.

Yep, lots of anger, rage, and hurt on both sides.

But you know what?

Your dad, like most of us, has more growing up to do. He is using you as a target for his personal issues. It "explains" the malaise and discontentment he feels. Most of us do this, to an extent. We demonize political party X or somebody in our lives, because it makes our lives seem more exciting, less confusing, and makes us seem more purposeful.

I hope he gets to the point where he "gets over" his rage and becomes a normal human being again.

Until then, I will give you the advice I wish someone had given me, long ago, when I was duking it out with my parents. Try to feel a little compassion for this confused person. Yell at him if he needs to be yelled at (sometimes it helps). Or don't interact with him at all, if it becomes too painful for you. But whatever you do, try to do what you can without contempt.

Not for his sake, but because harboring contempt for him is ultimately harmful TO YOU. You are in danger of becoming as bigoted or as blinded as he is, once you let that seed of hatred grow.

Good luck. My relationship with my parents is 200 times better now. People do change, though it often may take a decade (or two). Best wishes to both of you.
posted by uxo at 8:12 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some tactics I have found useful in dealing with my father, who is a lot like yours:

1) Move 2500 miles away from him.

2) Never speak to him on Sunday when he's all churched up.

3) If discussing certain topics always results in disharmony, the most expedient tactic is to simply unilaterally declare that you will not discuss those topics. When a verboten topic comes up, simply remind him that you are not going to discuss that with him. Then don't. He won't just stop -- he'll keep arguing and trying to get a response from you. Your response is, "as I just said, I'm not discussing this with you" until he moves on to another topic. If he asks why, say "because I don't like sitting here listening to you say things I find deeply offensive, but I would rather not leave because I value our relationship." (Note: only say this if it is in fact true. Avoid insulting him in any way in this part of the conversation or he will feel entitled to fire back.) Remind him that he gets upset every time you talk about this subject, and tell him that you don't like seeing him upset. (Note: avoid taking blame for his upset. It's not your fault.)

4) The phrase "I'm sorry you feel that way" is useful when given criticism. There is no need to elaborate further or to argue your side. You may choose to acknowledge his opinion, but when you do, you may wish to state that it is in fact his opinion. If my father tells me I'm going to Hell, I thank him for his opinion and that I will give it the consideration it is due. (Try to sound like you mean it and not to be snide. But always react in such a way that makes it clear that you are making the decisions, he is merely giving advice.)

5) Pity is often a more useful stance than anger. He's the one who has voluntarily living in his tiny, tiny world. You grew up. You are the adult. He's still a child, throwing a tantrum every time he doesn't get his way. That's sad. There is no reason to say this to him, obviously.

6) Understand that there is a part of you that wants your father's approval. Understand that no matter what you do, you may not ever get it. (My father is upset that I don't go to church. My sister goes to church. My father is upset that my sister goes to the wrong church. )

7) Forgive him. Yes, every time. It's hard, but worth it. And there is delicious irony in being the better Christian.

As for his feelings of shame that you have turned out as you have, those will not be so easy to deal with. All parents feel unreasonable responsibility for how their children turn out and they will never stop entirely. However, emphasize the things that you learned from him that you value. For my father, I talk about his work ethic, his sense of responsibility, and his courage, all of which are attributes he absolutely possesses and which I truly value having had demonstrated to me continually as I was growing up. It is important for him to be able to take some pride in you and to understand that you do not in fact hate him.
posted by kindall at 8:15 PM on November 11, 2008 [11 favorites]

My new tactic for dealing with this is "I can't talk about this" or "I can't have this conversation." Over, and over, and over again, until my mother or father realizes that I, in fact, cannot talk about this or have this conversation.

Cutting dogma out of the equation is the only peace my family has settled on. It is a tentative one, though, and I wade into the minefield at my own risk.
posted by mynameisluka at 8:18 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

As I always say about parents: they could have done worse.
posted by captainsohler at 8:29 PM on November 11, 2008

There is another viewpoint to this kind of discussion - should it really matter to you what your parents think of you? Bertrand Russell wrote about this sort of thing many years ago, speaking from the point of view of the parent (although if you turn around the viewpoint it may apply here):
When your children are grown up they want to live their own lives, and if you continue to be as interested in them as you were when they were young, you are likely to become a burden to them, unless they are unusually callous. I do not mean that one should be without interest in them, but one's interest should be contemplative and, if possible, philanthropic, but not unduly emotional. Animals become indifferent to their young as soon as their young can look after themselves, but human beings, owing to the length of infancy, find this difficult.
So not that you should be totally 'indifferent' to his view of you, but maybe don't let it bother you so much ...
posted by woodblock100 at 8:37 PM on November 11, 2008

I'm going to try to put a different face on what your dad said to you, and of course I may be completely wrong. I think your dad may feel that he failed you, ("was a failure") as a father, by not raising you in the faith he was clearly very uncommitted to when you were growing up. Now that he's committed to Christianity, he fears he missed his chance to do what he now feels would have been the better way to raise you. I'm a follower of Jesus, but I tend to eschew most organized Christian groups and the homogeneous ideas they tend to represent, because I think it leads to a kind of groupthink, which is the natural tendency anytime we associate ourselves only with people with ideas that support the way we already think. We're not challenged to a greater clarity of thought since everyone already shares our views.

I think it would be helpful to your dad if you clearly explain to him how you felt when he said what he said. I would use emotional language in keeping with the pain he caused you. Ask if he was implying that YOU are a failure and disappointment to him; or if he was saying that he felt he failed YOU.

Next, as a parent I know that no matter what you expose your kids to as they are growing up, one day they will be adults and all bets are off as to what directions they take w/ their lives. I'm not sure why so many parents don't understand this since clearly that's exactly what THEY did when they became adults. He might benefit from recalling that time in his life...If he indeed meant to suggest that you are a disappointment to him, well, I think I'd have a hard time spending time with a parent who didn't respect me for who and what I am and wasn't proud of me. I am so sorry that your father said unkind and insensitive things to you. Clearly you have made something admirable of your life and you deserve his regard and love...And in fact, no matter what you have achieved, as a parent he owes you his pride and his love, simply because you are his child. He also owes you the respect he owes to every human being, no matter whether he shares your political, religious, or other views.

Finally, your dad sounds like a person who is very uncomfortable with ambiguity and dichotomy. Sadly I feel many Christians struggle with this issue. And to say that he supports everything George Bush ever did...Well, if in 8 years of decisions your dad can only take issue with his president's "presentation"; I guess it's not surprising he takes such a concrete, unambiguous position about you, about his own religious views, and seems to believe there are clearcut visible signs (ethnicity, sexuality, religious persuasion, and political views) as to who is acceptable to him as a person.

I have been a Jesus-person (for want of a better term...) for many years, and have consistently searched for and associated with people who may or may not share my religious views, but most of all don't feel they are part of an exclusive group...and I mean exclusive in the way your father's Christian associations sound like they are...exclusion of certain people, views, colors, politics, etc. from his associations. He's making a choice. He could choose otherwise,and if he doesn't, you may need to take it one holiday or visit at a time, and see if he chooses you, his child, over his tendency to put everyone in a box. I hope he moderates his views, for his sake. He'll miss out on the best part of his life if he misses out on a relationship with you.
posted by mumstheword at 8:46 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

He followed up by saying that he "feels like a failure as a parent" because of my political beliefs and because I don't have a personal relationship with (his) God.

When I read the teaser part of your question, I assumed you were going to be real loser, and I was all pumped up to say, "Yes, cut off contact with his ass, how dare he call himself a failure for how you turned out."

Then I find out you're a bright, accomplished person who's angry that your dad thinks Obama is going to be a disaster for the country, and that he's a failure because you supported Obama.

Come on, man, your dad was using hyperbole. Lots of ignoramuses are really torn up about Obama these days. A black man, a black liberal, in the White House has gotten them dangerously close to head asplosion territory. Have some compassion.

I was at dinner the other night with some people whose politics are completely opposite to mine, and it was like a Bizarroworld experience --- whereas everyone I typically associate with strongly supported Obama, these folks were in shock, licking their wounds, consoling each other with stupid Obama jokes that, rather than infuriating, were just pathetic attempts to console themselves about their cherished assumptions being rendered obsolete.

I just don't think a parent being a conservative, racist ignoramus is enough to cut off contact about. Like everyone else says, just don't talk politics with them.
posted by jayder at 8:46 PM on November 11, 2008

He is NOT calling you a failure.

From his viewpoint he is one, because he did not pass his values on to you.

Let me tell you something. As we get older, we reflect on our lives, what we have done, what we have failed to do. He is doing this and realizing he has failed you and failed you big.

Please understand that your father does love you, a lot. To disown him would be needlessly cruel, in my opinion. Whether or not you two ever see eye to eye is not the issue.

You may never be able -or desire-to converse with him on certain subjects. But don't throw away the whole relationship because of it. He has already lost your mom; don't make him lose you too.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:48 PM on November 11, 2008

Working at a big law firm, I imagine you won't get to use much vacation. I think the holidays are the best time to travel internationally, and - as an American - I'm not sure if you'll ever find a much better time to travel overseas than immediately post-Obama.
posted by milkrate at 8:56 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I disowned my grandfather when he said that God would forgive him for molesting me (and a few other kids), but God wouldn't forgive me for... get this... WANTING TO GET ON THE INTERNET.

I disowned my father when, a few years later, he told me that I need to forgive my grandfather and respect him more because he (my grandfather) raised me.

The fact that his method of discipline was to force sex on me was obviously not enough for my hatred of him to be okay.

Most of the family knows that he molested me and they still take his side, so I just walked away. The only family member I really talk to is a cousin who DID stand up for me.

I guess the only consequence I can think of is that I don't have that support network anymore, but let's be honest, it wasn't that great to begin with. And it does get a little lonely around holidays.

I've never regretted the decision though.

I would not feel comfortable advising you on what to do. This is a very personal decision, and ultimately we aren't the ones that have to deal with the consequences.
posted by Zarya at 9:25 PM on November 11, 2008

The thing about having a dad who is a dick is that he is still your dad. You might want to try and trade him in for a cool dad but too bad loser you can't do that.

On the other hand, he might yet come around. You say he was not always this way, at least in regards to religion. People grow, sometimes quite surprisingly so. But if you cut off contact you will not be around to see it.

So maintian communication but it is fine to put up some boundaries. Put religion and politics off limits. If he says he feels like a failure at how you turned out, cut him off: "Dad that is emotional blackmail and nonsense and I won't listen to it."

Good luck. This must be tough.
posted by LarryC at 9:43 PM on November 11, 2008

I had my dad confess to feeling like a failure when I did certain things. When I announced I'd be attending church as a teen he said he'd asked himself "where did I go wrong?" Other times he'd say "I wish I'd done better by you for X" or "If I'd known about this earlier I'd have done a better job."

I kind of wilt a little inside when he says these things because 1) yeah, there's stuff I got pissed about, and stayed pissed for years. and 2) I didn't turn out so bad, and 3) I'm almost 40, I don't need raising anymore. Can't you see the good? Besides, what can I say to that that doesn't sound condescending?

It's like those old old fights "Why do you always see what I haven't done? Can't you see all I've done?"*

Was it the words or how it came out that stung the most? It was at the end of the conversation. Did it sound like he was cutting you off, or just wanting to end the conversation?

You have grown up to be a decent human being. Well, that didn't happen in a vacuum. At least some of the credit is due to your father. That you're still a decent human being is a credit to you.

It could be that your father is having trouble relating to you as an adult. He still wants to offer correction and guidance, but you're not in that mode any more. But now it's time for you to negotiate a new relationship.

To do that, there's plenty of good advice in the thread. You may not spend as much time with the family if you do visit, or you may choose not to visit in order to cool down. You can say "you know, we don't do well when we talk about this, so let's don't." and enforce it.

As to when to disown a family (member) it's when there is absolutely no way to reconcile, the relationship is continually toxic, and you've had some of your own counseling or therapy to plug the holes they've left in you.

*as an aside, in those instances, I'm doing the same thing. What I remember are the bad things, and not all of the things that were done for me and for my sake. It's a pretty universal habit, and one easily managed.
posted by lysdexic at 10:09 PM on November 11, 2008

Unless you were born under a lucky star and have genuine powers of persuasion (most people don't), you are very unlikely to ever change your father's mind, and vice versa. You disagree. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who's "right" and who's "wrong", but what does matter is your treatment of each other.

Your dad saying he was a failure because of your viewpoints was a stupid, ignorant, mean spirited, low, nasty thing to say. Anyone would - and should - take offense at that statement. Have you told him that it hurt you? That he was out of line? If not, do so, before you decide to head back home for the holidays. His apology or lack thereof should be your measuring stick for going home.

I'm fearful that not doing so would be perceived as a really hostile act...

It won't be perceived that way if he knows why you're staying home. You have reason to. He's your father, and you can still love him even if you're fighting, but you should find your bullshit threshold. Sounds like dad crossed that line, and you have every right to ask for an apology, or at least a good explanation of why he said so. Even if you don't go home, you can talk about this another time. But stand your ground, and fwiw--you're in the right, and your dad is wrong about liberals and whatnot. Defend that position.
posted by zardoz at 10:30 PM on November 11, 2008

I agree with most posters here that you need to work out strategies to not talk politics or religion with your Dad anymore. It's obvious you don't agree with each other and it causes fights, so I think some of the deflection tactics mentioned in this thread would be good to use ie. "Dad, you know we're just going to fight about this, so let's stop here rather than getting upset."

However, I think the more important issue here that some people are missing is that you have to work out how to deal with the "failure" comment. I know he said he feels like a failure, but the problem is that he said "for the way for turned out", which obviously hurt you a lot. I don't necessarily think this was his intention though, so I suspect that you could resolve it.

Next time you are on the phone to him, ask him to clarify. Ask him to tell you he's proud of you going to college, ask him to tell you he thinks it's great where you are working, and clarify that it's just the religious/political stuff that he disagrees with, so that you can move on. If he's able to do that, then you can feel better and maybe also use the situation to lay a few ground rules for Christmas etc ie. "Ok, so now we've clarified that it's just the politics etc that we disagree on, let's agree not to talk about it. It obviously gets us both upset, and I don't think either of us wants to feel that way."

Of course, it's possible that you'll hit a wall when you ask for clarification. If that's the case, then you need to decide how much he hurt you and whether you do what to spend time with him. It's valid to say "no", but again you need to think about the parameters for your relationship in this situation, as per the above comments.

Hope it all works out for you.
posted by ranglin at 10:46 PM on November 11, 2008

Your father is relatively uneducated in comparison to you. That means that he may be more vulnerable to certain types of persuasion - from the church, conservative rhetoric, etc. - and it may also mean that he is unable to have a sophisticated, arm's length debate about politics and policy. Not only are you educated, you're a lawyer. Imagine being in his shoes and trying to have a conversation with your own son where your negotiation and communication skills are not as sharp and you are clearly getting nowhere. That's got to be hard to swallow. His comment about feeling like a failure seems obviously defensive and emotional. (You've got to recognize that objectively, you are NOT a failure.) When he couldn't defend his position on facts and objective theory, he tried to passively manipulate you with guilt.

But I definitely do not think you should cut off ties with him. The bond of family is something that you should defer to in all but the most extreme cases of dysfunction. It doesn't sound like you're there yet. But it may help to one, not have conversations on topics which you know you'll disagree, and two, keep in mind that the tables have turned. Your father is not really in a place of moral or intellectual authority for you, and that can be a hard adjustment for both you. Try not to condemn him for his beliefs - he hasn't had the educational opportunities or cultural and intellectual exposure that you have - and try to foster a relationship based on things that won't trigger your now vast cultural differences. Gadgets and sports sound like a pretty good start.

It sounds like you're both working through letting each other go a bit. It's probably both a factor of your age, as well as your education. It's a normal process though. Defining your own beliefs, even as they contrast with your family, is part of becoming an adult. Because your mom has passed that process could be harder for both of you. Offer the kindness and compassion you give to others to your dad. And remember that "we don't have much in common" is something that you can and probably should actively work to change. Relationships are work, even with family.
posted by smallstatic at 10:56 PM on November 11, 2008

I have a similar background to you and struggle with this problem as well. My family and I still talk about politics, but I keep very tight control on what I say and try to be respectful of their beliefs. One of my parents and I used to fight any time the topic of politics came up, but after exercising some incredible self-control during conversations, we're now able to talk about issues without getting angry with each other. While i doubt i'll ever change their mind, at least by being respectful and patient i've gained some measure of respect for my own beliefs, which means a lot to me.
posted by ukdanae at 12:49 AM on November 12, 2008

You don't choose your parents or family.

While they are important, it might help to think about Dad as a just some random individual. How would you react to this type of behavior from a random human?

Civilization depends on us maintaining some walls of personal separation and consideration. When people violate the rules, in all fairness, they should be reminded what the rules are. If they insist on continuing to break the rules, then you have to deal with them, and often, the most effective means is to remove them from your sphere of interaction; i.e., DTMF.

You are not a bad person because of your political disagreements with Dad. It sounds like he just has a case of toxic religion poisoning.

You might want to consider that Dad is a transient figure in your life. Mom is already gone. Under normal circumstances, Dad will also expire before you do. Eventually, you'll have to set up your own holiday traditions, and there is nothing wrong with intentionally doing that now. If you want to be kind, perhaps you can frame things in this manner for Dad? You are unlikely to prevail in changing his attitude/outlook/beliefs. It would be socially responsible for you to let him know his racist attitudes have cost him his relationship with you, so that he knows he is intentionally choosing to dump you. Actions have consequence.

FWIW, you sound like a success to me, and a good person to boot. Dad, like a lot of zealots, actually does sound like the failure.

Words can hurt, and I hope you'll not internalize the insults. You have abundant evidence that you are good; keep on keeping on!
posted by FauxScot at 2:49 AM on November 12, 2008

Oh, man, I feel for you. Lots of similarities here. I'm 24. My mom is from Texas, is racist though she won't admit it, and claimed Obama was a Muslim so I couldn't talk about politics around her. Instead of being really Christian, she's into all this paranormal and conspiracy stuff, and I don't dare tell her I'm an atheist because it would disappoint her. (She always brings up my friends that she knows to be atheists and asks, disapprovingly, if they're still atheists.)

She has always been a great mother and I was her number one priority, though. I felt completely accepted.

Until my dad died a year ago. For whatever reason, after my dad died, she was more disapproving of me. Suddenly everything I was interested in, like psychology, was "weird." The fact that I don't like to dress girly is "weird." She even said, regretfully, "Why are you so different from me?" Now I feel like it's not okay to her that I didn't turn out to be her clone.

I don't ever want to visit anymore either, so I don't think you're blowing things out of proportion. It's a horrible, uncomfortable position to be in, and what your dad said to you is worse than what mine said to me; my mom indirectly said she was disappointed in me, but your dad was more direct and tried to blame you for how he feels.

I still visit, though, and just feel mostly miserable until I go back home. Not because my mom says things like that often, but because I can no longer talk to her about anything. I haven't broken off contact with my mom because she still makes clear that she loves me very much. Her husband just died, and I know it's harder on her than it is on me. People get in emotional knots and don't think about things rationally. They say things they normally wouldn't. I don't know what other things your dad might have stressing him out, but my mom has serious money issues too. Have you considered any health issues he might be dealing with? She has to deal with losing me to moving away; you're the same age, so I'm sure it's similar for your dad. None of that is easy. Even if my mom said much worse right now, I don't think I'd have the heart to just abandon her.

It doesn't make it right, but try to put yourself in your father's shoes. God has clearly been important to him; he needed to deal with your mother's death and it probably feels like that's what's been the biggest help to him. That, combined with Born Again's normal impetus to save people, is why he's so disappointed right now. It has more to do with him and what he's going through than it does with you.

For now, this is my advice. Give it time. Bite your tongue for a bit. Don't talk about politics. (I know this is easier said than done, because my family purposely brings it up around me even though I politely ask them not to.) Avoid any subjects that cause contention. When you go home to visit, do your time and leave. Your dad is saying unfortunate things to push you away, but I don't think he actually wants to push you away. What he wants, even though you can't give it to him, is for you to be closer to him by sharing the things that are important to him, like religion. He probably would have liked to have seen more of you while he was grieving, but I'm guessing that, like me, you lived somewhere else for school. People can say confusing, hurtful things when they're speaking from a place of love. He's hurting and feels desperate not to lose people who are important to him, and he just wants you to turn out well, even if he's misguided.

It's easy to lose sight of all that in the moment, when they've just said something to drive you crazy and you're irritated and angry. I know I have so much trouble with it. But try for a while. It needs to be part of your decision-making process. You might try talking to him about it. If you do, approach him in a way that does not make him defensive, i.e. "I know you love me very much and you're concerned for my well-being, and I know you feel more responsibility for me and miss me more after mom died. But I'm happy and doing well for myself, and when you tell me you're disappointed in me it drives me away. I know you don't mean for that to happen. Can you please not say things like that?"

If that doesn't work out, and you don't have any other options, then you might have to cut him out. As sad as it is, some people never learn to handle themselves, regardless of the reasons for their behavior.
posted by Nattie at 2:56 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nattie, you are the most sensible 24-year-old on the planet. That was a lovely post with great advice.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:55 AM on November 12, 2008

You have no obligation to let yourself be hurt by your parents. You can try to forgive him but you shouldn't feel any guilt about just letting him excise himself from your life.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:29 AM on November 12, 2008

I can relate to your post in many ways. Does your father listen to Rush Limbaugh?

Try not to let this wear on your mind. I know it's difficult because he is your father. Do not hesitate to tell him how you really feel. If he says something hurtful such as the, I'm disappointed in who you are nonsense, you can say, "Wow, dad. That's very hurtful. I respect your views, I'd wish you'd respect mine."

I also read something on another question here that said something like:

"You can be proud that you raised someone who can think for himself." That's a good retort when he starts criticizing your views.
posted by Fairchild at 5:00 AM on November 12, 2008

I have perhaps not quite the exact relationship you have with your dad, but it's similar.

First of all, don't react. The best thing I have ever done is STOP with the fast comebacks and the smartass remarks. It's hard because I'm well-informed and I'm confident that I'm right and he's wrong (ha! aren't we all) but whenever my dad says something ridiculously bigoted or just clearly some Faux News talking point, I pause. If it's something like, "All black people look up to Michael Vick, so on so forth etc," which is designed to get at me SPECIFICALLY because he knows my feelings on animal abuse, for example, I will raise my eyebrows and give him The Look That Says I Know What You Are Up To. And then I change the subject. Completely. I will look at my mom and talk about the weather. The Look is optional - I do it because I know my dad knows that he's trying to bait me, and by communicating my awareness I say (metaphorically), "I heard you and I know you're trying to piss me off, and I really could not care less." There is no animosity, just a complete lack of engagement with it. Over the years, it's started working more and more, and now my dad does not mess with me about that kind of thing too much anymore. He's moved on to other topics, but he's a nudge, so that's to be expected. Rinse, repeat.

One of the reasons this works, though, is that my mom is not interested in the fighting that my dad loves to do, and my spouse is completely on my side about not engaging him on this shit. It helps to have allies, and frankly it helps that my dad's issues are not tied up in a bunch of religious stuff, just plain old fashioned bigotry. YMMV. Good luck.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:44 AM on November 12, 2008

Kindall's fourth point about saying "I'm sorry you feel that way" is exactly what I told my grandmother when she publicly disowned me because I was getting married in a church that wasn't Catholic. There was nothing more I could say because there was no changing her mind. To her, I was an apostate who was betraying the family by marrying in a different church. She lived another 10 years and never spoke to me again. I'd occasionally go in to speak in her general direction and have conversations with myself. She'd speak with my husband because it "wasn't his fault that he's not Catholic."

It was hurtful. However, it was her problem. It was not my problem.
posted by onhazier at 6:39 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I planned on completely cutting off communications with my family about 5 years ago, and settled for not giving them my new address and phone number, and only contacting them when I wanted to. It was the best thing I have ever done for myself personally, and for my relationship with them. They learned to respect our relationship and to communicate respectfully with me as an adult and fellow human being, and understood that if they did not treat me with respect, dignity, and love, that I would simply not call again for a while. At first, I often went months without calling, and didn't see them for 6 months at a time.

After a year or so of this, they caught on, and things got exponentially better. They have my address and phone number now, and we communicate well. I still occasionally have to remind them that they have to treat me well if we are going to have a relationship, but since they know that "threat" has some meat behind it, it works.

I wouldn't say to "disown" your family, but you may want to do something similar to remind/inform them that you are an adult human being who deserves to have your own opinions and beliefs, and to have those opinions and beliefs respected. And if they can't do that, then maybe they can't be a part of your life. But I bet they will.
posted by picapica at 6:44 AM on November 12, 2008

Maybe this is a phase your dad is going through. I wouldn't burn any bridges during this time. He's obviously looking to fill a deep void, and is swept up in it. It's his whole world right now. Maybe a little compassion is in order?

Don't discuss things you don't want to discuss, but you may have to take a few hurtful remarks on the chin in order to remain civil. Maybe when that happens, you could just say "ouch. How about we change the subject?" Or better yet, just be the grown up and change the subject!

And maybe cut your visit to 2 days, no matter the hassle.
posted by agentwills at 6:49 AM on November 12, 2008

I planned on completely cutting off communications with my family about 5 years ago, and settled for not giving them my new address and phone number, and only contacting them when I wanted to. It was the best thing I have ever done for myself personally, and for my relationship with them. They learned to respect our relationship and to communicate respectfully with me as an adult and fellow human being, and understood that if they did not treat me with respect, dignity, and love, that I would simply not call again for a while. At first, I often went months without calling, and didn't see them for 6 months at a time.

After a year or so of this, they caught on, and things got exponentially better. They have my address and phone number now, and we communicate well. I still occasionally have to remind them that they have to treat me well if we are going to have a relationship, but since they know that "threat" has some meat behind it, it works.

I wouldn't say to "disown" your family, but you may want to do something similar to remind/inform them that you are an adult human being who deserves to have your own opinions and beliefs, and to have those opinions and beliefs respected. And if they can't do that, then maybe they can't be a part of your life. But I bet they will.

PS: All of this is contingent on your ability to do the same. While you may not agree with your father's opinions, you may have to at least respect that he gets to have them (just as you get to have yours). If you can't communicate effectively with him on your end, he won't be able to do the same. Also, during the initial period, you will have to make it clear to them that you're not pulling back because you want to, but because you have to, and that in fact your relationship with them is important to you and you want to fix it. You can't expect them to do all of the work, but if you put some effort into it, I think you'll be glad you did.
posted by picapica at 6:52 AM on November 12, 2008

Didn't read the other responses.

I love my parents dearly but I really hate going home on the holidays. It's a pain in the ass and it's the most stressful time to visit. Would you make up an excuse why you can't go but plan to go at a different time? It's so god damn stressful, there's so many expectations all around...
posted by sully75 at 8:13 AM on November 12, 2008

I'd suggest finding a middle road between engaging and disowning. I have a very distant relationship with my family, and it's great! It really cuts down on the crazy and a lot of the resentment (on my part) is gone. If you're accustomed to being close to your family it may seem overwhelmingly scary to contemplate cutting them off, but it's quite doable. In fact, it's pretty normal to drift away from your family as you get older and your own life gets more complicated (spouse, kids, etc). Since you say you're not particularly close, it should be fairly easy for you to get less close.

So cut the amount and time of contact, and control the content. Tell Dad firmly that you won't discuss politics, religion, etc, and if he brings it up, change the subject. Repeatedly if necessary, and bluntly. Stand your ground, and if he doesn't get the message, tell him why you're going to hang up on him, then hang up. If he sends stupid offensive emails, don't reply. Respond only to nice emails. This may mean you stop emailing him altogether, but so be it. You can tell him over the phone that your policy extends to emails as well.

If he starts haranguing you in person, cut him off by changing the subject (football and gadgets to the rescue!). If he persists, get up and leave the room. Be prepared to leave the house if necessary. Be very consistent in your responses - if he sees he can get away with it occasionally, he'll try it all the time.

For the Christmas holidays, I'd suggest going to see him but be prepared for the worst. Regard the visit as an opportunity to present the new rules of engagement. You're a grownup now and, among all the other stuff that's going on, your Dad probably has a hard time thinking of you as anything but a kid. Time to change that. It won't go down easily, so you should be ready to bolt if necessary - not running away as a coward, but showing your Dad that you won't stick around for his abuse. He treats you right or he doesn't get to see you at all. Stay in a hotel, rent a getaway car, and drive it to Dad's house. Don't let him pick you up or drive you anywhere - you may need to make a firm exit so you need that getaway car.

The first couple of years of detaching are the worst, but after the other party finally gets the hint, it gets a lot easier. Good luck!
posted by Quietgal at 9:27 AM on November 12, 2008

Regarding politics, maybe you and he could come to an agreement to wait and see just how Obama turns out rather than jumping to conclusions based on Obama's goals?
posted by valadil at 9:37 AM on November 12, 2008

We have a nice deal going with my father-in-law; if he brings up politics during a visit, we leave. He didn't believe us until the first time he brought up politics, and we left. Now we get around swimmingly (and apolitically.)
posted by davejay at 10:27 AM on November 12, 2008

Perhaps I'm harsher than the average person but if my parents decided to become ultra religious and regard the years they had invested in me as a mistake... I don't think I'd be overly motivated to continue having a relationship with them.

Just because the guy is your dad doesn't mean he has the right to be an asshole to you. If he wants you as his family, he needs to be a good dad. If he doesn't... well he's always got his fundamentalist church to hang out at.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 10:31 AM on November 12, 2008

Oh, wow. Your situation sounds a lot like mine. I'm 23, my father and his extended family are very religious, though my father didn't begin to go to church or the like until about...8 years or so ago, when he met my stepmother. Past the point that it made any difference to me, anyway. I get the feeling that he is disappointed by my lack of interest in the church, and other family members have made this clear (for example, I chose to get married outside of the church, and a few family members declined to attend because of it). I was also given massive hell for choosing to vote for Obama; everyone else in my family votes Republican.

At this point I have a relationship with these family members, albeit somewhat strained and not one I enjoy much. We tend to keep things on the surface and only discuss who is doing what and the like. I wish I had some advice for you, because I know the situation is difficult, but I haven't figured out the answer just yet. I guess I'm just here to say I feel for you and to say that you're not the only one. I know that I have had a really difficult time as I've gotten older and realized that my family isn't and will never be the type that enjoys being together constantly and has weekly meals or does those kind of fuzzy feeling activities you see on TV. Another thing I struggled with was knowing that I am who I want to be, regardless of what my father's or his family's opinion is of me, and knowing that it's okay to be who I am without their approval. I'm not sure if you need to hear that, but there it is.

I think what I'm trying to say is, don't hold onto your family simply because they're your family. If what you want from them is typical family interaction, I don't think you're going to get it. You're the only one who can decide if that, and your current relationship with your dad and everyone else, is something you can live with, and if so, what you need to do to make it healthier for yourself. PM me if you'd like to chat about this.
posted by alpha_betty at 11:16 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

My sainted mother used the phrase "you have wasted a lot of years" before I was old enough to drive. Her opinion has not improved, and yet she keeps my phone number handy in case she needs help with heavy lifting or whathaveyou. As a fictional man once said, "Good times."

Although I have not accomplished as much as you appear to have, what with the JD and all, my life is what a the law's "reasonable and prudent person" would consider A-okay.

You dad may lighten up, or he may not. My advice is to accept the fact that he is a complete dick. At least about this. Distance yourself. If you don't have the mental stamina to psychologically distance yourself while you're sitting at the table, then stay away for a while. Perhaps a few years. Just remember that if you are not around, you have no way of knowing whether your dad is bragging about your career, or telling all your aunts and uncles and cousins that you are off being a Marxist with the darkies.

Are their nieces and nephews who can run interference? I have found that, when the older folks corner me and start babbling about killing babies and grotesquely misinformed tax accounting, if I can grab a minor child and start talking to that innocent child about something else, like dinosaurs or cupcakes, the older folks will back off somewhat.

Also, if you go to hell for setting up email filters on your own family, then you bring the marshmallows, I'll bring the Hershey bars, and we'll make S'mores.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:31 AM on November 12, 2008

Don't disown your family. I'll pull a Joe Biden and say that one again: Don't disown your family.

My father is exactly like your father. He has declared (after some pretty horrible fights about god/politics/etc) that his responsibility to God is greater than his responsibility to keep the peace in our family. Time and time again he has instigated arguments and debates and pushes all kinds of unwelcome/creepy/hurtful religious stuff on my siblings and me, who are all liberal agnostic folks.

For me, the way to handle these disagreements is to be aware that my father is a fragile, fearful man who is motivated to say hurtful things by extreme insecurity and guilt. I find that this approach allows me to keep my temper and feelings in check. My emotion becomes one of pity rather than one of anger, which I think is slightly better. Sometimes I need to walk away from a conversation, or say in no uncertain terms that I will not respond to his antagonizing, and then follow through with that and change the subject. It's never easy and it's definitely never any fun, but you must do it.

Show him the way to be civil and open-minded by demonstrating these qualities yourself in the context of your relationship with him. I'm sure you will both be rewarded with better understanding if you do. Good luck!
posted by RingerChopChop at 2:34 PM on November 12, 2008

Don't lose your relationship with your family over something stupid that was thoughtlessly said in the heat of a political argument... People say stuff, you know? Especially when their children are pointing out their massive flaws. That's not always the easiest thing to hear / take, you know?
posted by xammerboy at 4:46 PM on November 12, 2008

Talk to him before you go home about what happened. Tell him you want to visit over the break, and that you want to lay those topics to rest. If he says he can't or he's not sure he can, tell him you will leave if he starts in on it. This places the choice in his hands---he can see his child, or he can push his agenda.

Then comes the hard part---follow through. I'm a pretty firm believer in trying to maintain family relationships, but not continuing them just because "they're family." I think a lot of people make themselves unnecessarily miserable this way.
posted by lacedback at 5:15 PM on November 12, 2008

I'm really surprised at the number of responses telling the OP to cut communications.

Here's the thing: they are your parents. Think about all the things you've said/done during those teenage years and how they still loved and sheltered you at the end of the day. Unless you've been beaten/molested/psychologically traumatized/etc., go visit them because they are your parents.

If your parents rant about how Obama is a Muslim and how the entire world is turning queer and going to hell in a handbasket, so be it. Let their words transcend you, or pleasantly change the sbuject, and still see in them the goodness that we all possess. What's the use of all those yoga classes if you can't even stand your own parents for a mere weekend?

Consider it character-building.
posted by hobbes at 1:38 AM on November 13, 2008

Personally, I'd try like hell to understand the hateful stuff that he was spewing, dig as deeply as possibly into how and why the dots link up in his mind, keep digging until the real, personal reasons for his fear and loathing exist.

I believe that reasonably intelligent people don't swallow the fear-and-hate worldview unless they need to believe it for some reason. Most people who are not just plain Bad Folks end up latching on to simplistic, childlike interpretations of reality not because they are fools or knaves, but because it's easy, and it papers over or fills in some gaps in their psyche that they would prefer to leave unexamined. Complexity is difficult and frightening.

So you know, before I jettisoned a family member for the kinds of things you describe, I'd gently and persistently try and get at the real thing. I'd keep in totally unconfrontational, all about love and shared history and all that, open-hearted and stuff. In my case, and with my family, booze would probably help. It has in the past, to clear some logjammed legacy stuff from decades past. If the Good Talk started to veer into actual political detail or get confrontational, I'd pull back, refocus on nostalgia and the like.

While pursuing this strategy of trying to get as close as possible to the core of the why, I'd be learning as much as I can about the beliefs that my family member held -- what bits of the bible, or what books or websites, or what conspiracy theories he or she was assembling to underpin their need for a more comforting story to tell themselves about reality. And I'd be gathering utterly unimpeachable counters to them, preferably rooted in their own mythologies. I'd be thinking of ways to respond, cooly, to opinions and suppositions with facts and scripture quotes and so on. I wouldn't try to counter until I'd spent a lot of time trying to get past the shield of their belief system and learn the how and why of their beliefs. I'd be steadily building a deep and broad foundation of common understandings of the world -- which always exist between people of good faith -- and seeking out the divergences, and why we diverged at those points. The chances are good that, I suspect, that my family member might not really have thought about things at that level of detail. Eventually, I'd engage their actual beliefs, but not until we'd built up a foundation of shared understanding.

It wouldn't be a short-term project. It'd be hard, and possibly not even worth it, depending on how strongly you feel about the person in question. It might be a matter of years, all the while carefully eschewing current events-based disagreements to keep a laserlike focus on what's really important and fundamental (pun intended) and why both my family member and I believed what we did. The outcome, even if a reconciliation didn't happen, would be that I would certainly have a better understanding of why I believed the things I did, and maybe my family member would too. And even if the project 'failed', that would not be a bad thing.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:10 PM on November 13, 2008

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