The Real Threat to Family Values

Twenty years ago, the term 'family values' became synonymous with a fierce cultural debate about moral behavior in the United States. This is a shame, because family values matter as long as the definition of 'value' is quantified so as to not create huge swaths of moral disparity, essentially waging culture war. A public discussion to expand awareness about decline of the family is overdue, but it has been hijacked by moralists and fearful, narrow minded ideologues. So long as the structure of the American family is held to a myopic standard, and root causes of moral decline and social solutions for bringing family together are not examined, the downward slide will continue.

The values movement and its inexorable ties to evangelism and pious moralizing sped up the decay of the American values it sought to protect. Values conservatives fearfully limited their discussion of the American Family by condemning symptoms rather than discussing causes, and in turn, let its core rot. This contributed to a kind of societal moral disparity, wherein 'dos' and "do nots" replaced 'haves and 'have-nots." Nothing about this was, or is, remotely constructive when attempting to re-build moral infrastructure.

God's self-professed evangelistic emissaries on Earth imply that no one could ever seriously argue for a strong American family without first condemning lifestyles forbidden by the Bible. This limits the discussion to only those willing to condemn all kinds of behavior, including homosexuality, pre-marital sex, abortion, and even birth control. The traditional American family, under this narrow, restrictive lens, becomes a unit constrained to a very specific model, one most Americans - even on their best days - would be hard pressed to satisfy.

Some Evangelicals have seized on the term 'family values' and charged it with nasty racial and sexual undertones. The movement condemns things that - by any standard - are destructive to society, but with the mandate that solutions not found in religious conversion are a futile waste of time. I find it interesting that values platforms, with all their talk about eradicating social ills, suddenly become reticent economists when it comes to the existence of imperfect but effective social welfare organizations committed to tackling the complexities and getting up close and personal to ugly problems like underage pregnancy, drug addiction, and child abuse.

These ugly problems are surmountable, but only with courage and openness in communication. The fight against unplanned teen pregnancy, for instance, is won by having an honest and open discussion about sex, abstinence, birth control, and masturbation. This will never happen as far as only one of those topics is considered acceptable for discussion with teenagers (who are all a whole lot smarter than many realize). The fight against drug abuse and crime that tears apart families is won by getting to a place where you raise the causes of poverty raised without condemning or isolating a particular race or gender. By limiting education and awareness on these issues, and poking the symptoms instead of plumbing the cause, the real threat to family values - ignorance and lack of open communication - is allowed to fester.

Much of our shared discussion as a nation about 'family values' continues to connote the same frustrating context - highly politicized American Evangelical moralizing and the condemnation of sinful behavior. While its true that families, first and foremost, have the obligation to discuss their family in their own home, on their own terms, the contents of the luggage they walk into that home with, and the way in which they unpack that luggage for discussion with spouses and children, depends much on the education they've received from their parents, and the parents before them. If links in that ancestral chain are broken, or rusted away, then what is left but the cultural forces that shape our perception of proper behavioral values? Those cultural forces include national discussions, public education campaign, and good old fashioned community.

What are these family values, anyway? What kinds of behavior serve to repair a broken family? Most everyday people, no matter what part of the country they inhabit or political party they belong to, will all largely say the same things. Old fashioned values like commitment to a family and a job are essential to holding that family together. Respect for others and selflessness in the face of adversity are not just slogans - they are catalytic keys for improving a family's relationship with itself and with the surrounding community.

The deficiency of human decency in a family unit transcends race and region. It transcends social class. It is instead related to the failure of parents - be they single parents, or gay parents, or evangelical approved man/woman pairings - to communicate properly with their children. There are wealthy families whose focus on maintaining their own wealth alienates them from imparting values that might give the children a solid foundation for behavior that keeps the family together. There are poor families whose overworked and over-stressed parents find themselves staring down the other end of the same gun barrel, only diminished by poverty and the constant stress of living beneath their means, the strain is even greater.

Recent economic disasters presided over an American landscape wherein work began to unravel and become something tenuous and fragile. It bears repeating that one's commitment to a job is a driving force in not only holding up a family structure, but satisfying the pride and sense of accomplishment that empower the best parents. Our gaffe-prone Vice President, Joe Biden, said something right the other day in Ohio. He said - and I paraphrase - that a job, no matter what it is, isn't just about a paycheck. It's about pride in providing for one's family. It's about a sense of identity and importance that is absolutely vital for the success of anyone starting a family, no matter their income bracket or lifestyle. He's right. To some, especially those who have found themselves recipients of the best successes of the technology sector, 'working man' cliches about hard work and pride are just empty campaign slogans. However, for those cognizant of the causes for tears in the fabric of the family unit, they are much more than that. The loss of that solid work, of the middle class itself, becomes the very explanation for the decline in 'Family Values,' and its a reason profound enough to make evangelicals' petty obsessions with sexual preference and lifestyle seem petulant.


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