Michelle Obama And The New Face Of Family Values


Co-written with Andrew Klumpp.

I met my first Democrat when I was 18, on my first day of summer camp. She was a fiery redheaded co-counselor. There she was. There it was. A Democrat. In the flesh.

I knew Democrats existed. I'd just never met one. And I knew they weren't like us hearty rural Iowa farm folk. They were anti-family. I knew that much.

I had reason to believe this. The 1980 Republican Party Platform devoted three straightforward statements to the "traditional family" and offered specific strategies for ways to protect the American ideal. The Democratic Party Platform that same year included a single ambiguous (okay call it what it was: measly) line: "The Democratic Party supports efforts to make federal programs more sensitive to the needs of the family, in all its diverse forms." Federal programs and diverse forms! One lousy line, and the Democrats couldn't even get it right!

Well, I think they may have gotten it right now, at least if Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention is any indication. Michelle Obama cast a vision of the Democratic Party that challenges caricatures about Democrats and family values.

Her infectious vision of a nation defined by deep family values proved gripping to many of us who found ourselves mesmerized by her presence. She spoke clearly. Directly. With skill, ease, and precision, she made the case that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party offer not only the best hope for our nation's children but also the best example for them to follow.

As the First Lady continued, she talked about how she and the President cherished their children. She reminisced about the faces of their daughters being pressed against car windows as she watched them leave for their first day at a new school in Washington, D.C. To many of us, this sounded a lot like our childhoods in the corn fields of rural Iowa or the suburbs of Levittown, New York, or the sweltering streets of Dallas. We boarded bright yellow buses and pressed our faces against their windows rather than a presidential motorcade, but most of us--or at least our parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles--remember that first ride, those first large steps, that first attempt to find the right green or gray vinyl seat--and wave goodbye.

Michelle Obama continued by sharing her family's motto: "When they go low, we go high." Choose the high road. Don't stoop to the level of bullies.

Again and again, the stories she told and the lessons she offered resonated with the family values many of us learned in a dark red corner of Iowa that we call home or the bright blue crevices of Brooklyn. Family values, some of us have learned, don't have colors or political stripes.

We learned that lesson again on the opening night of the DNC, as the First Lady delivered a pro-children and pro-family speech using examples from her own family and appealing to the importance of setting an example for our nation's children.

Sure, she didn't make claims about the positions typically opposed by proponents of family values (abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.).

And, no, she didn't tie family values to government programs, like presidential nominee John Kerry did in his acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: "And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families. You don't value families by kicking kids out of after school programs and taking cops off our streets, so that Enron can get another tax break. We believe in the family value of caring for our children and protecting the neighborhoods where they walk and play."

She didn't even dip into her husband's playbook by globalizing family values. Republicans may wince (though I don't think they should) at how, in 2014, president Barack Obama used family values to justify an executive order loosening immigration policies: "America's not a nation that should be tolerating the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms. We're a nation that values families, and we should work together to keep them together."

No. No big programs or policy shifts for Michelle Obama.

She didn't even suggest that the Republican Party couldn't celebrate family values. She simply insisted that they couldn't monopolize them.

Michelle Obama suggested that family values are first and foremost about setting an example for our nation's children. To the jubilant crowd, she proclaimed, "With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us."

Red or blue, black or white, rural or urban, rich or poor, straight or gay, US or foreign-born--all of us can agree that, "with every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us."

Can't we?


Andrew Klumpp, a doctoral student at SMU, and Jack Levison have written "The Bible and Family Values," which will appear on September 22nd in The Bible and Political Debate: What Does It Really Say?
Photo from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/image/12152011-family-portrait-high-res.jpg