For far too long progressives for whom family is the center of their lives have remained silent while conservative Christian groups with "Family" in their names hijacked the concept of "Family values." Groups like Focus on the Family, The American Family Association, and the Family Research Council have been demeaning these values for decades, but until now the harm they have been able to wreak has been pretty much confined to their mega-churches and radio talk shows. Thanks to their participation and influence in drafting the platform of the Republican Party for this week's convention in Cleveland, however, they are now threatening the futures of the vast majority of well-functioning American families in ways that go far beyond neo-liberal economic policies, destructive though those policies are, too; if these groups have their way and the Republican platform becomes operational, many values which enable families to flourish will be much harder, if not impossible to realize in the future, and their fragility makes it imperative to speak out against the Republican conception of family life now.
For example Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, was highly influential on an array of topics, not least in his opposition to any meaningful legislation on gun control. For myself -- and tens of thousands others, I believe -- when I think of my two grandsons still in elementary school it is hard not to think of Sandy Hook today or Columbine tomorrow. I still remember the Virginia Tech Massacre when I write to grandchildren in college. When my wife goes for a walk the San Bernadino slaughter frequently comes to mind, and Aurora when we go to the movies. Orlando brings some tears to my eyes remembering the loss of one of my closest friends, the gay godfather of my youngest daughter. And the recent massacres of policemen in Dallas and Baton Rouge cannot make protecting my family anything but a more difficult task.
But gun control is only one dimension of highly negative positions taken by the self-proclaimed guardians of family values. I have never seen a shred of evidence that the decisions a department store makes about what signs to put on the rest rooms it provides for its customers adversely affects any family, yet the AFA's website calls for a boycott of Target stores on just that basis (Target simply did not want to discriminate against any of their customers based solely on their sexual orientation).. Quite the contrary, it would seem that Target's action should be applauded, for their action can only enhance tolerance of diversity, which should be high on everyone's list of values to inculcate in all families not made up of clones.
On the other hand, little research is needed to believe that if breadwinners are expected to meet their financial responsibilities they must earn wages sufficient to buy an entire loaf in order to feed the family without having to take second and third jobs, yet I saw no calls from any of the "family" groups to boycott Walmart, or any of the other businesses that pay only the most minimum of wages, and expend much time, effort and money to resist any employee efforts to form a union to bargain collectively to better their working lives, and hence the quality of their families' lives.
Similarly, those truly committed to family values in a democratic society can only shudder when they read the RNC's stance on abortion: "We call on the government to permanently ban all federal funding and subsidies for abortion and healthcare plans that include abortion coverage." When this statement is coupled with another promising the repeal of Obamacare, the Republican Party is effectively denying all but the richest families the right to make their own decision about this highly important question for all family members, but especially the women, and placing it instead in the hands of conservative politicians usually white and almost invariably male.
Another plank in the platform from these same politicians and "Family" groups will also prohibit all forms of sex education except abstinence in the public schools, which sermons are not only singularly unhelpful at all levels, they take away a solid resource for parents not knowledgeable in such matters to rely on in addressing this complex issue when their children reach the teen years and the hormones begin running at higher rates of speed. The "abstinence only" thinking is also responsible for the platform plank claiming that pornography is the "#1 health issue of our time," when a full fifth of all American children are in families living below the poverty line -- most of whom go to bed hungry every evening --and 25+ million people still lack health insurance of any kind.
Wishing to turn back the clock on gay marriage, the Republicans are setting themselves up for charges of being homophobic, but it is the entire institution of the family, not just individuals, that will suffer if they should prevail, for the ability of our LGBTQ fellow citizens to ritually celebrate their commitments to their partners, and to adopt children, has been invigorating the institution of marriage, and of the family, as few other events in the recent past have done.
A number of other planks in the RNC platform are of a similar nature, from decreasing federal support for public schools and medical services to increasing it to the Pentagon for employing instruments of death against "enemies" that are largely of our own making. And there is much more.
All of these and other similar policies currently hailed as embodying "family values" make it more difficult for caregivers to fully support each other, lovingly care for the elders among them, and enhance feelings of love, understanding and compassion in their children. These are not particularly radical ideas, except perhaps to conservatives who have left the fold to become reactionaries. Rather are these ideas simply traditional family values entered on love, shorn of misogyny, sexism, homophobia and resort to violence, but they are no less traditional for all that.
But I should not conclude without noting that arch- conservatives do not have a monopoly on wrong thinking about families; individualists celebrating capitalism and championing personal freedom at all costs also contribute mightily to the ongoing degradation of familial affairs; conservative Christians are not alone responsible for the malaise. A particularly egregious case of insensitivity to the dynamics of loving family life - in the name of scholarship -- has come from the discipline of political science, and has been in the news recently because the results of the research supposedly serve to predict accurately the kind of persons likely to vote for Donald Trump. The political scientist, Stanley Feldman, has worked out a mere four question test that has become the gold standard for discerning certain patterns of voting behavior. All four questions are in a similar vein, so I will list only the first:
Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have:
Independence or respect for elders?
I naturally preferred the "respect for elders" answer, having spent a fair amount of time with my aunts, uncles, grandmother and other elder friends of my parents in the working-class family in which I was brought up. My parents certainly taught me to think for myself, and my wife and I did the same with our daughters. But focusing on respect for others, especially the elderly, obliges us to attend ever more closely to the full humanity of those we are related to in a way that focusing on our supposed individuality does not, and I believe it is essential for the full realization of our humanity to embed that fellow feeling in those we love, and are loved by, all the more so as this feeling conduces to a sense of joy at assisting them rather than seeing them as a burden.
But according to Feldman, what my answer indicated was a fairly strong tendency toward authoritarianism, which is supposedly why I would be inclined to vote for Donald Trump. Because no one wants to be called "authoritarian," I probably should have regretted my choice. But I did not, instead asking "Independence from what?" Certainly each family should have a copy of Thoreau's Walden in its library, along with his "Essay on Civil Disobedience." But none of us are independent of all others, now or at any time, so how valuable can "learning independence" be for children compared to helping them learn to enjoy helping their grandmother with the shopping, or giving her a backrub when her arthritis flares up?
Feldman's work strikes me as neo-liberal or libertarian propaganda masquerading as social science scholarship, and to my mind is just as mischievous for weakening the institution of the family as the rants of arch-conservative Christians or reactionary Republicans. All such anti-humanistic perspectives must be challenged because there is no alternative to the family as an institution for raising children and adults to celebrate a life together. Families we must have, it seems, and thank goodness for that; without them the lives of most of us would be hollow, and our civilization unrecognizable.
Thus the question is not whether to have family values, but rather which family values do we want to champion?