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“For years the debate on family values has focused more on ideology than on what actually keeps families together.”—Hara Estroff Marano, in Psychology Today

“Family values” has become an aging term, fallen into disrepair and in some quarters, disrepute, but it continues to pop up in both ironic and non-ironic contexts.

Political people have long promoted the value of family structures – as for that matter an overwhelming majority of people, not just in the United States but globally, do. But not until the 1970s did the political conversation start to factor in the idea that a family model of two-parent single-paycheck heterosexuals with several children was not the only structure at large in American society (and, from the context of the rhetoric, this was a distinction from other countries; you wonder how all those other people reproduced). Other forms of families have developed in the couple of generations since, and they have become a central focus of American politics – in various ways.

The political phrase “family values” got its first substantial appearance in modern time at the 1976 Republican convention, when the party’s platform said “Economic uncertainty, unemployment, housing difficulties, women’s and men’s concerns with their changing and often conflicting roles, high divorce rates, threatened neighborhoods and schools, and public scandal all create a hostile atmosphere that erodes family structures and family values. Thus it is imperative that our government’s programs, actions, officials and social welfare institutions never be allowed to jeopardize the family. We fear the government may be powerful enough to destroy our families; we know that it is not powerful enough to replace them. Because of our concern for family values, we affirm our beliefs, stated elsewhere in this Platform, in many elements that will make our country a more hospitable environment for family life …”

The phrase, or the ideas underlying it, has not left American politics since, and picked up steam in arguments over the Equal Rights Amendment, women in the workplace, abortion, sex education and more.

Writer Neil J. Young outlined part of the battle this way: “As the ‘family values’ movement grew, it increasingly encouraged paranoid fantasies of how secular liberals in the federal government and global organizations like the United Nations worked to separate children from their parents’ ideas and values.”

For example, in 1978 Pro Family Forum issued a paper portraying the 1979 International Children’s Year as a scurrilous undercover plot to ‘liberate’ children from their families: “Do you want the minds (and consequently, the souls) of YOUR CHILDREN turned over to international humanist/socialist planners?”

The 1996 book by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, It Takes a Village, was similarly described as part of an effort to disrupt parental authority and family structures – an attempt to destroy the family and put children under control of the state. (Anyone bothering to read the book would come away with a very different impression.)

Most of such arguments stay a little submerged in the larger national audience, but for many years “family values” was heavily used as code to evoke them. Language consultant Frank Luntz reported that “family values” has “tested” better than “traditional values,” or “American values” or “community values” – being preferred by more than twice as many people as any of those.

The phrase easily can be put to contrary uses, however. The splitting of immigrant families at the Mexican border in 2018, for example, drew loud complaints that families were being dismissed and devalued, and the phrase “family values” was being invoked in new ways.

Columnist Frank Bruni wrote in late 2017, “Try this on for size: Democrats are the party of family values because they promote the creation of more families. They did precisely that with their advocacy of marriage equality, which didn’t tug the country away from convention but toward it, by encouraging gay and lesbian Americans to live in the sorts of arrangements that conservatives in fact extol. Democrats also want to give families the flexibility and security that help keep them afloat and maybe intact. That’s what making the work force more hospitable to women and increasing the number of Americans with health insurance do. And Republicans lag behind Democrats on both fronts.”

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Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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