Another election season will be upon us soon, and with it, comes the flood of campaign ads with all their praises and denouncements for the various candidates. One thing you are sure to see throughout the ordeal is a constant chanting of the following phrase: “I support family values,” or words to that effect.
It is a particularly popular catchphrase among the social conservatives wing of the Republican Party, so much so that you could mistake it for a nervous tick. What is particularly interesting, though, is the ambiguous nature of the term “family values,” as it does not make clear any specific policy goals. When a candidate says they want to lower taxes or reduce regulations, you know exactly what they want. When campaigning, statements like these can sometimes be wrapped in other ambiguous slogans, like “create new jobs.”
However, “family values” is an outlier among ambiguous slogans, as there are often no underlying policy ideas that go along with it, or at least none that are made visible during the campaign. On top of that, the layman’s idea of “family values” is often quite basic, simply including a list of virtues such as kindness, respect and responsibility, things that can hardly be implemented through public policy. With all this in mind, something seems amiss. If the term “family values” is seemingly positive yet vague, then wouldn’t any political movement want to jump on such a term? Why is it almost exclusively used by conservatives?
As with all things politics, the devil is in the details. While “family values” supporters don’t extrapolate much on the nuts and bolts of its implications while under the watchful eye of the media or the general public, a bit of digging can easily reveal their intentions. At first what you will find is relatively harmless: the ideal family to them is the nuclear family of the late 1940s-1960s, which is defined by American anthropologist George Murdoch as such:
“A social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults” – Murdoch
There is nothing overtly outrageous in this definition, but did you notice a few subtle jabs? Phrases like “both sexes,” “socially approved” and “one or more children” raise red flags in any modern progressive. Such rigid outlines not only cannot account for the many complexities of life, such as divorces or sexual incompatibility, but they specifically exclude homosexual couples, or couples that choose to not have sex. So would Murdoch and the conservatives who support his definition claim that a family with same-sex parents or separated parents is somehow less than a family?
Sadly, it seems so. But perhaps one can just overlook this old-fashioned notion. After all, this definition was published in 1949, when gay rights movements had not yet taken foot in America, so perhaps Murdoch just didn’t know any better, and his definition might be different had he written it today. Unfortunately, in modern times not only is such anti-gay sentiment still around, but it’s arguably gotten a lot less subtle.
The Reagan era of the 1980s saw a massive revival of religious fundamentalist movements, some of which put the issue of family values at the forefront of their messages. Many of these groups still exist to this day, with a few examples: The American Family Association, The Family Research Council, The World Congress of Families, and The Family Watch International. (Southern Poverty Law Center) Sadly, the definition of “family values” to these groups includes unbridled discontent for LGBTQ rights, as well as towards women’s rights, which is probably why all the groups listed above are recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups.
Not only that, but about the same time as the emergence of these groups, many conservatives built entire careers around attempting to obstruct gay rights, including such figures as Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly, all under the guise of institutions like Falwell’s “Liberty University” or newsletters like Schlafly’s “Eagle Forum,” (Frank) all in the name of “family values.” Names like these coupled with such narratives reveal the true reason that “family values” is touted so often by conservatives: branding.
By having a positive-sounding name like “family values,” hateful ideologies can be made more appealing to the public and the politicians that represent them. More than that, they allow the endorsement of these ideologies to come without any negative repercussions, while stifling opposition to them. Think of it, there are not many people who are willing to say “I am against family values” in public. Such a declaration just sounds like pure evil. The branding strategy is even spelled out by some leaders of the religious right, such as Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed:
“You’ve got to make it clear that your purpose is not to hurt or punish someone else. It’s not a negative-based movement or a fear-based movement or an anger or hate-based movement but instead the movement is about love and honor and respect and about modeling for our children a healthy lifestyle. That’s what the issue ought to be about. I think if we can define it in that way, we can’t lose.” (People for the American Way Foundation)
You can make almost anything appealing to almost anyone if you just name it the right thing. If Obamacare was called something like “The Patriotic Health Care Act” there would be virtually no Republican resistance to it. The same principle works for hate movements.
The abuse of the term “family values” is indeed upsetting, however, there is no reason to despair. In spite of the recent rise of unabashed hatred and oppression, LGBTQ rights have made great strides. In fact, the rise of hate is likely due to these strides, as nuclear family proponents and regressive fundamentalists are beginning to sense a downfall; a downfall of their status quo. With an estimated one-in-ten millennials being LGBTQ, along with a vast majority of straight millennials supporting LGBTQ rights, (Pew Research Center) praises for “family values” are hard to come by in this newest batch of voters.
All the while, Anti-Gay movements are in steady downturn, particularly by the deaths of their members, with Falwell and Schlafly passing away in 2007 and 2016, respectively. While these groups may maintain sizable memberships for the moment, they will soon be outnumbered through attrition. Even the election of Donald Trump is only a small victory for them; a delay of the inevitable. In time, as the seats of Congress begin to fill with progressive millennials, the anti-gay “family values” supporters will lose their power, and their movement will wither and die, joining ranks with the anti-suffragettes and the anti-civil rights campaigns.