The issue of “family values” has long divided liberals and conservatives. It constitutes an ideological fault-line, determining what newspapers we read, what television programs we watch, what circles we socialize in, what jokes we tell, what political party we vote for, and sometimes even what church we attend.
And the issue colours the debate on many things: same sex- marriage, sex and violence on TV, abortion, the traditional idea of family as heterosexual and two-parented, the role of women within society, the role of a wife within a marriage and family, the place of motherhood, what constitutes pornography, what should be allowed under the right of free expression, sex education in schools, prayer in schools, censorship, the place of religion in politics, and whether society should be allowed to impose structures that protect traditional values.
Irrespective of how one feels on these issues, what is now evident is that there is a clear connection between the demise of the family and the increase in youth delinquency, crime, drug use, suicide, violence in general, bullying in schools, teenage pregnancy, personality breakdown, bad manners, and the weakening of civic communities. Family life is important and its demise has real, measurable consequences.
But beyond agreeing on this, conservatives and liberals pretty much disagree on what constitutes the problem and on what should be done about it. Why is the family in trouble?
Conservatives see the family in trouble because of our reluctance to address certain issues: sex and violence on television, unchaperoned access to information on the internet, the existence of non-traditional families, same-sex marriages, pornography, opposition to all censorship, promiscuous sex, marital infidelity, and a culturally-accepted scorn of respect, taste, and manners. What’s needed to stem the tide, they believe, is the courage to stand up and challenge these things.Conservatives believe that family values should be supported culturally and politically.
Some conservative groups go further and lay particular blame for the crisis in family values on certain groups and certain ideologies: the gay-lobby, single-mothers, working-mothers, welfare recipients, feminism. But honesty compels us to admit that when our marriages break up and our families break down, usually the issue is not feminism, same-sex marriages, or single-mothers. Almost always there are other reasons, much closer to home, as to why our relationships fall apart. Yet, conservatives are right in their basic assertion that the family needs to be protected culturally and politically.
Liberals, sadly, have been slow to admit both the importance of the family and its need for protection. Perhaps it’s been an over-reaction to certain excesses within the conservative agenda on family values, but many liberals have simply abdicated on this issue. As well, liberals have tended to be naive about the effects on marriage and family of marital infidelity, casual sex, what young people are exposed to on television, and the dumbing-down and vulgarizing of much of the entertainment industry.
But liberals have been very right on something else, the conservative blind spot on this issue, the impact of economics on family values. Where conservatives have tried to protect family values culturally and politically, liberals have tried to protect them economically.
A number of studies, including a much-quoted one by Anna Greenberg, suggest that biggest challenge facing families today is that they don’t have enough time for each other. This is especially true for parents, who never have enough time to give their children the attention they need. And why isn’t there enough time? Too much pressure from the workplace! Too many families find themselves in a never-ending, all-consuming struggle for adequate pay, proper health care, decent housing, access to decent education. That struggle constitutes a virtual conspiracy against family life. People are working more and more hours and having less and less time for family. The economic squeeze, perhaps more than any cultural shift in attitudes, is the real cancer working against family values. The pressures of the workplace and the marketplace are killing families.
Family values, liberals say, have to be protected economically. If we value the family we have to make the economic adjustments needed so that mothers can be mothers, fathers can be fathers, and families can have the time, security, health, and housing they need to live as family. Those adjustments do not flow from a conservative economic agenda.
But there’s good news: Conservatives and liberals, especially those trying to raise children, are beginning more and more to agree with each other on the value of family. Unfortunately, they still tend to disagree on what is needed to protect family.
Conservatives are right when they say family values must be protected politically and culturally, but liberals are also right when they say the family must be protected economically.
The issue of family is too important to let ideology divide us. We need to learn from each other that family and family values must be protected in ways both conservative and liberal.