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Opinion: Whither Family Values

Poli Psy


Published November 24, 2010 at 1:35 p.m.


As this column appears in print, on Thanksgiving eve, many of you will be preparing for the annual ritual of regression to infantile relational patterns fueled by massive intakes of “comfort foods,” bouts of neurotic aggression abetted by alcohol and football watching, potentially fatal truth telling as a side effect of turkey-borne tryptophan narcosis, and retrospective depression brought on by the whole thing.

Which leads me to free-associate: Whatever happened to “family values”? I speak not of values held by any individual family, of course, but of the canon of pro-“traditional-” (that is, patriarchal) marriage, anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science evangelical Christianity that rose to power in the last decades of the 20th century.

Time was a pronouncement from Pat Robertson was front-page news. As late as 2004, pundits attributed Bush’s victory to the strength of “moral-values voters.”

But quick: Who’s the head of the Family Research Council now? What is the Family Research Council? Can you even dredge that up from your political memory, where it’s buried under bailouts and oil spills, terrorists and deficits?

Why haven’t we heard from the moral majority lately? I have a few theses:

(1) They are losing and they know it.

A 2009 study by Columbia University political scientist Jeffrey Lax finds that legalization of same-sex marriage is only a matter of time: “If policy were set by state-by-state majorities of those 65 or older, none would allow same-sex marriage. If policy were set by those under 30, only 12 states would not allow same-sex marriage,” he concluded.

Solid majorities of parents and students support comprehensive sex education and oppose abstinence-only.

The U.S. is enjoying a feminist renaissance. Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist.

Gays and lesbians are affiliating with every political constituency, including the GOP and the Tea Party.

Transgendered people, though still the objects of discrimination and violence, are visible enough in the mainstream media to win both sympathetic treatment and equal-opportunity parody. ABC’s 2007 heartstrings tugger about transgendered children featured attractive parents who are “allowing their children to live in the gender they identify with in order to save them from a future of heartache and pain.” And this May, the father of the crude sexist Glenn Quagmire on “Family Guy” came out as a woman trapped in a man’s body.

And opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage? So potentially alienating to independent voters are these positions that, with a few loudmouthed exceptions, 2010’s conservative candidates avoided mentioning them.

(2) They’ve already won.

Gay kids are killing themselves all over the place. “Don’t-ask-don’t-tell” looks as impervious to attack as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle.

“Comprehensive” sex education promotes abstinence.

Abortion is unavailable in most of the U.S., and the situation is about to get worse. Congress inaugurates an additional 44 anti-choice representatives (and eight fewer pro-choice ones) and six new anti-choice senators in 2011, strengthening anti-choice majorities in both chambers. Even if health care reform survives, its exclusion of abortion coverage from government-endorsed insurance plans will lead more companies to drop elective pregnancy termination from their policies, and it will become unaffordable to almost everyone, insured or uninsured.

Gays and lesbians are affiliating with every political constituency — and they’re telling the GOP and the Tea Party not to support gay rights! This fall, the fiscally conservative group GOProud implored candidates to stick to economics and shut up about “divisive” social issues like homosexuality.

Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist.

(3) They have become unnecessary (2, only worse).

Religiosity and cultural conservatism have so thoroughly infused American politics that “family values” are invisible and hegemonic, like whiteness. No national candidate of any stripe, and few local ones, can win an election without parading a strong “faith.”

Religious groups are quietly gaining political and economic rights. In 2005, the Internal Revenue Service gave the Christian Coalition tax-exempt status, even though the organization stated in its application that it would distribute voter guides in churches. Following the 2000 Supreme Court ruling in Mitchell v. Helms that tax-funded vouchers could be used for religious schools, many similar cases have been decided on the principle that denying faith-based organizations government money is a form of religious discrimination. This notion, many Constitutional scholars say, turns the First Amendment prohibition of the state establishment of religion — as well as legal precedent until 2000 — on its head.

Case in point: On the Supreme Court’s current docket is a challenge to the constitutionality of tax credits for donors to the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization. Our Democratic president is siding with the Christians.

Americans increasingly equate God with country — and American exceptionalism. In a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, almost six in 10 respondents agreed with the statement “God has granted America a special role in human history.” And never mind the responsibility religion holds for much of the bloodshed in human history — from the Crusades to the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts — they trust religion above democracy: fFfty-six percent believed that “if enough people had a personal relationship with God, social problems would take care of themselves.”

The Right embraces families (Family Research Council). The Left embraces families (Working Families Party). Even the movement formerly known as Queer Liberation embraces families and that other family value, warmongering. What’s the GLBTQ agenda? Marriage and military service.

Indeed, the word “family” has supplanted all other positive appellations for citizens, Americans or people. The only word vying for its vaunted place in political discourse is “taxpayers.” And now that fiscal and moral conservatives have joined hands, the two are interchangeable.

What happens if family values triumph? The short answer: Families — and all other collections of persons or persons on their own — are fucked. Cut Social Security and other “intrusive” government programs? You’ll be supporting Mom and Dad. Defund contraceptive services and outlaw abortion? Maternal death and teenage motherhood will climb. Replace public assistance with private charity? Here come hunger, child neglect, poorhouses — the possibilities are endless.

But, hey, I’ve just learned that Thanksgiving is the happiest day of the year. So, over the river and through the woods, my friends! And when you get there, refrain from instructing your sister on the proper way to discipline her insufferable children. Compliment your mother on those disgusting marshmallow-candied yams. Drag yourself away from the television and raise a glass with your family.

Treat them kindly. Because soon, they may be all you’ve got.