Family Values Movement

2012-06-21 14:21:54

The family values movement is actually a very loose alliance of different organizations united by the belief that government has a duty to protect both the traditional American family and the moral foundations of society. The central tenet of the various groups that make up the family values movement is that the state has not just a role but a duty to promote a particular type of morality for the good of all its citizens.

There are two main views as to how the state gets its duty to protect morality. Some value morality extrinsically: immorality corrupts every aspect of society and so morality must be promoted to protect all members of society from that corruption. Others see morality as something that’s intrinsically important; actions that violate this morality are simply wrong and ought to be stopped. This view is particularly prevalent among more religious groups whose morality rests on Judeo-Christian ethics and other theological justifications. This second position has attracted criticism for ignoring the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Although the family values movement is often thought of as beginning in the 1980s, it can trace its origin to the reactions against the shift in American politics away from its traditional, broadly conformist, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant roots that began in the 1950s. These changes were aimed at the creation of a secular, pluralistic society that not only understood and fostered differences in life choices between citizens but also protected the rights of its minorities to act without fear of reprisal from the majority. Mass-based social groups began to push against the traditional constraints placed on their members, particularly feminists striving for equality in the workplace, and homosexual rights groups campaigning against state discrimination such as policies preventing homosexuals from working for the federal government.

The impetus for the many of these policy changes came from the courts in a series of decisions that favored the autonomy of the individual over the interests of the state in promoting a particular morality.

Some of these decisions were centered on the right to make choices over their behavior within the privacy of their homes. One example of this would be Stanley v. Georgia, which recognized a ‘‘right to satisfy emotional needs in the privacy of [one’s] own house’’ that precluded the state from banning the possession of pornography.

Others were centered on the right of the individual to make decisions about their body and intimate aspects of their lives. One example of this would be Roe v. Wade, where the Court recognized the importance of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

Others were aimed at protecting the rights of minorities from discrimination by the majority motivated by animus and moral differences. An example of this would be Romer v. Evans, where the Court struck down a state constitutional amendment prohibiting laws that would protect homosexuals from discrimination.

The family values movement saw these decisions as dangerous and worked in the courts and the legislatures to protect the role of the state in advancing and defending a particular idea of morality to protect society. They achieved many successes in the electoral realm, especially in the southern states, only to have many laws later overturned by the courts. They regarded the interventions of the court as undemocratic intrusions on the ability of the majority to protect their society.

The family values movement thinks that reformers, including the courts, fail to see that some apparently private acts actually have wide-ranging consequences for all of society. Permitting the use of pornography degrades all women, desensitizes the public to sex, and leads to increased sexual violence. Allowing the use of contraceptives decouples sex from reproduction and promotes sex outside of marriage. Abortion involves the termination of another life and can lead to decreased regard for all human life.

The movement is often characterized as being ‘‘right wing,’’ religious, and Republican, and some of its most high-profile groups have included the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council.

The socially conservative views of the movement attract religious groups from across the wider political spectrum. The movement is most associated with the Republican Party, because that party has actively courted them by pursuing family-based moral policies for some time. This link with the movement was most active and important in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan placed traditional family values at the core of his political philosophy.

The political power of the family values movement has declined since the 1980s, but it remains active through its many organizations. They have not given up attempts to overturn the developments of the last few decades and continue to fight a rearguard action in the face of further socially liberal reforms. At the start of the twenty-first century, the most heated battles involve the expansion of the term marriage to cover same sex unions. This opposition is even more intense when children are involved, and they see same sex adoption as not only giving official recognition to deviant behavior but also potentially affecting the child’s sexual orientation by growing up in a home where homosexual behavior is the norm.

Although the culture wars fought by the family values movement show no sign of abating, their political victories of the movement have tended to be either short lived (as Bowers v. Hardwick gave way to Lawrence v. Texas) or merely limiting the scope of their defeat (as New York v. Ferber qualified Stanley). Their opponents have been far more successful in challenging the status quo and have radically transformed American society over the past few decades. It seems unlikely that these opponents will win completely, but their advances show no sign of slowing, and it remains to be seen whether the movement can force a retrenchment of traditional family values in American politics.


References and Further Reading

  • Formicola, Jo Renee, and Hubert Morken, eds. Religious Leaders and Faith-based Politics : Ten Profiles. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.
  • Hunter, James D. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
  • Kaplan, Esther. ‘‘The Religious Right’s Sense of Siege is Fueling a Resurgence.’’ The Nation July 5, 2004.
  • Lawler, Michael G. ‘‘Family: American and Christian.’’ America August 12, 1995.
  • Walsh, Andrew D. Religion, Economics, and Public Policy: Ironies, Tragedies, and Absurdities of the Contemporary Culture Wars. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.
  • Yarnold, Barbara M., ed. The Role of Religious Organizations in Social Movements. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986)
  • Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)
  • New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747 (1982)
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1933)
  • Roemer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996)
  • Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969)

See also Abortion; Abortion Laws and the Establishment Clause; Abortion Protest Cases; Bible in American Law; Birth Control; Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986); Boy Scouts of America v. Dale 530 U.S. 640 (2000); Child Pornography; Defense of Marriage Act; Gay and Lesbian Rights; Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Homosexuality and Immigration; Marriage, History of; Same-Sex Marriage Legalization; Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969); Right of Privacy; Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973); Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U. S. 558 (2003); New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747 (1982)