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Family values

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This article discusses "family values" as a moral and political concept. For the rock music tour, see Family Values Tour.

Family values is a political buzzword first used in the United States in 1966 to describe a set of moral guidelines for defining the "proper" structure and role of a family and its members, supported by appeals to tradition. Most often, the term connotes a conservative ideology that supports what they consider to be traditional Christian morality or Christian values.

Typically, "family values" is employed as a code word for Christian values as put forth by some groups of American Christians who see their religion as the sole source of morality and consider the nuclear family to be an essential element in society. These groups variously oppose abortion, pornography, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, feminism, contraception, cohabitation, divorce, and depictions of nudity, sexuality and profanity in the media. Some conservative family values advocates believe the government should explicitly endorse Christian morality, for example by displaying the Ten Commandments or allowing teachers to conduct prayers in public schools. The view of the United States as a "Christian nation" is widespread among conservative family values proponents. [1]

In contrast to the view of family values held by the Christian right, liberal groups such as People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood, and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays have attempted to redefine the concept in a way that promotes liberal interests and ideology, including normalization of single-parent families, same-sex monogamous relationships and marriage, and unmarried monogamous couples. This understanding of family values does not promote conservative morality, instead focusing on encouraging and supporting alternative family structures, access to contraception, abortion, comprehensive sex education, childcare, and parent-friendly employment laws.

Historical perspective

As societies have shifted economically from agriculture to industry, extended families have largely given way to nuclear families. Family values, also, do not remain fixed and rigid; they change in response to economic, political, and cultural developments. They vary from country to country, and even between different households.

Before the 20th century, for example, in most places and at most times, the idea of a married woman seeking status and recognition independent of her husband would have constituted a breach of family values. Many societies expected women to focus exclusively on household duties.

Family values in U.S. politics

Since 1980, the Republican party has used the issue of family values to attract socially conservative voters, especially those in the South and Middle America. While family values remains a rather vague concept, social conservatives usually understand the term to include some combination of the following principles, to be supported and enforced by the government through laws and regulations:

  • Support for marriage as a lasting bond between one man and one woman and support for laws and constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage
  • Family organization which has the husband as head of the household and the wife primarily as homemaker
  • Support for public education and popular media that promote (or at least act compatibly with) the current view of traditional Christian morality
  • Support for two-parent families as opposed to single parent families
  • Parental responsibility for and control over their children's education
  • Discipline of children at the discretion of the parents, sometimes including corporal punishment
  • Rejection of homosexuality as a natural sexual orientation, and rejection of behavior or appearance inconsistent with traditional gender roles
  • Rejection of abortion, and sometimes contraception as well

The use of "family values" as a political term became widespread after a 1992 speech by Vice President Dan Quayle that attributed the Los Angeles riots to a breakdown of family values. Quayle specifically blamed the violence in L.A. as stemming from a decay of moral values and family structure in American society. In an aside, he cited the fictional title character in the television program Murphy Brown as an example of how popular culture contributes to this "poverty of values", saying: "[i]t doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown—a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman—mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'" Quayle drew a firestorm of criticism from feminist and liberal organizations and was widely ridiculed by late night talk show hosts for this remark. The "Murphy Brown speech" and the resulting media coverage damaged the Republican ticket in the 1992 presidential election and became one of the most memorable incidents of the 1992 campaign. Long after the outcry had ended, the comment continued to have an effect on US politics. Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history and the author of several books and essays about the history of marriage, says that this brief remark by Quayle about Murphy Brown "kicked off more than a decade of outcries against the 'collapse of the family.'" [2]

"Family values" remains a core issue for the party. It played a significant role in President George W. Bush's re-election in 2004. The Democratic Party has also tried to use the term family values, with their own definition, to attract social conservatives to its ranks. However, the Democrat's definition of family values is incompatible with that of social conservatives; indeed Democrats who describe themselves as having social conservative values are now increasingly attracted to the Republican party.

Organizations that promote conservative family values

See also


  • Bennett, William J., ed. The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. ISBN 0671683063.
  • Coontz, Stephanie. "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap". New York: Basic Books, 1992. ISBN 0465090974.
  • Coontz, Stephanie. "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families". Basic Books, 1998. ISBN 0465090923.
  • Coontz, Stephanie., ed. "American Families; A Multicultural Reader". London: Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0415915740.
  • Coontz, Stephanie. "Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage". New York: Viking Press, 2005. ISBN 067003407X.

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