When the subject of family values is raised, polls show that most people respond by citing “Golden Rule” ethics rather than political issues. A survey by the MassMutual Life Insurance Company a few years ago demonstrated that most Americans think of family values in terms of mutual support and give-and-take, not in terms of social problems like out-of-wedlock childbearing or decency in broadcasting.
This fact has led some writers to question whether there really is a definable something called “family values,” or if the whole debate, as framed by such public figures as former Vice President Quayle in his famous “Murphy Brown” speech last year, isn’t merely a smokescreen for a partisan political agenda. This is a threshold question for society, and it raises subtle issues for Christians as well.
An interesting pamphlet published in 1986 by the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, England attempted to address these issues by discussing 10 doubts a Christian might raise concerning the validity of a family-centered social policy. Isn’t God more concerned, one doubt runs, with the individual soul and its salvation? Doesn’t the family often oppress individuals, even hold them back from an encounter with the Lord? Does not Jesus Himself say (Matthew 10:37) that he who permits love of family to come before love for Him is “not worthy” to be called His?
If all of the foregoing is true, why struggle to protect the family as an institution? Why, indeed, does it matter if millions of real children of non-fictional Murphy Browns are born into fatherless homes every year?
FAMILY AS BASIS FOR SOCIETY
The truth, of course, is that Scripture places extremely high value on the family, a fact indirectly acknowledged by our Lord’s admonition regarding the hierarchies of devotion demanded by service to His Word. From the cross itself, Jesus gives His mother to the care of a new family (John 19:26), a deed reflecting the same spirit present in 1 Timothy 5:4 where Paul speaks with special feeling for the care Christians owe to the widowed mother or grandmother.
As a divine institution (Gen. 2:24), the family created by marriage is an essential institution for Christians regardless of the culture in which they are immersed. In exile or under a regime of persecution of the church, the family may be the only nexus for the survival of faith. In a culture that is hostile to faith in more subtle ways, the family may still be, as one writer phrased it, a “haven in a heartless world.”
To admit these things is not to show however, why Christians should be concerned that family be normative in law, or why the policies of government should protect the family as an institution. All of us have become so accustomed to arguments based on an appeal to “pluralism in a democratic society” that we have a very difficult time asserting that any moral principle should be applied to all citizens, regardless of their heritage or private belief system. “That’s alright for you; but you must not presume to say what is right for me,” has become the most effective conversation stopper in American social history.
The first answer to these arguments respective of the family is a very pragmatic one. Here, fortunately, the consensus from the social science research is getting stronger every day. The breakdown of family bonds in society is extremely expensive to government at all levels, and extremely dangerous to citizens in every neighborhood and in all walks of life. It was no coincidence that all four men charged with beating Los Angeles truck driver Reginald Denny nearly to death during the April 1992 riots were fatherless youths. Nor that broken homes were also the rule for the group of young men in Houston who showed absolutely no remorse recently as they admitted to the rape and murder of two teenage girls.
The experience of the last two decades in the United States shows conclusively, for anyone who looks closely enough at the numbers, that government and private institutions simply cannot keep up with the accelerating impact of missing parents: of immunizations not provided, moral guidance not given, homework not insisted upon, sexual restraint not demonstrated, a work ethic unexhibited.
Robert Coombs, a professor of Bio-behavioral Sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, reviewed more than 130 studies which measured differences in life experiences between married and unmarried people. Coombs concluded that the married generally report more happiness and less stress than the unmarried. Moreover, married people are significantly healthier than the never married, separated, divorced or widowed. Nearly every study Coombs examined showed that the married experience lower death rates from all causes—disease, accident or suicide—than the unmarried, in every nation that keeps accurate health data on its population.
What is true for husband and wife is also true for the children. Government researcher Deborah Dawson reviewed information from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health, 17,000 cases overall, and found measurable differences between two-parent and single-parent homes in nearly every category studied. Children in the latter showed increased levels of depression, anxiety; lower educational achievement and a higher drop-out rate; more behavioral and emotional problems; a higher susceptibility to accidents; and enhanced risk of such physical health problems as asthma, headaches and stammering.
For practical reasons alone, then, a nation which desires to improve the quality of its work force, to reward the “pursuit of happiness” of its members, to improve its educationaI attainment, to reduce its health bill, and to make its streets safe and its jails less crowded such a nation will protect the family and help it build its resources.
But there is a more profound reason for promoting the position of the family in law and public policy. In a nation where diversity is increasing (remember that parade of nations at the Los Angeles Olympics—not the athletes, but the citizens of Los Angeles who had emigrated to the United States from each of the participating countries?), family is one of the most powerful unifying forces available to ensure social harmony. In a time of turmoil, racism and nationalism, the example of Christian family life is certain to be one of the most important vehicles of witness to a fallen and contentious world.
ABANDONMENT OR RENEWAL
Ironically, at the very time that social scientists are coming to unavoidable conclusions about the beneficent role of the family, political leaders and groups seem tempted to abandon the family model. Often, the abandonment is a by-product of well-intentioned legislation. Legislators who expanded the welfare system in the 1960s to raise benefit levels for the poor did not anticipate the impact of creating a situation in which a typical woman loses $5,000 in benefits for herself and her child if she marries the man who lives in her household.
In other situations, the adverse impact of policy changes on the family is calculated. Radical feminism has criticized marriage and the family as institutions that deny women opportunity. Social egalitarian philosopher John Rawls of Harvard has suggested that “the idea of equal opportunity” for individuals inclines in the direction of abolishing the family. Proposals to authorize same-sex marriage have found their way into the prestigious Harvard Law Journal, and laws to create “domestic partnerships” have passed in cities from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, California.
For most of American history, the privileged status of the family has been maintained by the momentum of tradition and common sense. That tradition is now under planned assault, and that common sense no longer taps the subterranean watercourse of a dominant Christian heritage. In today’s culture, the bare existence of family as a valid and valuable legal concept cannot be presumed. It must be debated afresh, and recaptured anew.
Here are two of the most important fronts on which this campaign must be waged.
The current vulnerability of the family to campaigns to abolish it owes at least some of its momentum to the fact that the divorce law reforms of the 1970s made the abolition of individual families a routine and automatic process. As Mary Ann Glendon points out in her book, Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, the United States’ regime of unilateral no-fault divorce is one of the most liberal in the world. Few European nations have gone so far as America’s states have, she points out, to deprive judges of the opportunity to suggest or impose measures to preserve the marriage or even delay divorce. In practice, divorces are routinely and expeditiously granted even when one party to the marriage is vigorously attempting to salvage it.
Since 1973 over one million divorces have taken place in the United States each year. Lawyers hungry for business regularly advertise discount divorce rates in urban newspapers. Marriage has become the proverbial “pie-crust promise”: easily made, easily broken.
One of the most encouraging developments in this area is the growing consensus among a spectrum of organizations, from the traditionminded Family Research Council, to the liberal-leaning Progressive Policy Institute, that reverse divorce reform is crucial to rescuing the family. Proposals range from mandatory waiting periods to two-tier marriage laws that would allow the parties to a marriage to opt for the current no-fault regime or to elect a legally guaranteed alternative incorporating traditional ideas of indissolubility and mutual responsibility.
Both measures would most likely have to weather a challenge from civil libertarians, arguing for personal autonomy, essentially the right to marry without limit.
The response to that challenge would likely be based on the well-being of children, who suffer irreparable harm from ready divorce, to the right of men and women to enter into binding contracts, as they are able to do in the far less socially significant arena of economic contracts.
In each of the last two years, the government of the District of Columbia has adopted legislation that would permit city employees to register non-familial relationships with the city as “domestic partnerships.” This law, similar to that proposed and/or adopted in a number of other cities, imposes very minimal obligations: the domestic “partner” may be a person of either sex, or any age. The relationship may be very short-term. The number of previous or subsequent domestic partners is irrelevant. A shared domicile and evidence of companionship are all that are required.
Domestic partnership laws are aimed at heterosexual, live-in couples and homosexuals, the latter of whom provided the bulk of the political agitation for the D.C. law. These activists view domestic partnership as either a step on the way to recognition ofsame-sex marriage or as an alternative that will bestow the economic benefits of family life on homosexual or nonmarital relationships. In the District ofColumbia, domestic partners are eligible for an array of city benefits, including health care.
The ultimate impact of domestic partnership legislation will be to replace the institution of marriage with a mere registration system available to any kind of relationship under the sun. The real impact is seen in the imbalance between obligation and benefit—domestic partnership arrangements open the government treasury, but require nothing in the way of long-term commitment. Even if they did so, they mock the very idea of marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, framed in the sight of the community, for the begetting and nurturance of children.
In the place of this covenant, domestic partnership enthrones the mere desire of individuals—for gratification without obligation, for economic benefit without personal responsibility, for community respect without respect of community. For Christians, acceptance of domestic partnership legislation is abandonment of the family.
Fortunately, Congress now seems indisposed to accept domestic partnership laws. For the second straight year, Congress rejected the D.C. partnership law on June 30 by a vote of 251–177. But that vote contained a warning. More than a third of the US House of Representatives was willing to let the D.C. law go through—it is hard to believe that such a position would have been taken by even a dozen members of Congress twenty years ago. Ultimately, Christians cannot avoid the wider fight for the family. What our parents’ generation counted as given must now be actively asserted. In this time and place, what we will bequeath our children is not given at all. It is a good time and an excellent place, if we use them to proclaim anew the holiness of families.
Charles A. Donovan currently serves as Executive Staff Director for the Family Research CoIllIci!, a Washington, D.C. based research, policy and lobbying organization. As staff director, Mr. Donovan supervises and directs the day-to-day operations of FRC which is dedicated to ensuring that the interests of the family are considered and respected in the formation of public policy. He is also active in the formation of nationwide strategies and as a writer for FRC’s publications.
Mr. Donovan has extensive experience as an editor/commentator. He is co-author, with Robert G. Marshall, of Blessed Are the Barren: A Social History of Planned Parenthood (lgnatius Press, October 1991). He has appeared on ABC’s “Nightline,” CNN, USIA’s Worldnet, CBN, the USA Radio Network and numerous other programs, and his writings have appeared in USA Today, The San Diego Union, The Cincinnati Enquirer, the journal First Things, among others.
As a nationally known speaker, Mr. Donovan has addressed audiences across the United States and abroad. He presented a paper before the International Congress on the Family, Brighton, England in 1990, and served as a participant in a conference on family break-up at Rockford, Illinois, in 1989. That same year Mr. Donovan addressed the national Legislators Conference in Chicago sponsored by Americans United for life. He has testified before Congress and the Conservative Democratic Forum in the US House of Representatives.
Prior to joining FRC in February 1989, Mr. Donovan served as Deputy Director of Presidential Correspondence at the White House beginning in 1983, writing policy statements, presidential messages and proclamations. He joined the Office of Presidential Correspondence as a writer/editor in April 1981.
From 1978 through 1981, Mr. Donovan was Legislative Director in the Washington office of the National Right to Life Committee, developing strategy and heading the lobbying program for the national committee.
Mr. Donovan has worked as a contributor to the sports pages of several publications and as an assistant in the clean water research at the Taft Research Center of the US Environmental Protection Agency in his native Cincinnati.
He is a 1974 graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a degree in English. He and his Margaret have three children and reside in Arlington, Virginia.