Rhetoric Matters: On the Capture of “Family Values”

The Slactivist wrote recently about how conservative evangelicals have been working to an exclusive claim on the label “Christian,” quoting from an article by Timothy Noah of The New Republic to make his point:

A 78-percent majority of Americans is Christian. Only about a third of them self-identify as evangelical, which is a very rough proxy for the Christian conservative minority that increasingly insists on being called, simply, “Christian.” Such totum pro parte synecdoche de-legitimizes mainline Protestantism, historically black Protestantism, and Catholicism, which account, combined, for most of the other two-thirds of all [American] Christians. The de-legitimization is why Christian conservatives favor it. Mainstream news organizations like the New York Times,ever-fearful of being branded anti-religious, have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting the Christian right’s implicit suggestion that the only true Christian is a Christian conservative member of an evangelical or fundamentalist congregation.

This same exact thing has happened with the term “family values.” Mintz and Kellogg examine the origins of this phenomenon – a time when both Democrats and Republicans vied to claim the symbol “family” – in a chapter called “The Politics of the Family” in their history of the family in America, Domestic Revolutions.

During the 1980s the “family” became a buzzword, invoked by politicians of both parties to advance their agendas. Conservatives used the term as a synonym for “traditional social values” and as a way of expressing opposition to the growth of governemnt and liberal welfare policies. Liberals, in turn, used the word as a synonym for “compassion” and as a way of defending government programs designed to help individuals suffering from poverty, abuse, and other problems. For both Democrats and Republicans, the concept of “family” became a symbol of two divergent views of the role and responsibilities of government.

As Bendroth shows in her Growing Up Protestant, conservatives, and most especially conservative evangelicals, won this battle. And she sees this as highly ironic given that it is essentially a sudden reversal of evangelicals’ earlier orientation toward the family:

Family values has become associated with conservative evangelical organizations. Parlayed from bumper stickers to presidential debates, the phrase suggests nostalgia for a better, earlier time when family life was more harmonious and less secular, when government was less intrusive and churches and parents exercised real spiritual authority. Family values has become so strongly tied to evangelical causes that many moderate and liberal Protestants have shied away from the phrase, reinforcing the assumption that only theologically and politically conservative Protestants are pro-family.

But the history of religion and the family, at least until the past few decades, suggests otherwise. For one thing, conservative Protestants have embraced family issues only very recently. Over its long history the American evangelical tradition has been deeply suspicious of domestic entanglements; its individualistic piety has at times sounded almost antifamily, taking very seriously Christ’s call to leave everything and serve him alone. Indeed, as this book argues, the identification of erstwhile fundamentalists as pro-family is one of the ironies of recent history.

I feel passionately that rhetoric matters. As long as the dominant rhetoric about LGBTQ individuals focused on their “perversion,” we could not hope to win the legalization of gay marriage. Once the dominant rhetoric became about loving individuals who were denied the ability to marry and form families, our fortunes shifted. Similarly, in the abortion debate, shifting the rhetoric from “keeping women in their place” to “saving babies” has had an enormous impact and has greatly benefited the anti-abortion movement. Rhetoric matters.

And so, I would argue that we need to fight back against conservatives’ capture of all things “family.” We need to oppose their sexism, classism, and homophobia and show that they don’t own the term “family.” And most of all, we need to keep them from controlling the terms of the debate.

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