"FAMILY VALUES" is surely one of the most potent cultural and political phrases of the past decade. But while "family values" are often invoked, they are less frequently defined.
Imprecision has its advantages. Yet too often this powerful phrase has become, as Thomas Jefferson said of patriotism, the last refuge of scoundrels – those who would use "family values" as convenient political buzz-words, or as an ideological Trojan Horse to disguise narrower, more partisan objectives.
Are there widely shared moral beliefs in America that can properly be described as "family values?" Can consensual norms about family be reflected in, and reinforced by, public policy? Or, in our pluralistic and often culturally divided society, is the very notion of shared family norms simply an anachronism?
Certainly, few societies celebrate diversity and tolerance as much as ours does. Our ethos of individualism, deeply embedded in our culture, generates skepticism toward any attempt, especially by government, to judge or restrict individual behavior. Moreover, since private behavior can never conform fully to idealized social norms, an influential current of opinion today, especially within elite culture, views any set of unambiguous norms with suspicion, fearing them to be oppressive and overly judgmental. In historical terms, this belief that norms themselves are the problem that the best cultural ethos regarding the family is one of moral agnosticism – is unprecedented, even as a significant minority view.
Yet with exceptions and cautions noted, surely there exist in our society some broadly shared "family values" of deep social importance. And surely people interested in family policy should understand and debate these values – not in order to legislate or police them, but simply in order to know whether a proposed family policy is supportive of them or undermines them. In this spirit, I propose some beginning definitions.
We value families. The family is society's primary institution for raising children, caring for the elderly, and passing on and developing the values of society. It is usually the source of both our greatest loves and our greatest sorrows. It is the main mediating institution between the individual and the state – the basic social unit of our culture. For these reasons, most of us see the family as our central and most enduring commitment beyond the self.
We value marriage. The marital commitment is a foundation of strong families. While divorce may be the least bad alternative for a damaged marriage, today's high divorce rate is a troubling sign for families. We value marriage as an equal partnership, based on shared commitment, compromise and responsibility, not domination or inequality.
We value children. We see in children our hopes for the future. While recognizing the primary responsibility of parents in child rearing, we also affirm that raising children is more than a series of private choices – it is also a social imperative that should be supported by other social institutions, by the workplace, and by public policy.
We value parents. Parents are a child's first and most influential teachers, and a child's major providers of love, guidance and protection. The parental role is socially invaluable and irreplaceable; it should be honored and supported by society. Parenthood is a serious responsibility that should not be entered into lightly or casually. While many divorced or widowed parents are admirably successful ones, few would deny that the duties of parenthood are best met by two parents working together in marriage. Bringing a child into the world outside of marriage, or when parents are too young or unprepared to be real parents, is almost always personally and socially harmful.
We value our elders. Caring for our elders is one of the family's most important functions – one that should be facilitated and encouraged by other social institutions and by public policy. Moreover, we recognize the unique contributions elders can make: to the economy, in child care and teaching, and to our broader cultural life.
We value community. Institutions that make up community life the school, the church, the synagogue, the workplace association, the service and charitable organization – are enriched by strong families. The institutions of community also enrich family life by extending our concerns beyond the family to the broader society.
We affirm basic moral values as part of the heritage we received from our parents and will develop and pass on to our children. These values of character and citizenship include honesty, the "golden rule," respect for others and for the law, the link between effort and reward, and the benefits and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Other institutions, from schools to the media, should support and reinforce parental efforts to teach and pass on basic values.
We see the need for societal concern, reflected in public- and private-sector policies, that will strengthen all families, empowering them to realize and build upon these family values that form a cornerstone of our culture.
This article originally appeared here.