The traditional nuclear family has been called "the very foundation of American life." As such, the ethics, morals and expectations of this unit – their family values – are in many quarters believed to be the ideal to which a successful and responsible society should strive. Put simply; "Family values are among the most shared values of society. It's taking care of your own, teaching kids what's right and wrong, trying to make a good life," says Patrick Tolan, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
This flexible, rhetorical notion has become a mainstream issue for society in recent decades. It has been latched on to by politicians and religious leaders in a bid to appeal to, and encourage, the traditional model household comprising a heterosexual married couple and children, with the father as breadwinner and the mother the homemaker.
Maintaining a "wholesome" family life is seen as a necessity for those in positions of leadership and power. A 2007 Gallup Poll revealed three in every four Americans believe family values are an important factor when backing a presidential candidate. Support for family values tends to be highest among Republicans and other conservatives, and women. A smaller proportion of Americans regard it as a political ploy that is either empty rhetoric or something that rejects and excludes those not living a conventional family life. The poll stated when participants were asked to describe family values in their own words: "The most common answers respondents give in essence repeat some variant of the word "family" — the family unit, family structure, and strong families. Thirty-two percent of Americans respond in this way, basically restating the term ‘family values.'"
Yet those who do not fit in with the traditional image – including single mothers, unmarried couples, divorced households and homosexual family units are on the rise. In Gill Jagger and Caroline Wright's 2000 book Changing Family Values, they write: "The main concerns of the ‘family values' lobby in Britain and the USA… are stable marriage and child rearing, a gender division of roles, the confinement of sexuality to the permanent married heterosexual unit and the support of these patterns through government policy." Anything differing from this, they say, can be "viewed negatively," and social problems are blamed on these changes. Jagger and Wright identify four main "clusters" concerning issues of family values: The traditional pro-family lobby, established family law, politics and postmodern family values.
Although it has been a concern of politicians since the 1960s, the issue of family values dominated debate in the 1990s, mostly as a response to a rapidly changing society. "Traditional family values" was the slogan of the 1992 Bush presidential campaign. Concerns about the fragmentation of the traditional family grew as attention fell on the United States divorce rate – the highest in the world at the time – and the social problems arising from concerns such as absent fathers. That same year, Vice President Dan Quayle caused controversy by saying the breakdown of the traditional family was to blame for the Los Angeles Riots. Several years later, President Bill Clinton and the Democrats would speak of "a government that values families," in an attempt to acknowledge the wider variety of modern living arrangements.
Times of global recession have seen politicians keen to move away from a culture of self-interest and promote community and family values as the key to a responsible society. In 2009, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, said: "Families are the most important institution in our society. We have to do everything in our power to strengthen them." A belief in strong, Christian family values is now so vital to the image of the modern-day politician that those hit by scandal while portraying themselves as family men often destroy their careers.
Author John R Gillis, in his 1996 book A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, argued the modern day debate is merely a reflection of changing times. "Self-styled advocates of family values claim to represent the only viable conception of what family can be when in fact they are simply… the most audible voice in a debate that stretches back over centuries—the debate over the meaning of the complex and contradictory processes of human reproduction," he wrote. "We should be wary of concluding that those who get the widest media coverage represent the last word on the subject. The contemporary quest for family values is far more widespread and diverse, and its outcome far from certain."