Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Family Matters: How to Defend the Family More (and Fight about It Less)

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Family Matters: How to Defend the Family More (and Fight about It Less)

Article excerpt

In the waning days of the 2006 election campaign, it appeared that being pro-family was the most important aspect of our democratic process: Grand statements were made "in defense of marriage," or at least in defense of a concept of marriage. Pro-family candidates--and what candidate isn't pro-family?--from both parties displayed their nuclear families (who, fittingly, almost always wore smiles that were nearly radioactive) in TV ads that were short on policy content but assured voters that candidates do not apparently eat their young. Soon, we were assured, taxes would be cut, services increased, and schools improved--all to support families, of course. And with the elections over, the vulnerable youth of our country will be safe from culture-coarsening campaign ads for perhaps a year. If we're lucky.

James Dobson is pro-family; my neighbor with the Pro-Child, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice bumper sticker is pro-family. Under some definitions, Tony Soprano is pro-family. A cynic might assume that someone is lying about their support for families, or that people are pulling the phrase from different dictionaries, possibly from different planets. Of course, deep-seated differences of understanding about who constitutes a family and the proper roles within it do drive the most divisive "pro-family" rhetoric. Political maneuvering and pandering then exploits those philosophical differences, often using "support for families" as a bait and switch to promote policies that arguably have little or nothing to do with the real daily struggles and joys of real families.

But pull back the rhetorical brambles and sidestep the political landmines and there is, at least, agreement among broad segments of the political spectrum that families, broadly defined, are important. A family ideally exists for the mutual emotional and material support of its members; protection, nurture, and education of children; and care for those within it who are ill, disabled, or elderly. It is the key structure for communicating values and beliefs to the young. Commentators and organizations from vastly different ideological places affirm the family's power: Riane Eisler and Frances Kissling write on the Center for American Progress Web site that "the construction of family and other intimate relations directly influences what people consider normal and moral in all relations--public as well as private." In "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," the National Association of Evangelicals asserts that "Whether we are married or single, it is in the family that we learn mutual responsibility."

What are some concrete policies that would support the family in its primary missions and that people from many different points on the political and religious spectrums might come to agree on?

What will help parents keep their children fed, sheltered, and safe? What would provide resources for dealing with illness and prevent or mitigate health-care-related debt?

Parents and guardians bear the primary responsibility for guiding their children's moral development and buffering them from the violence, materialism, and crudity that often dominates mass culture. But how could we as a society support them in this vital task? How could we as the church do so?

One of the biggest challenges for many families, of course, is economic survival. Single parents struggle to produce income while also rearing children. Two-parent families often find that it takes two incomes to make ends meet. Economic conditions force many families, from low-income to middle-class, to have all wage-earners at full-time, full-throttle work outside the home, even when they would prefer to have one parent home part- or full-time to care for their small children.

Two measures that would begin to ease some of the burden on families would potentially offer help to a broad swath of Americans, not just those who are parents of minor children: Raising the minimum wage and establishing national health insurance. …

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