Magazine article The Christian Century

Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right

Magazine article The Christian Century

Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right

Article excerpt

Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right

By Seth Dowland

University of Pennsylvania Press, 280 pp., $45 00

For many years, the slogan "family values" has been connected with Republican politicians and evangelical pastors.

For the 19th-century forerunners of mainline Protestantism, the Christian faith was inseparable from a home headed by male leadership, female nurture, and family prayer. Congregationalist theologian Horace Bushnell argued that genuine faith emerges not from emotional conversions at revivals but rather in the home, where fathers and mothers model lives of love and piety. Countless Protestants argued that wives and children relate to their husbands and fathers in the way that all Christians should relate to God. As the wildly popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher (later to fall from grace in a notorious sex scandal) explained, "family government ... presents the nearest conception of the way in which God governs the whole realm."

Well into the 20th century, Protestants of many theological stripes mobilized to defend the family's sanctity, whether from the scourge of alcohol or from the allegedly baneful influence of Catholic immigrants. (It was left to skeptics such as the author Sinclair Lewis to portray ministers themselves as a threat to the purity of American women.) In the years after 1945, however, evangelicals and their political allies made defending the American family their particular terrain.

As Seth Dowland explains, evangelicals hearkened to a past in which gender lines were clear. Thus, they mobilized to defend the two-parent family and stay-at-home mothers from feminism, the gay rights movement, and liberal judges and politicians. Evangelical churches gained members and conservative politicians gained votes by celebrating "a nostalgic ideal of the home."

It's a story that Dowland tells carefully and fairly. For many Americans, "the image of a golden past where fathers, mothers, and children understood their roles and undergirded American prosperity has retained its potency." Evangelicals defended that image by using the Bible to defend their understanding of gender, which they understood as a divinely ordained biological category rather than as a social construction. "Although the roles evangelicals assigned to men and women had more to do with 19th-century Victorian ideals than with the world of the ancient Mediterranean, evangelicals commonly described the gender norms they promoted as biblical." Moreover, they followed 19th-century Protestants such as Beecher in arguing that the authority structures within the family reflected eternal truths about God's governance of the world. Men and women had "complementary roles," but there were clear lines of authority within the family and church.

While men--from Jerry Falwell to Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney--sometimes occupied center stage, it was women who "were the driving force of many family values campaigns." In the early 1960s, Norma Gabler testified before the Texas State Department of Education against the content of her son's textbooks, which she regarded as unpatriotic and anti-Christian. Later on, singer and former Miss Oklahoma Anita Bryant successfully mobilized opposition to a Dade County, Florida, ordinance that would have banned discrimination against gay and lesbian teachers seeking to teach in public schools.

Of course, conservative evangelicals were hardly alone in talking about the importance of family. …

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