Ask any politician if they promote family values, and you’ll get the answer you’d expect. Ask a group of politicians to define family values, though, and you’ll likely get completely different, perhaps conflicting answers.
In many ways, social conservatives and social progressives agree on the type of society they want to shape. Both sides share goals of reducing crime, strengthening families, creating an environment in which people can prosper and keeping the government from invading individual privacy.
But the methods they employ to promote their particular version of family values are so divergent that they spark political disagreements in which both sides claim to be motivated by virtue and blame the opposition for trying to achieve goals that are detrimental to society.
The conflicts become apparent after peeling back the superficial definition of “family values” and considering exactly what it means to different individuals, said professor Linell Cady, director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.
“It is more that, well, what actually is meant by family values? And when you unpack it, does it make room for, let us say, non- discrimination against gays and lesbians?” she said.
Social progressives at the Arizona Legislature describe family values in broad, fluid terms. From that perspective, a family can be a group of people, regardless of gender, who bond and take care of each other.
Gay people should have the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals. Abortion is an individual choice in which government should not interfere.
Social conservatives generally have a more exclusive, traditional perspective on family values. Marriage should be allowed only between a man and a woman. Abortion should be against the law. Children should be raised by traditional families.
Sen. Linda Gray, a Glendale Republican, said she holds firm to the ideals embraced in the 1800s by families who settled the American frontier.
To give an example, Gray brought up the “Little House on the Prairie,” the classic work of Laura Ingalls Wilder that was originally published in the 1930s and was later adapted for TV in the 1970s.
The Ingalls family, as described in the book, included a mom, a dad and three daughters. The family exhibited a spirit of self-reliance, made daily decisions based on Biblical teachings and stuck together during hard times.
“For centuries we’ve had a definition of family as being a mother and a father and children. It’s only until recently that others have tried to redefine family,” she said.
During the past year, Gray and other conservative lawmakers have introduced several dozen bills in the Legislature to sustain, if not try to recapture, this ideal family. Many have already passed, and others are working their way through the House and Senate.
Faith-based groups that are active in politics see themselves as vanguards against an onslaught of challenges to society’s morality.
They say the country’s long-held values are under attack. They argue that, like everyone else, they have a right to shape public policy.
“I think you only have to pick up the newspaper and turn on the television to see the attacks that are on families and the forces… that go against responsibility,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, an evangelical Christian group that lobbies at the Capitol. “Just the mere fact that our daughters as minors can obtain abortion without their parents knowing about it is the most glaring example of what’s wrong in our culture.”
But social progressives in Arizona have fought back against the policy positions staked out by Gray and groups such as the Center for Arizona Policy. They say passing new laws that conform to one version of family values would roll the state back into the middle of the 20th century, when women were relegated to second-class status and were not trusted to make decisions about their own reproductive health.
Senate Minority Whip Linda Lopez said state laws should accommodate a diverse society in which people are free to make lifestyle choices as long as their actions don’t violate the rights of others. Forcing all residents to adhere to a particular set of religious values is a form of discrimination, she said.
Lopez focused her criticism on one bill in particular: H2148, which would give preference to married couples in adoption cases. The bill is moving through the Legislature this year, despite opposition from social workers who say single adults can provide healthy homes for children.
“Is a family what CAP (Center for Arizona Policy) defines it as – as a mom and dad and two kids living in white suburbia or something like that?” Lopez said. “Or is a family any group that comes together to support one another and to support any children that they may have or an extended family? It can be two men, two women, and it can be a man and a woman who aren’t married.”
Sen. Rebecca Rios, the assistant minority leader, said the bill that gives preference for married couples in adoption cases could mean a longer waiting period for the 2,000-plus kids in the state’s foster care system.
“With all due respect, I can appreciate the vision of what they want,” she said. “But they need to be open to the facts and the realities that the avenues (they employ) are going to have detrimental effects on the very families they purport to want to be healthy.”
The efforts by conservative groups to codify traditional values – and the push back by those on the other side – are a part of an ongoing dialogue about the role of religion in politics.
But John Carlson, associate director at ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, cautioned against viewing the goals of social conservatives solely through religious lenses.
People could arrive at the same conclusions that conservatives hold without the influence of religion, Carlson said. Public policy often is geared to produce the most desirable circumstances, as is the case with the bill that would give married couples preference in adoption cases, he said.
“If people are asked ‘what are the kinds of circumstances that we would hope for children growing up,’ people would talk probably about hoping for two-parent families,” he said.
John Green, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, said the conflict over family values is a flash point in the culture wars on display in Arizona and across the U.S.
“Some of it has to do with sex – what’s an appropriate kind of sexual behavior,” he said. “But a lot of it does have to do with families and children and what is the appropriate environment in which children should be raised.”
Green and other professors of religious studies said social conservatives and progressives have been reacting to each other for decades, and the tug-of-war has caused society to swing like a pendulum, where one end offers a Judeo-Christian framework and the other advocates for a more secularist-egalitarian world.
“To some extent, the religious right is a reaction to people who are advocating a new view of families. But if you went back far enough, you could say that the progressives were a reaction to the then- dominant view of traditional families,” Green said, adding that nothing mobilizes the religious right more than successes by the progressive left, and vice versa.
Cady of ASU said social conservatives have effectively advanced their agenda in recent years, though there are signs that the younger generation is receptive to a wider interpretation of moral values.
“It is a reaction to the transformations in society and women’s role and greater equality,” she said. “But I don’t think the conservative reactions symbolize society’s agreeing with that.”
H2148 awaits vote in Senate
A bill that would provide preference to married couples in adoption cases was passed by the House earlier this year and is only a couple of steps away from becoming law.
The bill, H2148, was sponsored by Rep. Warde Nichols, a Republican from Gilbert. It would give “primary consideration” to a married couple in adoption cases, although single persons may be considered for placement if a married couple is not available. It provides exceptions for single adults who are related to children up for adoption, or if the alternative for the children would be extended foster care.
The bill passed the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee on March 17. It will be heard in the Senate Rules Committee before heading to the Senate floor for a final vote.