Why Is It Hard for Liberals to Talk About 'Family Values'?

Racial tensions, a fear of appearing judgmental, and the sexual revolution ...?
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Are "family values" a taboo topic for the left? For one thing, there may be a language problem. "Family values terminology is so closely connected to the 1980s and Jerry Falwell-esque way of framing it -- it's an immediate turn-off," said Brad Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "You should be talking about a 'family-friendly agenda.'"

True, for those who lean to the left, the phrase "family values" tends to bring back uncomfortable memories of the Reagan era and the "Moral Majority." But there's a deeper issue: An important and damaging intellectual collapse in the way the public talks about politically charged topics.

When it comes to issues like gay marriage, welfare, and abortion, liberal politicians and intellectuals are vocal and often indignant. But they're quieter about the ways that traditional "family values" are guiding their own choices. The irony is that college-educated, wealthier Americans who identify with the left are overwhelmingly raising their kids in two-parent households. This is no coincidence: Research indicates that family stability (i.e., couples who wait to have kids until they're married and then stay married) makes a difference in income equality and social mobility.

This public/private divide raises a problem: It's like stable marriage and community are the secret sauce of economic well-being that nobody on the left wants to admit to using. As Kay Hymowitz, a researcher at the Manhattan Institute who studies the relationship between family issues and economics, put it, "They are choosing that route in part because they know on some deep level that it is the way their children will be able to remain in the middle class."

At a recent Atlantic working summit on economic security, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne spoke about this conversational divide. "As a country, we could be on the verge of a really good discussion of this, where we acknowledge that parental responsibility matters, that how kids are raised matters, but also that there are economic causes of this. Those of us who are on the more progressive side should be willing to engage in the conversation about family, personal responsibility, and all that."

To be fair, there are some left-leaning public voices who engage with this issue. Take, for instance, David Leonhardt's recent New York Times piece on the issues driving economic mobility, which pointed to this interesting finding from a study on economic mobility:

In metropolitan areas with large numbers of single-parent families, even children with two parents face longer odds of climbing the economic ladder. That pattern suggests that a factor that the researchers were not able to measure is affecting both family structure and economic mobility -- or that family-structure patterns have effects on an entire community.

But Leonhardt and the handful of other writers who engage with these issues seem to be the exception, not the rule. "There's no question about it," Hymowitz said. Having public conversations about family structure is "much harder for the left. The left is very much defined by questioning tradition, for good reasons and bad reasons."

So what makes this conversation so hard for the liberal community? For one thing, religion adds a layer of complexity. Broadly speaking, religious organizations have always advocated traditional family structures -- i.e., don't have babies before you get married, and once you get married, stay married. Many on the left agree that religious institutions can play a positive role in family life -- and when people follow the mores advocated in religious communities, it turns out, they are less likely to experience poverty or commit crimes.

But liberals tend to break with conservatives on a key question: Whether religious beliefs and values should be part of public debates about social and political issues. In general, Americans don't think it should -- about three quarters of respondents in a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings felt that religion didn't belong in these kinds of public discussions.

But, diving a little deeper into the data, among those who thought religion should be kept out of the public sphere, about 80 percent considered themselves liberal or moderate on economic issues like poverty and income inequality. Among those who thought religion should be included in the public sphere, the numbers of economic liberals, moderates, and conservatives were much closer.

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Source: The 2013 Economic Values Survey, Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution

Why do those who are center or left on economic issues want to keep religion out of the public sphere? One explanation is what could be characterized as the left's tendency to value pluralism and tolerance. The firm metaphysical framework of religion inevitably privileges certain ways of living over others, and some people are uncomfortable with that.

Another explanation is historical. "Liberals have been at the forefront of challenging all sorts of tradition as being oppressive," Hymowitz said. "That included the sexual revolution, feminism, and, of course, the gay revolution. Because the left is so identified with those themes, it becomes very difficult to propose that the break-down of the family has not worked very well, particularly for those groups the left professes to be most concerned about" -- i.e., groups like poor, single mothers.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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