A Nation At Risk

“This entire week, October 13-18, has been decreed ‘Marriage Protection Week’ by the delightfully sanctimonious and homophobic Bush Administration,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford wrote earlier this fall. “Did you hug a priest today? Run from a scary homosexual person? Coo over a copy of Bride’s magazine?”

It is truly a sign of the times that a columnist in a major newspaper would rail so mockingly against an idea as wholesome and innocuous as “Marriage Protection Week.” That anyone could take such a tone-portraying as hateful and bigoted the concept of the human family and the integrity of marriage-and be taken at all seriously, indicates that perhaps we should take a step back and reexamine the current debate over marriage and the family in this country.

Allan Carlson, in The American Way, does just this, and demonstrates that the debate is one over our very identity as a nation.

Traditionally, the family is the basic social unit that prepares the citizens of tomorrow for their civic and familial duties. The Founders understood this. Unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution did not.

The social changes that occurred at the turn of the last century, with the help of some unhappy “equity” feminists and a national psyche that increasingly valued “me” more than “we,” opened a serious attack on the family. (Sound familiar?)

Teddy Roosevelt was the first statesman to confront the problem. He linked patriotism with strong family life and condemned the push for sterilization and birth control.

For TR, men and women were equally important but were by no means equal. And above almost all else, he valued strong families where the “virile virtues” of motherhood and fatherhood manifested in clearly defined roles. His message was striking and it set the tone for the debate on family, faith and the American identity for the rest of the 20th Century.

Maternalists, as Carlson calls them, followed TR’s leadership in celebrating motherhood and its unique contribution to society. They believed that “through the well-being of the family, we create the well-being of The Nation.”

Equity feminists, on the other hand, sought full economic equality and viewed the role of the mother in the home as detrimental to society. They felt that “wives, except when they work outside the home for pay, contribute proportionately less to society.”

The maternalist critique found its expression in the New Deal policies of FDR and were used as a point of reference for the process of assimilation into American society for immigrant groups who recognized the central importance of motherhood and fiercely defended the autonomy of the home.

The family continued to be the center of debate over what was the “American way.”

For Life magazine’s Henry Luce, the values of faith and family were central to the American identity. Luce believed that with America assuming world leadership during and after World War II the nation needed something to adhere to, something to rally around. For him, there was nothing more American than the family.

Cold War foreign policy strategists and propagandists agreed, and looked to the same values in order to promote the American worldview in opposition to the Communist threat. In contrasting the two societies, they could cite America’s vibrant economy, its dramatic rise in marriages, its drop in divorces, its boom in births and its national unity.

But as the disorder of the 1960s swept the nation, the family came under brutal attack. And our national identity has been in flux ever since.

After the 1960s, the Democrats largely gave up on family issues. It took time for the Republicans to co-opt social conservatism: The ascendancy of Ronald Reagan marked the first true success in this area. Reagan was a staunch defender of the family and often read from the same pro-family logic as his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt.

Carlson makes the case clear: The fight for the family, the fight for the dignity of motherhood, the fight for children’s rights-especially their right to enter and be part of society-is the cornerstone of our fight for the American way. As goes the family, so also the nation.