Parties Outline Different Views in Scramble for Family Values Throne

From Religion News Service

Talk about family comes as readily to politicians as wind to Chicago and sun to San Diego.

Democrats who gathered this week in Chicago, like their Republican counterparts who met earlier in San Diego, know that as the campaign unfolds, President Clinton and his GOP challenger, Bob Dole, will present dueling economic visions, wrapped in the warm and emotionally charged rhetoric of family values.

For more than a year Democrats have sought to wrest from Republicans their identity as the party of family values. They unleashed a torrent of talk on the subject this week in Chicago, beginning with gun control advocates Jim and Sarah Brady and paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve.

“Over the last two years, we have heard a lot about something called family values and like many of you [I’ve] struggled to figure out what that means,” Reeve acknowledged in his speech Monday at the Democratic National Convention.


Many Americans share Reeve’s uncertainty about the meaning of the term, given the volume and velocity of family values rhetoric and the competing sound bites offered by the two conventions.

And while the lines can be blurred, the meaning behind the cliches represent a real battle: The cluster of issues each party wraps in the mantle of family values reveals significant and fundamental differences between the candidates over the role they believe government should play in the nation’s life, the anxieties they believe the voters feel, and the agenda they plan to pursue when in power.

For Republicans, family values are grounded in a cluster of social issues--opposition to abortion, pornography and homosexuality, all of which they believe undermine the family.

This view is strongly promoted by the religious conservatives who influence much of the party’s machinery and are organized in such groups as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition, whose legislative agenda is billed as the “contract with the American family.”


Conservatives believe the traditional family can be shored up by reducing government social spending and cutting taxes. Families, according to the Republican platform, “are suffering from the twin burdens of stagnant incomes and near-record taxes.”

They see a threat to family values in the nation’s education policies. To counter that, the GOP platform plank on education supports organized prayer in the public schools, the use of tax funds to provide families with vouchers for private school tuition and the promotion of premarital chastity in school health instruction.

Religious conservatives also are pushing a “parental rights act” that would make it more difficult for government to remove children from parents’ custody and place them in foster care.

For their part, the Democrats link family values to pocketbook and “kitchen table” issues such as crime, education and the environment. “We’re looking at the needs families express when they sit around the kitchen table,” said White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. “How are they going to educate their kids . . . their worry about crime in the street. These are the fundamental family issues.”


And while most Democrats support such issues as gay rights and abortion rights, they do not speak of them in terms of family values.

During the first three days of the Democratic convention, speaker after speaker linked family values to a variety of anti-crime, environment, health and economic proposals rather than to social issues.

Several speakers noted that the first legislation Clinton signed was the Family and Medical Leave Act, legislation allowing a family member time off from work to deal with a birth, adoption or family medical emergency. The bill was vetoed twice by Republican President George Bush.

In her speech this week, Hillary Clinton ticked off a host of initiatives the Democrats support in their version of a family values agenda: legislation to bar hospitals from sending mothers and their newborns home within 48 hours following birth; a “flex-time” law that would give parents the option to take either overtime pay or time off, whichever suited their families’ needs, and an “America Reads” program, the goal of which is for every child to be a proficient reader by the third grade.


Congressional Democrats used the convention to outline another series of proposals they linked to aiding families--expanded child-care and education tax credits, broader health care coverage for children, and the hiring of more police officers.

And the president himself, during his whistle-stop trip to Chicago, linked his environmental initiatives to the family: “I want an America in the year 2000 where no child should have to live near a toxic waste dump, where no parent should have to worry about the safety of a child’s glass of water and no neighborhood should be put in harm’s way by pollution from a nearby factory,” Clinton said Wednesday.

Even before the Democratic convention began, there was evidence that the nation was clearly divided over these conflicting visions of family values.

A Gallup Poll released in mid-August showed that 45% of the public identifies Republicans, who invented the term, as the “party of family values,” while 41%of those surveyed identify the Democratic Party with family values.


The election could well hinge on which version of family values rings true with Americans, who may be as confused about the meaning of the term as was Christopher Reeve.