Blankenhorn: A family
guy with a cause
By Sharon Jayson, USA
March 14, 2007
David Blankenhorn may be best known as an advocate for the importance
of fathers, but the 51-year-old think-tank founder and author is
about to step onto the firing line with a much more controversial
issue: gay marriage.
Appearances The Harvard-educated Mississippi native is
a former VISTA volunteer and community organizer who has made a
career of thinking about big issues and telling others what he believes.
He's written scores of op-ed pieces and essays, co-edited eight
books and written two: the 1995 Fatherless
America, which attributes many of society's ills to the
lack of involvement of fathers in children's lives, and now, THE
FUTURE OF MARRIAGE. In it, he argues kids need both a mother
and a father, and because same-sex marriage can't provide that,
it's bad for society and kids.
"We're either going to go in the direction
of viewing marriage as a purely private relationship between two
people that's defined by those people, or we're going to try to
strengthen and maintain marriage as our society's most pro-child
institution," he says.
He may sound like a conservative Christian,
but Blankenhorn says he's a liberal Democrat.
"I'm not condemning homosexuality. I'm
not condemning committed gay relationships," he says. But "the
best institutional friend that children have is marriage, and if
grownups make a mess of it, the children are going to suffer."
Blankenhorn's attempts to raise consciousness
about the importance of fathers led him to help inspire the creation
of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-partisan group promoting
responsible fatherhood. For 20 years, he has focused attention on
the fallout of what he sees as a breakdown in the family.
He bristles when people call his think tank
conservative; he wants to look deeply at America's core values,
and he sees the Manhattan-based Institute for American Values, founded
in 1987, as a catalyst for analysis and debate among those with
The institute's budget of some $1.5 million
largely comes from foundations, corporations and individual donations,
which support studies, conferences, books and other publications.
"People who say we're a conservative organization
are just trying to call us names because they think it'll stigmatize
us," he says, clearly rankled that his motives are so often
But as much as his passion for families impresses
those who know his work, his blunt outspokenness can be off-putting
to people on both sides of the political spectrum. He even criticizes
the marriage movement, of which he is considered one of the founders,
saying it has "stagnated."
"It's one of the reasons I wrote the book,"
he says. "I want to stir the pot as much as I can."
Colleagues praise him
"My impression of this guy is he's really
devoted his life to family issues and would probably do that if
no one paid him at all," says Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer
at National Journal magazine and a guest scholar at the Brookings
Institution who has been on opposite sides of the podium with Blankenhorn.
"David has a lot of respect for ideas,"
says Maggie Gallagher, a former affiliate scholar with the institute
and a strong opponent of same-sex marriage. He "created a new
niche. He pulled together top scholars from a variety of disciplines
concerned about family fragmentation who were not part of the Religious
Right, and he gave them a home."
Sociology professor Judith Stacey of New York
University says some in the family field view Blankenhorn as a "right-wing
political advocate." But "I see him as more complicated
So does William Galston, a domestic policy
adviser in the Clinton administration and a senior fellow at Brookings.
"My impression is on matters of civil
rights and economics and social justice, he's the same warm-hearted
Southern liberal he was when he started," Galston says. "It
might be more accurate to say a strand of thinking about the family
and the culture that in contemporary circumstances is regarded as
conservative is something that's become a stronger part of his thinking."
Some academics, including Stacey, suggest the
institute lacks objectivity because its work is not subject to scholarly
Blankenhorn rebuffs such claims.
"Almost all our work is done in teams
of people. We review each other's work constantly," he says.
"So it is utter hogwash for somebody to say something like
Says Stacey: "I'm one of his favorite
targets. We have opposing views on the relationship between social
science research about families and public policy about families.
Not only do we disagree about the policies, but we disagree about
what the research says."
Theodora Ooms, a consultant on family policy
who has known Blankenhorn since the mid-1980s, calls him "relentless.
… He says he is open-minded, but I find him rather rigid and
Blankenhorn admits he has a "pushy"
side. "I've had fallings-out over differing opinions about
what was best to do about what we were working on at the time —
not too many of them, though," he says.
"If he really disagrees with something,
you'll know it," says Galston. "I've never had a problem
with it, but I suspect others may."
Blankenhorn wasn't always such a polarizing
His sixth-grade teacher chastised him for talking
out of turn and told him he was a "leader child."
"She said, 'If you do things, the others
will follow you,' " he recalls. "That was such a dramatic
moment for me. … I've wanted to play that role and have tried
my best to play that role since I was a kid."
He originally planned a think tank for community
organizers, but he became increasingly frustrated in bringing about
social change and decided civil society and the family were areas
where he could have an impact. Now, two decades later, the institute
has broadened its scope to include projects on Islam's relationships
with the West and an examination of thrift as an American core value.
Growing up in the South
Blankenhorn says he avoided the gay marriage
issue for years and didn't get into civil unions in his book because
it's not directly linked to his concern over marriage as "society's
most pro-child institution." He has been clear about other
family issues: Marriage is good for kids. Voluntary single-motherhood
isn't. Neither is divorce.
He says he couldn't skirt same-sex marriage
any longer because allowing gays to marry and form families conflicts
with children's right to know and be raised by their two biological
His book also cites a new analysis he did on
35 nations from the 2002 International Social Survey Programme,
which shows marriage is weakest in nations where support for gay
marriage is strongest.
"I'm not saying one causes the other.
I'm just saying they go together," he says. "If you do
support marriage and want it to be this robust social institution,
then you ought to think twice about saying you're for gay marriage."
Blankenhorn's childhood in Jackson, Miss.,
where his parents still live, emphasized family and church. His
father worked in insurance, and Blankenhorn says he was a role model;
his mother ran the church Sunday school. Both were Presbyterian
deacons and elders. Blankenhorn played sports, was president of
his freshman class and of his church youth group.
The family's church was the first in his area
to allow black worshipers. Racial prejudice and public school desegregation
had a profound impact on him, causing him at age 15 to try to bridge
racial rifts. He founded the Mississippi Community Service Corps,
which recruited black and white high school students to join together
to tutor elementary school kids.
When his father's job transferred him to Salem,
Va., in Blankenhorn's junior year of high school, he re-created
the service corps by contacting all the church youth groups in the
Blankenhorn hadn't planned to go out of state
for college, but he ran into a former student from his old high
school who urged him to apply to Harvard. That student, Carey Ramos,
now a New York attorney who has represented the recording industry
in online copyright cases, says Blankenhorn impressed him.
"He was clearly very bright and articulate,"
Ramos says. "What struck me was how determined he was and how
he had the qualities of a leader. I thought he would wind up doing