It’s time for a new pro-family coalition in America. Despite its numerous victories and impressive leaders, the size and shape of our current pro-family coalition are inadequate to the task before us. It’s time to think anew.
We’ve all become familiar — perhaps too familiar — with what terms such as “pro-family” and “family values” signify in today’s public discussion. They refer to leaders and groups who usually self-identify as conservative — people who tend to vote Republican, regularly attend theologically and socially conservative houses of worship and hold right-of-center views on issues such as homosexuality, gender roles and abortion. There are exceptions to this generalization, of course, but the stereotype is accurate enough to reflect fundamental demographic and social truths. In short, and particularly in our politics, we can generally assume that to be outspokenly pro-family is to be a social conservative.
For three important reasons, this right-of-center coalition is no longer viable. First, the most important family issue in the country today is the marriage gap — the growing divide between upscale America, where marriage is thriving and helping families to thrive, and the rest of America, where marriage is weakening rapidly and contributing to suffering and inequality.
The marriage gap is an issue tailor-made for those on the center-left. It’s an inequality issue. It’s a social justice issue. And because the marriage gap is an economic as well as a cultural-values challenge, addressing it seriously will require income-boosting strategies long favored by progressives and still viewed with skepticism by many on the right. If American liberals continue to ignore or dismiss the marriage gap, for fear of getting right-wing cooties, little of importance will be achieved and the problem will likely only get worse. The call to pay attention to it will be the sound of one hand clapping.
Second, one of the great tectonic shifts in American (and world) culture is the growing acceptance of homosexuality. Regardless of how one might think of the issue personally, mmong most younger Americans, the issue is no longer even controversial. Going forward, it’s hard to see how any pro-family coalition that refuses to accept gay marriage and gay rights generally is going to be understood as anything other than an increasingly isolated protest movement.
Protest movements have their place. But a protest movement linked largely to opposing homosexuality is not likely to change Americans’ minds on gay rights and is unlikely to contribute to public policies to reduce the marriage gap.
Finally, the United States is becoming more secular. Nearly across the board, from the most conservative houses of worship to the most liberal, membership and attendance are declining and the ranks of the religiously non-affiliated are growing. No trend lasts forever, but it is difficult to forecast the end of this one. When I first became involved in pro-marriage work in the late 1980s, I assumed that any renewal of marriage in the U.S. would be led by the churches. Today I believe that church leadership is important, but not sufficient. A modern, effective U.S. pro-family movement will almost certainly be religiously informed, but not religiously led, and will feature secular voices as prominently as religious ones.
A new American pro-family coalition — bringing together left and right, gay and straight, secular and religious to strengthen marriage and family life — is already being born. I’m seeing it up close. A few years ago, Jonathan Rauch, a writer and leader on gay right issues, was my opponent. In forums across the country, we hotly debated gay marriage. Today he’s a friend who serves on the board of IAV, the think tank I direct whose mission is to study and strengthen civil society. We’re also co-leaders of a new initiative called the Marriage Opportunity Council — a group of more than 100 U.S. scholars and leaders from across the political spectrum who’ve come together to fight the marriage gap and work, as our first public statement puts it, to “make marriage achievable for all who seek it.”
In recent decades, we Americans have fought a series of culture wars connected to marriage. For years the issue was race. (Are we stigmatizing black families?) For years it was gender roles. (Are we keeping women subordinate?) And for years it was sexual orientation. (Should we exclude gays and lesbians?) Those difficult issues remain, of course, but they’re increasingly in the nation’s rearview mirror, each having been largly resolved in favor of equality and inclusion.
As a result, our situation is new. We have an opportunity to transcend the old divisions. In short, for the first time in decades, Americans have an opportunity to think about marriage in a way that brings us together rather than drives us apart. What for most of our lives has been a culture war can now become a common cause.
Will we fail? Perhaps. Is it worth our best effort? Absolutely.