“Family Values” Conservatism Is Over

The GOP’s ability to position itself as the defender of the American family has been weakening for a long time—but Trump’s immigration policy is its death knell.

Central American asylum-seekers and a white nuclear family.
John Moore/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

“We are a country of compassion. We are a country of heart,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen declared in her rambling and dishonest press conference on Monday about the Trump administration’s policy of separating families crossing the nation’s southern border. Americans have responded to that policy, and the horrific images from the border, with outrage.

By and large, however, white evangelicals—Trump’s most solid backers and the base of the religious right—have not parted with the president on this issue. As Trump’s zero tolerance border policy has separated nearly 2,000 families, and as his white evangelical base remains indifferent or even supportive of children being taken from their parents, it seems like we can at last retire the idea that the GOP can still call itself the party of “family values.”

The very awful thing being done at the border—children being taken from their parents by a barbaric state—is the actual doomsday fantasy religious-right folks long imagined would happen, the one that has fueled much of their “family values” rhetoric. But the key difference now is that they only fantasized that this would be done against them—against their white, conservative, religious families with “traditional” arrangements of gender and sexuality.

Unlike the events currently taking place at the border, the parent-child separation that the “family values” movement warned of was not a physical one, but rather mostly of an ideological, cultural, and spiritual nature. “Family values” conservatives envisioned the nightmare scenario of an overbearing state that insinuated itself into the traditional nuclear family, particularly through the public education system, in order to usurp parental authority and place children in opposition to their parents’ values. In this way, conservative warnings about a federal government bent on “destroying the family” were not so much prophetic as they were myopic and self-focused. The indifference and even support of white evangelicals, who gave Trump 81 percent of their support in 2016, to the physical separation of children from their parents at the southern border marks the end of “family values” conservatism—and also reveals how much the movement always served as a cover for the privileging of white, heterosexual families over peoples and families who didn’t look like theirs.

“Family values” politics, as the historian Seth Dowland has explained in his recent history of the movement, arose in the 1970s out of religious conservatives’ fears about how the social and political changes of the previous decade were altering traditional gender roles, loosening sexual norms, and weakening moral opposition to evils like homosexuality and pornography. The first time the GOP used this phrase was in its national platform in 1976, expressing its “concern for family values.” The statement went on to say, “it is imperative that our government’s programs, actions, officials and social welfare institutions never be allowed to jeopardize the family. We fear the government may be powerful enough to destroy our families; we know that it is not powerful enough to replace them.”

Arguing that the family—by which they meant the two-parent heterosexual unit with a male breadwinner and female homemaker—was under attack from Washington and Hollywood, religious conservatives partnered with the Republican Party to fuel a whole set of reactionary politics through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that targeted feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment, public schooling and sex education, and abortion rights and gay rights, all through the language of “family values.”

The burgeoning feminist movement of the 1970s and its support for the Equal Rights Amendment introduced one of the first moments for conservatives to try out the new politics of “family values.” Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist activist who led a grassroots movement against the ERA, warned that feminists had conspired with the government to get mothers out of the home and children under the control of federal bureaucrats through, among other means, government-run child care centers and universal pre-K. The “self-appointed planners,” Schlafly wrote in her 1977 book The Power of the Positive Woman, were “convinced they are better able to mold a child’s mind than are his parents and that the earlier they get the child under their supervision, the more thorough the indoctrination can be.”

The belief that educators were indoctrinating children with anti-authoritarian, anti-religious ideas led religious conservatives to make public schools an important battleground for “family values.” In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a battle erupted over textbooks in 1974 when parents and activists there claimed that the government was using a new language-arts curriculum to brainwash children. But perhaps nothing inspired more fears in this vein than the implementation of sex education curricula in the nation’s classrooms, as the historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela has written. The “family values” organization Happiness of Womanhood warned in a 1977 pamphlet that sex ed classes and the providing of contraceptives to minors represented “another usurpation” of the right of parents to shape and control their children’s beliefs about sex and marriage.

As the “family values” movement grew, it increasingly encouraged paranoid fantasies of how secular liberals in the federal government and global organizations like the United Nations worked to separate children from their parents’ ideas and values. A 1978 pamphlet from the Pro Family Forum depicted the International Children’s Year of 1979 as a U.N.-orchestrated plot to “liberate” children from their parents. “Do you want the minds (and consequently, the souls) of YOUR CHILDREN turned over to international humanist/socialist planners?” the pamphlet ominously asked.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, “family values” conservatives targeted Hillary Clinton as a career-focused feminist scheming from inside the White House to destroy the American family, an idea that still had great currency in the 2016 race. Religious conservatives viewed the First Lady’s 1996 bestseller, It Takes a Village, as a collectivist manual for eliminating parental authority and making children wards of the state. “I am here to tell you,” Bob Dole struck back in his acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, “it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family.” The conspiratorial fantasy that an overbearing state was actively working to insert itself in the “traditional,” heterosexual family dominated conservative politics for more than 30 years, promoted in grassroots newsletters, conservative religious publications, right-wing talk radio, and GOP campaigns.

In the years of the Obama presidency, religious conservatives began to move away from a family-values discourse, embracing in its place the language of “religious freedom.” Given the triumph of same-sex marriage and the nation’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality, the religious right’s shift away from talk of family values perhaps acknowledged that they had lost the argument over what a family looked like. Still, even if this language had fallen out of use, the fantasy of a totalitarian state working to distance children from their parents has continued to loom large in the conservative imagination.

Now the limits of that imagination—namely, the extent to which it applies only to white children—couldn’t be plainer than in the unconcerned response evangelicals have shown to what is transpiring at the border. Here, their paranoid fantasy has become a real nightmare—not an ideological or religious separation, but the physical removal of children from their parents by force, an actual destruction of families by the federal government.

In truth, “family values” has always had this racialized edge. As religious conservatives accused the federal government of attacking the family through public education, the Equal Rights Amendment, and gay rights, they were also actively backing federal programs, from harsher sentencing for drug crimes to “workfare” legislation, that fell heavily on black and brown families. In this way, what is taking place at the southern border falls not only in the long American history of separating nonwhite families but also sits squarely in the tradition of how “family values” conservatives have used the federal government to punish families who didn’t look like their own.

Donald Trump didn’t bring about the end of “family values” conservatism. It was already on the way out. But now that overdramatic political metaphor exists as a very real policy. And it’s hard to imagine that “family values” talking points can survive much longer while those who long ranted that the federal government was seeking to “destroy the family” sit silently as it literally rips families apart.