Red State Families vs. Blue State Families: The Family-Values Divide
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Nonetheless, the fact that greater moral authority is needed and valued does not mean that government imposition of traditional values is necessarily appropriate or effective. Studies of evangelicals show, for example, that the most devout (roughly a quarter of the group) do abstain from sexual activity to a greater degree than other teens and that shared religious faith contributes to stronger marriages and lower divorce rates. These same studies also show that evangelicals as a group, in part because of income and class differences, begin sexual activity earlier than members of religions with more-flexible attitudes toward sexuality. In this context, emphasizing strict religious values, even if it strengthens the practices of regular churchgoers, may leave the less devout of the same faith ill-prepared for participation in a secular world.
This dynamic of class and regional antagonisms, of a clash between religious and secular world views, of different symbolic and practical needs, offers enormous opportunities for shortsighted and cynical policies when it combines with partisan electoral politics. The values divide (indeed, what Justice Antonin Scalia referred to as a “culture war”) has become intractable because politicians have intentionally chosen to focus on the most intrinsically divisive issues. Psychologist Drew Westen, for example, writes that Republicans have been “unequivocal” in conflating abortion and murder, setting out “an uncompromising stance as the only moral stance one could take, get[ting] the 30 percent of Americans with the least tolerance for ambiguity on moral questions to the polls,” and allowing the Democrats to splinter in their approach to the issue.1 Abortion thus increases in political importance because it is incapable of resolution and serves to reinforce political identity. The last Republican congressional representative from New England, Christopher Shays, defeated for reelection in 2008, complained that it is one thing to oppose abortion; it is another to have to vote on abortion-related provisions 80 times a year, whether or not they have any prospects of passage.
Political scientists have found that polarization on moral questions was largely nonexistent in the early 1960s—disagreements about issues such as abortion or homosexuality did not depend on region, church attendance, or party. In the twenty-first century, in contrast, the better-educated and more politically active are strikingly polarized on these questions. While political scientists debate whether the country as a whole is more divided, they agree that the college-educated have stronger views than those completing high school, and party stalwarts have become even more divided and ideological than the college grads. Among the public generally, divisions on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage have increased dramatically since the 1980s. While Americans still prefer compromise on most issues, if pollsters ask if someone is “strongly pro-choice,” “strongly pro-life,” or only “somewhat committed” to one of the positions, 70% of the public identify with one of the two poles. Even those who question the existence of the culture wars acknowledge that “[m]oral issues have become increasingly important over the past 30 years. Such issues have grown from insignificance to a clear second dimension in American elections.” The 2008 election suggests that, even though the presidency shifted parties, political parties remain aligned with differences in family composition—and, as the famous election maps in red and blue illustrate, those differences are regional in nature.
If there is a hopeful sign, however, it is that the number of conservatives calling for a greater separation of religion and politics and the number of liberals favoring affirmation of marital fidelity and commitment have both increased. The book takes a comprehensive look at the relationship among moral anxiety about family form, ideologically driven family laws, and the prospect for more constructive approaches to family change.
We conclude that genuine family law reform requires a more honest conversation about the changed and changing terms of family stability. Doing so starts with the recognition that red families and blue families are living different lives with different symbolic and practical needs. The blue paradigm is at the other end of the sexual revolution. Its families have been remade and the remaking is a huge success. For red families, it is family ideals that are in crisis. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the codirector of the National Marriage Project, points out, the growing separation of the beginning of sexuality and marriage, a separation that is not appreciably shorter for evangelicals than for the rest of the population, is a source of anguish for the older generation. So, too, are the rising divorce and non-marital birth rates that disproportionately affect those ready to form families at younger ages. The decline of marriage in communities built around married families undermines the fabric of community life in much more fundamental ways than an increase in the number of urban singles.
Accordingly, even if some degree of convergence were possible politically, the practical agendas should not be the same. The challenge is to get past the divisive partisan rhetoric to the policies capable of rebuilding support for family life in all of its variety. We believe that the secret to doing so lies in changing the subject. The most divisive issues—abstinence education, homosexuality and abortion—have dominated the family debate for the last decade. Yet, we live in a federal system designed to permit and defuse regional differences. Family law decision making has traditionally belonged to the states. The framers recognized that states and municipalities can draw more effectively than the national government on shared values to reshape community norms, and have done so in ways that promote progressive, as well as conservative, values. It is time to rediscover the ideal of more localized family law, and to embrace the shift in emphasis a federal system might facilitate. We believe that a revitalized family agenda would, quite literally, change the subject in three significant ways:
First, change the subject of family values promotion from sex (and sex ed) to commitment (and marriage ed). The real threat to the red family world—and to the well-being of all but the top group of American families—is declining marriage and high divorce rates for those who do not complete college. Preaching abstinence—and increasing the penalties for improvident sexuality—will do nothing to improve the stability of the early marriages and families that follow from such efforts. Red family advocates and, indeed, many blue family champions believe that long-term, stable relationships ideally promote family well-being. Most adults would choose to raise their children in families with two supportive parents who have a long-term commitment to each other and to the children. Social science research, while inconclusive on many fundamental questions with respect to children’s well-being, suggests that children appear to do better if their parents avoid destructive conflict—and stay together. The issue, however, is not the ideal, but how to achieve it. New efforts at marriage promotion suggest that delayed marriage, financial planning, more-effective communication, mutual respect and commitment, shared interests, and recognizing the warning signs of domestic violence (both in oneself and in potential mates) all enhance relationship stability. Marriage promotion programs that teach these strategies show some small early signs of success—in contrast with abstinence-only efforts, which have proven to be ineffective or counterproductive. These programs, however, can only be effective if tailored to regional sensibilities: let the states design and implement the programs of their choice.