What Are ‘Family Values’ Anyway?

The term “family values” seems to be code for labeling families who have actual value and those that do not, which is morally and ethically problematic on almost every level, says Emily Rapp.

Most people in this country are familiar with the bizarre and misleading term “family values.” It is bandied about by politicians, pundits, commentators, preachers, etc. Sadly, this term is often yoked to some seriously flawed theology that makes medieval monasteries look like spa retreat centers. Although it covers a lot of so-called moral bases, I’ll confine my thoughts here to the term’s argument for a limited definition of family that discriminates against gay and lesbian people and their families, and has additional punitive aspects that make it deeply unappealing to anyone truly familiar with Christian “values,” which is the source, it seems to be or tries to be, of this strange and somewhat dubious term. What does it mean?

Good question. There aren’t many times when I wish dead philosophers would spring from their 19th century graves and start postulating on the meaning of life, but now is one of them. (I felt especially desperate for this in the months leading up to the most recent Presidential election, and each and every time words come out of Michelle Bachmann’s mouth). Nietzsche, please bring back your grumpy self with your enormously rich and complicated Enlightenment-era brain, and start making us revalue values, or at least think about how we use particular terms—without question or deep consideration—to try and track our sense of morality around all kinds of issues, both personal and political.

On The Genealogy Of Morals, published in Germany in 1887 and the most accessible of Nietzsche’s works (although an expansion on his previously developed theories), this thinker calls into question everything we claim to know about what is “good,” “evil,” and “moral,” terms that are thrown around in politics today like candy from a parade float. He offers a “critique of moral values,” arguing that we need to ask questions about why we value particular values. In the modern world, such so-called values are intended to hold people apart from one another, enslave (literally), and cause violence and discontent.

On The Genealogy Of Morals offers a history of ethics (no, ideas about right and wrong did not fall from the sky and they weren’t etched on a stone tablet by a lone man with a stone pencil, either) and stabs a knife in the heart of Judeo-Christian moral thinking, arguing that the ideologies and ethical rejoinders offered by religious sources is not the Truth, because all of our notions of truth stem from Biblical sources that rely not on fact, but on faith. Faith is not a problem for Nietzsche in theory (although he was hardly a good Lutheran), but he disagrees with a system of morality based in religious thought, a system that is invoked to keep society in “order” and has nothing to do, really, with creating good people, insofar as that’s possible, which has always been questionable, and more to do with keeping people in line. Religious stories exist to help people find meaning in their lives; they are not designed to buff up arbitrary social expectations that are entirely dependent on context.

Nietzsche has hundreds of pages of important “points” in his various treatises in the book, but the gist is that values have an evolution—they do not spring whole and inviolate from sacred religious books or any other source. To be religious, of course, requires faith, which can never be empirically proven, but Nietzsche is talking here about how a definition of “values” that would suggest religious faith are actually kicked into the modern, presumably secular world and asked to signify the same things. As a term, Family Values, to use an old cliché, is a fish out of water. This does not mean that values are “trendy,” only that they shift and change with the world. We are no longer living (and some of us never did live), in the single digits A.D., in pre-Christian Rome, or within the Mediterranean social norms with which the historical Jesus was familiar, norms and expectations that would be completely nonsensical to those of us living now, and for the past few centuries, in the modern world.

In other words, all statements about value are suspect, if only because they reduce the actual value (moral or otherwise) of the situation or fact being discussed. It means that our beliefs about what is right and wrong are changed and shaped by historical movements and the living thoughts of living people. They are not indisputable, written-in-stone facts. A modern family with two mothers or two fathers is not a moral issue, but it is in ethical issue—not for the family, but for the society that would reject such a family. A family’s value has nothing to do with its politics or various gender arrangements. “Family values” seems to be code for labeling families who have actual VALUE and those that do not, which is deeply morally and ethically problematic on almost every level.

Gay and lesbian families and relationships reflect an evolution in the intelligence of our social fabric, advancement in our thoughts around who people are allowed to be. This has nothing to do at all with religion (although politicians will try to convince you otherwise, with their promises of a punitive God who loves to punish “wrongdoing,” conveniently defined by the politician, of course), but it has everything to do with whether or not our society has any ethical integrity. The Family Values folks, it seems, would be thrilled if all the gay and lesbian families broke apart, dividing parents from children, and ran back into the time-honored and “safe” tradition of heterosexual marriage. I guess the kids would go into foster care; I guess the parents would be miserable.

This is a ridiculous notion, again a punitive one, and would do absolutely nothing at all to help solve important modern dilemmas in this country, like the stumbling economy, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the horrifying state of healthcare. It seems, then, that the Family Values people are actually more interested in advancing a particular Christian agenda, the theology of which cannot be covered in a few short paragraphs.

Maybe a better term would be “Family Social Agenda,” but then that wouldn’t have the same zippy, rhetorical ring as “Values.” This is Nietzshe’s point exactly. Family Values will only have meaning when we unpack how it is used, and when we understand that every family is valuable because all people are valuable.

Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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