The rhetoric of “family values” went into remission during the 2000 presidential election. In striking contrast to the moralistic tenor of prior Republican campaigns, this time the GOP co-opted the Democratic language of “inclusiveness.” George W. Bush, the so-called compassionate conservative, refrained from bashing gays, portrayed prochoicers under the “good people can disagree” banner and avoided the stock-in-trade Republican tactic of demonizing welfare recipients as sexually promiscuous cheats. Even Ralph Reed, of Christian Coalition fame, felt obliged to engage in big-family-tent talk. “I’m proud of my faith identification and of my conservative principles, but I also am somebody who is inclusive,” Reed declared in January, announcing his bid to be chairman of Georgia’s Republican Party and touting his ability to “reach out to moderate and prochoice Republicans.”

However cynical such utterances may be, the softer, “nonpartisan” brand of moralism that now reigns in public discourse signals a positive shift in the cultural climate. We can count it as a social victory of sorts that harsh rhetoric against gays, prochoicers, people of color and immigrants is no longer admissible in polite political company.

Less comforting, however, are the political origins of this shift. During the Clinton years, the ideology of a self-described “centrist” neo-family values movement triumphed over the religious far right, on the one hand, and progressive family politics on the other. Beating a hasty retreat after his early attempt to lift the military ban on gays, Clinton publicly converted to the marriage-first ideology (although his personal practice, of course, was quite another matter). The evils of single parenthood became national dogma, expressed most pointedly in the 1996 welfare law, which diverted federal support from single-mother families to state initiatives aimed at promoting marriage and reducing “fatherlessness” as a cure for poverty. Family-values rhetoric was shunted to the margins of electoral discourse because it no longer served to differentiate the two major political parties.

The neo-family values consensus paved the way for the Bush regime to introduce its far-from-compassionate brand of conservative family politics. Despite its rhetorical inclusiveness, the Bush Administration has already begun to undermine the sexual and family rights of all but married heterosexuals and their children. Most recently, Bush nominated Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative and a leading voice of the “fatherhood” movement, to be assistant secretary for family support at the Department of Health and Human Services–where he’ll be well positioned to put into practice his ideas about spending welfare dollars on programs aimed at boosting marriage rates.

Yet conservative family ideology is rife with internal contradictions that provide an opening for a progressive response. The marriage movement’s feel-good rhetoric collides with its exclusionary agenda, while its devotion to the fairy-tale family threatens the well-being of most real families. Anyone who hopes to sustain more democratic visions of family policy needs to train a seismograph on those fault lines.

The Marriage Movement Comes of Age

“The tired, old Murphy Brown debate is over. Marriage is not a divisive goal, but a shared aspiration,” boasted a press release last June from three marriage advocacy organizations with overlapping personnel and politics, announcing the launch of “a broad-based, bipartisan marriage movement.” It invited readers to sign a “statement of principles” whose initial signatories comprise a who’s who of neo-family values crusaders, including David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Maggie Gallagher, Judith Wallerstein, Amitai Etzioni, James Q. Wilson, David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Rabbi Michael Lerner. Candidates Gore and Bush both responded with congratulatory messages. “We commend the men and women of The Marriage Movement who have heard the call to strengthen this vital institution,” Governor and Mrs. Bush enthused. “Each of us must commit to restoring a pro-marriage culture in America.” Vice President and Mrs. Gore heartily concurred: “Fighting together against the forces that undermine family values, and creating a national culture that nurtures and encourages marriage and good family life, must be at the heart of this great nation’s public policy.”

Indeed, the marriage movement is busting out all over, a harbinger of “faith-based” approaches to social reform. Marriage Savers, a lay ministry led by Mike and Harriet McManus, organizes clergy in 146 cities to promote Community Marriage Policies and Covenants, which require engaged couples to take four months of religious marriage-preparation counseling. In April 2000, leaders of the National Council of Churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, the US Catholic Conference and the National Association of Evangelicals joined their formidable forces to write a Christian Declaration on Marriage and to sponsor regional conferences and an upcoming Marriage Summit.

Meanwhile, evangelical Christians continue to campaign for state laws permitting so-called covenant marriage. In 1997 Louisiana became the first state to enact such a law (introduced by Representative Tony Perkins, a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University), which enables couples to elect to enter a more restrictive marital contract. Arizona followed suit in 1998, then Arkansas last April, and similar bills have been proposed in at least twenty other states. In a December 30, 2000, National Post article, Louisiana State University law professor Katherine Spaht, the Christian activist who drafted the Louisiana bill, suggested that couples be permitted to choose a virtually inescapable marriage, like a Catholic indissoluble marriage.

Yet the marriage movement is by no means exclusively a religious project. Although neo-family values boosters favor a resurgent role for religion in public life, unlike the religious right they shroud their pro-marriage agenda in the mantle of social science. Such secular groups as the Institute for American Values, the Council on Families in America, the Communitarian Network, the National Marriage Project and Smart Marriages tirelessly promote pro-marriage ideology and antidivorce policies. Claiming misleadingly that research proves the superiority of the married heterosexual-couple family, the movement promotes policies that discriminate against everyone who does not inhabit such a family–which is to say, the majority of citizens, and especially those who are not affluent, white and/or straight.

It is remarkable that just when the ranks of single people are larger than ever before, pundits and politicians advocate discriminating against them. In 1998, 44 percent of American adults were unmarried; according to the 2000 census, single adults headed 46 million of our nation’s households, and married couples with children made up 23 percent of households. Yet Wade Horn, for example, argues that government should “give preference to two-parent married households” when distributing such benefits as Head Start, public housing, job training and tuition aid: “Only after all income-eligible married, two-parent families are offered the benefit should it become available for income-eligible single-parent families.” The marriage movement’s principles likewise advocate discriminating against cohabitants and unmarried parents, thereby exacerbating legal discrimination against nonheterosexuals as well. Numerous state and federal initiatives that pursue this course are now under way.

The marriage movement’s biggest prize yet was the 1996 welfare law. As the statement of principles that Bush and Gore endorsed points out approvingly, “three out of the four legal goals of welfare law are now marriage-related”: promote “marriage, encourage…two-parent families and reduce…out-of-wedlock births.” In 1998 the federal government made $350 million in grants from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, which replaced welfare) available to local fatherhood initiatives. In 1999 Oklahoma and Arkansas vowed to reduce their states’ divorce rates by 30 and 50 percent respectively; Louisiana, Utah, North Carolina and Arizona launched similar projects. After Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating spent $10 million in TANF dollars on marriage programs, one private firm headed by a Republican political consultant that received a $400,000 contract billed $732.50 to read The Case for Marriage by neo-family values authors Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher.

In 1998 Florida became the first state to formally pass a “marriage preparation and preservation” act, which among other things requires high schools to make marriage skills an obligatory part of the curriculum. Numerous local school districts across the nation have introduced similar requirements. Here, as elsewhere in the marriage movement, the line drawn between church and state is quite permeable. Consider, for example, a highly popular “wedding course” offered annually by a Butler, New Jersey, high school teacher who assigns heterosexual pairs of students the task of planning and conducting a mock wedding and reception. The course culminates in a full regalia church ceremony at which fathers in tuxedos tearfully give away their daughters arrayed in bridal gowns.

Carrying further the cultural agenda of welfare reform is the “Responsible Fatherhood” bill, introduced by Congressional Democrats in March. Geared especially toward low-income families, the bill authorizes $380 million for programs and propaganda designed to combat the evils of father absence and nonmarriage. Another pending bill would authorize an additional $140 million for like-minded efforts.

Conservatives Tied Up in Knots

Although the marriage movement is prospering under Bush, three internal contradictions will threaten its ultimate success. First, the personal practices of marriage proponents frequently do not accord with their ideology, as the behavior of Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bob Barr and even Jesse Jackson should continually remind us. And this is not just true of politicians. Sociologists have long recorded revealing discrepancies between attitudes the public expresses toward family values in the abstract and those they apply to their own lives. Survey respondents typically disapprove of rising divorce rates in general but agree that daughter Lucy was wise to give her ne’er-do-well husband the boot. Thus, although a majority now claim to favor greater restrictions on divorce in general, even in conservative Louisiana only a small minority of marrying couples have chosen to restrict their own future options through a conjugal covenant. Disappointed proponents of such covenants have responded with more coercive tactics: “We really ask couples to have a covenant marriage,” says Reverend Russell Stevenson of the First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, “and if they object, we try to talk them into it. We think it’s in their best interest.” Last year, however, efforts to pass covenant marriage laws failed in at least twenty states–including Texas.

Second, the heterosexist presumption of the marriage movement is on a collision course with the remarkable historical momentum of international struggles for same-sex marriage rights. On April 1 the Netherlands became the first nation in the world to fully legalize same-sex marriage, and most European countries (including Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and France) as well as Canada are swiftly extending to same-sex couples all the attendant rights save the name. Even Mexico City is currently considering a proposal to offer more limited domestic partner status to same-sex couples.

The federal character of US family law guarantees uneven, contradictory and politically divisive progress for similar measures. Thus, the historic (although still contested) passage of civil unions in Vermont–with comparable bills under consideration in at least five other states, including California–coincides with the advent of covenant marriage in Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas. Similarly, lesbian and gay parenting rights run the gamut from the most vanguard (like prebirth parental-custody decrees awarded to lesbian and gay couples in some states) to the most rearguard (like prohibitions on gay adoption or foster care placements as well as antisodomy laws in others).

Sympathetic images of gay weddings, parents and family ties now pervade popular culture, and surveys suggest that the public, while far from enthusiastic, is beginning to reconcile itself to this normalizing trend. One-third of those surveyed in a 1999 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll endorsed the legalization of same-sex marriage, while 65 percent predicted this would take place in the new century. A brand new Gallup poll reports that 44 percent now support civil unions. A solid majority believe most of the material benefits of marriage should be extended to same-sex couples, from health insurance and inheritance rights to hospital visitation and bereavement leave. Undeniably, gay marriage and family rights are on the historical agenda.

Without resorting to overt homophobia or preaching lifetime abstinence for all but heterosexuals, therefore, it is impossible to reconcile the conservative pro-marriage doctrine with opposition to “the conservative case” for same-sex marriage, which such neocon gay activists as Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer and Jonathan Rauch articulate. In fact, this contradiction ruptured the alliance that issued the Christian Declaration of Marriage. Responding to objections from gay rights advocates to “‘code words’ that were harmful to committed gay and lesbian relationships,” the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, hastily retracted his signature this past November.

The secular neo-family values movement quickly betrays a lack of intellectual and ethical integrity on this issue. Asserting that “a healthy marriage culture benefits every citizen in the United States,” the statement of principles dares to identify gays among its list of beneficiaries–“rich or poor, churched or unchurched, gay or straight,” etc. Yet the movement that promotes a campaign to “reconnect marriage and childbearing in the minds of young people” and advocates discriminating against cohabitants, fails to endorse rights to marriage or parenthood for anyone outside the heterosexual fold. Moreover, because this movement claims the legitimacy of social science, mounting evidence documenting the efficacy of gay couple and gay parenting relationships threatens to hoist the ideology on its own petard. Recently, The American Sociological Review published an analysis, which I wrote with Timothy Biblarz, of the impact of lesbian and gay parenting on children. We found no credible theory or evidence that heterosexuals parent more successfully. Indeed, gay parenting may even offer some advantages. As the coy title of a recent news report on couples research by psychologists John Gottman and Robert Levenson phrased it, “It turns out that the happy couple is–well–gay!” Same-sex couples in their study proved better at managing disagreements than did comparable heterosexual married couples; less discord, in turn, is easier on kids.

Gay family rights made substantial headway behind the scenes of the Clinton Administration, in spite of its support for the antigay Defense of Marriage Act and, at times perhaps, as compensation for it. Not only did Clinton appoint more than 150 openly lesbian and gay officials to office and issue executive orders prohibiting discrimination on sexual orientation grounds in federal hiring and security clearances but he also promoted cultural initiatives to normalize gay relationships. For example, Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen’s progressive educational documentary That’s a Family! enjoyed a White House screening this past December.

No equivalent compensations are on the horizon under Bush. As governor of Texas, Bush opposed gay marriage and adoption rights, and refused to support efforts to decriminalize sodomy or to expand hate crimes penalties for antigay or racially motivated crimes. As President, Bush remains politically beholden and faithful to a powerful right flank that actively promotes the antigay backlash. To be sure, “in the name of inclusion,” as a New York Times reporter put it, Bush allows gay Republicans a silent place at the table, and his inauguration tent was commodious enough to accommodate Mary Cheney and her female partner. And he named an openly gay (but fiercely antichoice) Republican, Scott Evertz, to head the White House AIDS policy office. But the appointment as Attorney General of John Ashcroft, who views homosexuality as a sin–and the nomination of Wade Horn at HHS–signals the serious threat to gay rights ahead. Kenneth Connor, president of the virulently antigay Family Research Council, exults that his group is “afforded access to the highest senior officials.” Speakers at the FRC’s annual “Washington Briefing” in March included Ashcroft, HUD Secretary Mel Martinez and a White House Office of Public Liaison representative; George W. Bush himself delivered a taped greeting.

A third contradiction of the marriage movement, and of compassionate conservatism generally, is the failure to address the destructive familial effects of “the economy, stupid.” Congress must reauthorize the 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” sometime next year. Republican Wally Herger, chair of the human resources subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, began hearings in May on welfare and marriage, where witnesses testified in favor of using welfare funds to “strengthen marriage” and reduce divorce. He favors policy changes that not just encourage but require states to establish pro-marriage programs, ask welfare caseworkers to discuss marriage with pregnant clients and introduce marriage education in public schools.

Contrary to pro-marriage propaganda, however, poverty and unemployment, not the selfish immorality of individuals, are the most effective predictors of and conveyor belts to nonmarital status. Regressive tax cuts and the weakening economy will exacerbate the destructive impact that economic inequality and social insecurity have on marital stability. Moreover, as the lifetime caps on welfare benefits kick in, the poverty of single parents and their children will deepen, further reducing their marital prospects. In such a context, additional policies favoring married-couple families will have the paradoxical effect of reducing their ranks. Marriage is already one of the principal forms and symbols of class privilege, one that’s entwined with racial privilege and, of course, with heterosexuality. That’s why voting patterns now exhibit a marriage gap greater than the gender gap.

Neo-family values forces are particularly inconsistent, and vulnerable to criticism, on this score. The movement’s communitarian rhetoric in favor of enhancing the quality of marital, parenting and community bonds implies the need to impose constraints on the free-market employment practices that hamper family and community life. However, the few communitarians, like Etzioni, who acknowledge the need for measures like flex-time and a reduced workweek for parents do so sotto voce at best, while the trumpet section of the movement blares the marriage culture theme. Etzioni approvingly labeled Bush’s inaugural address “a communitarian text,” while Galston (Clinton’s first domestic policy adviser) agreed that “the new president has some promising [communitarian] instincts.” Defeated vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman readily accepted Bush’s invitation to an event to celebrate his “faith-based” initiatives, which remove restrictions on religious teaching by religious charities that receive government funding. Immediately thereafter, Bush unsentimentally proposed slashing funds for childcare assistance, early education for low-income children, child abuse prevention and a program to train pediatricians.

The prospects, then, for progressive marriage or family politics in the Bush era are, for the most part, bleak. While it is undeniably a moral triumph that the old right-wing culture warriors are on the political defensive, the blander rhetoric of inclusiveness and compassion makes it more difficult to mobilize against regressive policies. Nonetheless, inescapable clashes between an official commitment to a pro-marriage culture and the irreversible struggle for gay marriage, as well as fallout from economic policies that will ravage families, could derail Bush’s attempts to cultivate an image as a “uniter, not a divider.” Those who still dream of a democratic family future must expose the bad faith of compassionate, inclusive rhetoric and the cruelly conservative, discriminatory realities of the marriage movement it seeks to mask.