The Mullahs of Marriage | The Nation


The Mullahs of Marriage

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Although former Vice President Quayle's legacy may not be one for the history books, he will certainly be remembered for the day he took on television's Murphy Brown. Some conservatives claim that it was a turning point in the war to save the family.

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Bill Berkowitz
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer and longtime observer of the conservative movement who is a regular contributor to...

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Scum and foam were piled so high on the surface of streams and ponds in
the rural Illinois area neighboring the Inwood Dairy that it looked like

On May 9, the tenth anniversary of Quayle's speech condemning Murphy Brown, he celebrated with an appearance at the National Press Club, where he delivered an address titled "Ten Years after Murphy Brown: A Mother's Day Progress Report on the American Family."

Ten years ago, the reaction to Quayle's speech fell along predictable lines-liberals denounced it as another in a series of gratuitous election-year attacks on Hollywood. Conservatives were thrilled that Quayle had brought the issue of single-parent families to public attention.

Quayle's speech was one of the first volleys in the "marriage wars." Over the past ten years, a "marriage movement" has evolved; no longer the subject of widespread liberal disdain, marriage advocates dominated the 1996 welfare reform debate and are now key players in the debate over welfare reauthorization.

President Bush's $300 million initiative to promote heterosexual marriage is at the heart of his welfare reauthorization proposal, and it owes its existence, in large measure, to the marriage warriors at right-wing think tanks and foundations.

Remaking the Cultural Consensus

In an early May Village Voice article, Sharon Lerner writes: "With $300 million of funds from the soon-to-be reauthorized Welfare Reform Act allotted for marriage promotion, poor people can expect an unprecedented array of programs nudging them toward the altar, including billboards advertising the joys of matrimony; 'marriage education' for unwed, expecting parents; and 'marriage mentoring' programs in which married couples serve as role models for singles."

How has the right's "marriage movement" become so prominent in the welfare reauthorization debate? Right-wing foundations conceptualized, supported, sustained and helped direct the debate over marriage during the past ten years, publicizing their views through Op-Ed pieces, articles, books, radio and television interviews, speaking engagements and reports rolling off the presses of conservative think tanks. David Popenoe, a seasoned veteran of the movement, discusses the pivotal role of conservative foundations in an article titled "New Day Dawning? In the Struggle Over the Family, Foundations Made the Difference," in the March/April 2002 issue of Philanthropy magazine--the bimonthly publication of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a consortium of conservative foundations.

Popenoe is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and co-director, along with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, of the National Marriage Project. Popenoe explains how most foundations traditionally focused on funding "direct service programs" rather than research and public education, especially when it comes to children's issues. However, beginning in the late 1980s several conservative foundations "blazed a new trail and supported research and public education in the child-related area of marriage and the family."

This reorientation, led by such conservative foundations as Achelis and Bodman, Bradley, Donner, JM, Randolph and Allegheny, led policy-makers toward new ways of thinking about welfare, family and marriage issues.

The foundations set out to build a new political consensus about poverty. Popenoe says that the old consensus was framed by "the mainstream media and most of the academic community [which] fell back on the old standbys: persistent and institutional racism, income inequality, and lack of government support." In the mid-1980s--the height of the Reagan years--instead of looking to the old formulas for understanding poverty, conservatives began examining "the serious weakening of America's family structure" that had been taking place during those years.

Popenoe: "The divorce rate had more than doubled between 1960 and 1985, and the out-of-wedlock birthrate had quadrupled. Broken homes had grown like wildfire; doleful news articles about 'latchkey kids' popped up on TV and in the papers. These trends were most pronounced among blacks, but family structure rather than race accounted for the difference."

By the late 1980s, "a small but impassioned band of academics and intellectuals concerned about the decline of the family and its devastating consequences on children made personal visits and appeals to a few innovative foundations. There, we found creative thinkers with receptive ears. The battle over changing the cultural debate--what came to be called 'the war over the family'--was joined."

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