Seth Dowland is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University. His book, Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right, charts the influence of Christian “family values” advocacy across three decades and a variety of issues. I recently spoke with Dowland about the project, the politics, and the significance of family in the United States.
ECM: You introduce “family values” as the key term of the Christian Right in the late twentieth-century United States. Why was this term so influential for this group in this place and time?
SD: Many of the political reforms enacted from the 1930s through the 1960s—particularly the expansion of the welfare state and the passage of civil rights legislation—attempted to expand equal rights to all people. Political liberals celebrated these developments, while conservatives looked around the nation at the beginning of the 1970s and saw economic stagnation, riots, sexual revolution, a decline in patriotism, and an increase in crime and drug use. Ministers and political conservatives argued that America was in decline. They believed that decline happened because of the demise of the “traditional family.”
Scholar Stephanie Coontz has shown that the concept of a traditional family—breadwinning father, stay-at-home mother, and children who enjoy a lengthy and protected childhood—is a fiction. In fact, even idealizing this version of the traditional family is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Democrats in the 1970s agreed with Republicans that they ought to promote families, but they wanted to broaden the concept of family to include single-parent families, multi-generational households, and, in some cases, gay couples. Political conservatives rejected the attempt to broaden the concept of family and placed defense of the traditional family at the center of their political agenda.
This agenda—defending and promoting family values—resonated with evangelical Christians because it spoke to two of their central convictions.First, evangelicals believed that gender was part of the created order, that men and women were created by God to fulfill different roles. In traditional families, men provided and protected, while women bore, reared and nurtured children. Movements that viewed gender roles as the product of patriarchal social constructions—such as second-wave feminism—represented a denial of God’s good creation, which spelled out biologically appropriate roles for men and women.
Second, evangelicals believed that God designed institutions like the family and the church to run under certain authority structures. While evangelicals voiced support for equal rights, they wanted to retain the authority structures that kept human sinfulness in check. Traditional families exemplified those godly authority structures: Husbands led their wives, and parents had authority over children. Promoting family values gave evangelicals a way to uphold their beliefs about gender and authority in the broader culture.
ECM: If gender played an overt role in the rise of the Christian Right, class and race were implicit as well. The single breadwinner model of the family presumed middle-class stability, and the movement as a whole was almost entirely white. So is it fair to say that “family values” merged a diversity of issues that mattered specifically to conservative, middle-class, white, evangelical Christians?
SD: That’s exactly right. While I talk mostly about gender, certain assumptions about race and class were part of pro-family politics. Christian schools are a perfect example of this.
During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the number of Christian schools opened by conservative evangelical Christians skyrocketed. By the early 1980s, evangelical ministers like Jerry Falwell were claiming that evangelicals opened three new Christian schools every day, ostensibly because public schools had become anti-Christian. Yet this surge in Christian school growth coincided with public school desegregation. The student bodies in most of these Christian schools were overwhelmingly or entirely white.
Even so, viewing these schools simply as “segregation academies” obscures both diversity within the Christian school movement and the ways that segregationist schools changed over time. Falwell’s own K-12 school, Lynchburg (later Liberty) Christian Academy is a good example. Launched in 1967—the same year Lynchburg public schools desegregated—LCA was all-white for two years. But as desegregation became normalized in Lynchburg public schools (which had a small proportion of African-American students relative to other southern locales), LCA would need other rationales to sustain enrollment.
The school found a winning strategy in promoting family values. LCA portrayed its mission as supporting Christian families and promised to shape young men and women who knew their place. A 1975 promotional brochure for the school advertised, “we have no hippies” and “you can tell our boys from our girls without a medical examination.”
The relative lack of explicit racial rhetoric in the family values movement would later open the door for change among some conservative evangelicals. In 1990, University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney founded Promise Keepers, an evangelical men’s organization that became one of the most important pro-family groups of the decade. As shown in the recent ESPN film “The Gospel According to Mac,” McCartney was talking about structural racism twenty years ago. He made racial reconciliation a centerpiece of Promise Keepers’ ministry.
McCartney’s understanding of systemic injustice never prevailed among a majority of conservative white evangelicals, who insisted that racism was foremost a sin of the heart. This understanding constrained white evangelicals’ ability to forge interracial alliances in support of family values. The pro-family movement found some nonwhite allies among socially conservative minority Christians, but its normalization of white, middle-class values limited its reach.