What's in a Definition?

The War over the Family


I was flipping channels on the television one night when I suddenly found myself dodging bullets in the culture war.

I had flipped to the Arsenio Hall show and the guest that night was Angela Lansbury, star of the program "Murder, She Wrote." Lansbury was lavishly praising the family and its key role in society.

Wonderful, I thought; a Hollywood star standing up for the family.

But then Lansbury looked straight into the camera--almost as though she had heard my thoughts--and said, "Of course, when I talk about family I mean anyone we're close to. Family is whatever we define it to be."

The audience burst into wild applause.

Just days later held the nation tuned in to the long-awaited opening segment of "Murphy Brown." And there was Candice Bergen telling us that the family is anyone bound together by care and compassion.

If you think about it, this is amazing. We are wrestling with one of the most pressing issues in America today--protecting the family--and the term itself is being defined not by sociologists, not by moral philosophers, but by Hollywood celebrities: by people like Angela Lansbury and Candice Bergen. And Americans are so star-struck that we let these celluloid personalities shape our thinking.

But it must be admitted that the folks on the other side aren't doing such a brilliant job either. When Dan Quayle was asked to explain family values, he mumbled something about families being helped by low airline rates and phone rates.

But the saddest example is the fuzzy statement made by Barbara Bush, when she said (not wanting to offend anyone), "However you define family, that's what we mean by family values."

Where does this leave the public? Groping blindly among the cliches. On one side, it seems, are the progressives who want to turn the family into a free-for-all; on the other side are the reactionaries who want to throw us back to the 1950s.

No one seems to know what the real issue is.

When we talk about family values, we aren't talking about a nostalgic return to the 50s. We're talking about the moral order of the universe--a pattern of behavior that goes back to the earliest pre-historic cultures--a timeless ideal upheld by all successful societies everywhere: that a family consists of a man and a woman who marry and raise children.

There may be variations on the theme from culture to culture, but the basic pattern is a universal norm.

This universal family form serves two functions: first, it propagates the human race; second, it provides the school of first instruction, where young people are taught civilized behavior.

And the historical record is unambiguous: Societies are healthiest when they have a large number of traditional, intact families.

This is the argument we need to bring to our friends and neighbors. Unhook them from their television screens with its glitzy celebrities and fuzzy politicians. Help them see beyond the cliches.

What's at stake here is the very pattern built by God into the foundation of human society.