They Just Don’t Get It

The Murphy Brown episode has come back to haunt us again. At the Emmy awards, the creator of the sitcom hailed single parents and urged them, "Don't let anyone tell you you're not a family." Why has family values become such a disputed topic? Why was the media so quick to jump on a single line in a single speech by Dan Quayle? The answer is that the family is at the heart of a major cultural divide in America today--a divide over the question of moral authority. That means questions like: How do we justify saying there's only one model for the family? How can we say that some relationships are immoral? How do we know what's right and wrong? James Davison Hunter, in his book Culture Wars, says Americans hold two competing visions of moral authority. On one side is what he calls the orthodox vision. It sees institutions like the family as created by God. Moral standards are rooted in the structure of creation. In this view, right and wrong are absolute, binding on everyone. On the other side is what Hunter calls the progressive vision. It sees institutions like the family as a creation of human society to meet human needs. If people want to, they are free to experiment with other ways to meet those needs--other kinds of relationships. Right and wrong are not absolute in this view, they are relative. Once we understand these two competing visions then we can make sense of the raucous debates on the nightly news and talk shows. People who hold the orthodox view defend what we call traditional family values. People who hold the progressive view tend to reject traditional family values. This doesn't mean all progressives are immoral and anti-family. There are plenty of progressives who live stable, caring lives, and are highly committed to their families. The point is that they have no transcendent reason for their commitment. As Robert Bellah explains in his book Habits of the Heart, many Americans have high ideals but they have no transcendent principles upon which to base those ideals. Ask them why they are faithful to their spouses, ask them why they care about their kids, and all they can say is "It feels right for me." By the same token, they can't say anything is wrong either. If values are what feels right to me, then I have to give you the freedom to do what feels right to you. Anyone who holds the orthodox vision--who says some things are right or wrong for everyone--strikes progressives as a bigot. Francis Schaeffer used to say Christians need to stop seeing issues in bits and pieces and start seeing the big picture. The big picture behind the family values debate is simple: Are morals absolute or are they relative? Are they God-given or do we make them up as we go along? So let's get away from hurling cliches and putting people down. What we have in the family values debate is an honest disagreement over fundamental moral questions. Christians need to get away from simple sloganeering and use the Murphy Brown episode as an opportunity--a chance to teach people what the real issues are.


Chuck Colson


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