COMMENTARY: `Family values’ triumphant?

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ We have been informed recently by no less an authority than the Wall Street Journal that 50 years from now the judgments about President Clinton will probably be based on the long-term effectiveness of the"family values"crusade.

The Journal seems willing to claim that the yearlong assault on the president is the result of a major shift in American society to the political and religious right energized in part by"family values"crusaders.

Apparently, however, Journal reporters don't read the surveys of their own paper.

Their strange argument is a symptom of a journalistic version of the Hegalian dialectic. There was first of all the"sexual revolution"of the 1960s, and now there is a reaction which might just as well be called"the family"values crusade. In fact, the sexual revolution was _ and is _ much less than it was supposed to be. So too is the"resurgence"of family values.

There were _ and are _ three components to the"sexual revolution."The first was a change in contraceptive technology _ the Pill _ which enables women to control their fertility and thus delay marriage without delaying sex. The second was the resultant increase in premarital sex _ and the exploitation of women. The third was the increased demand by gays for recognition of their rights as human beings.

One may well view these developments as dubious and still wonder whether they were as important as they might seem. Delay in marriage and earlier sexual experimentation _ as deplorable as they may be _ are common enough in most western societies. There may well be a reaction eventually, but certainly there are no signs of such a reaction now, even among the"Christians"who are pushing the"family values"crusade. (I put"Christian"in quotes because I dispute the right of evangelical Protestants to claim a monopoly on that label.)

Incidentally, for some reason,"family values"does not seem to mean opposition to divorce. Quite the contrary, some of the most important political heroes of the"Christians"are on their second or third"trophy"wife.

Often it seems that"family values"comes down to homosexuality. There is no issue which stirs"Christians"to more fury than gay rights. Is there any sign of a turn of public opinion against gays? It is a fair question in any effort to judge the mood of the present time _ at least outside of the Bedlam that is the Beltway.

The"Christian"family values element in the population at most numbers somewhere been 5 percent and 10 percent of Americans. Gays and lesbians also number between 5 percent and 10 percent at most. The two have been locked in mortal media combat with one another. To the extent that there are culture wars _ and in fact Americans, as opposed to their elective representatives are less"polarized"than they were a couple of decades ago _ the rights of homosexuals are a primary focus.

Who is winning the battle between the gays and the Christians?

In the 1970s and 1980s, some seven out of 10 Americans thought homosexuality was always wrong, according to the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey. Since 1990 that proportion has fallen almost 15 percentage points.

Among major religious groups the decline is smallest among the"fundamentalists"_ from 82 percent to 77 percent. The largest decline is among Catholics from 70 percent thinking homosexuality is always wrong in 1973 to 46 percent in 1998, a decrease of 24 percentage points."Moderate"Protestants, such as Lutherans, for example, have declined from 70 percent to 56 percent. In the"liberal"Protestant grouping _ Episcopalians, for example _ the change is from 56 percent to 49 percent.

Moral values are not determined by surveys. Social science is capable only of describing what values are. It cannot, within the constraints of its own discipline, say what the values should be. However, if one is to judge about the culture wars between"family values and"gay liberation,"there can't be much doubt which which side is winning.

The culture wars paradigm, so loved by second-rate journalists, is so misleading as to be sinfully dangerous.

Most Americans are on neither side. They try to do the best they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves and to judge other human persons by the totality of their traits. They try to respect the privacy of everyone and to leave moral judgments to God. They are increasingly willing to respect homosexuals as human beings who are entitled to their privacy. They wish only that the shouting of the religious zealots would stop.