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The role of family values in the 2016 presidential election

I have recently returned from the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion where much was made of the effectiveness of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and, in particular, its skillful invocation of an imagined 1950s America – a time when many Americans believe that white (Christian) men modeled effective leadership qualities to build an “exceptional” nation founded in the Christian doctrine of “A City on a Hill” and informed by constitutional principles of Justice and Liberty. This narrative, of course, ignores the ways in which America has always failed to fully extend its most cherished values to all its citizens and, indeed, is premised on exclusion. Religious studies scholars, along with many other pundits, fail to fully analyze the sexism inherent not only in the slogan itself, but in the mythical past it invokes. This is a surprising oversight, since “family values”—which used similar nostalgia to oppose abortion, working mothers, and LGBTQ rights—first made its way into politics as a rebuke of Bill Clinton at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Although we no longer talk of “values voters,” it seems that the frameworks upon which the Republicans argued against the first Clinton run for the oval office came to fruition 25 years later.

Since the late 1970s, ‘Focus on the Family’ has been working to counter multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights to show that this nostalgic vision of America is the singular American story, just as the Bible, when properly read, is the singular moral authority. The America that James Dobson, the founder of Focus, and Trump want to return to looks remarkably like the one we see on television reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” where the kids obeyed the parents, dad was in charge, and an apron-clad mom doted on the family. This version of the American family came to life in its own time of tension when the Cold War, the rise of youth culture, and desegregation loomed. The Cleavers, on this sitcom, were portrayed as normative, as representing every family. Their whiteness and their middle-class status were never addressed or questioned, their Christianity was assumed, and their family structure was normalized. The Cleavers and their neighbors faced no competition from a Europe recently ravaged by war or from immigrants to the U.S. whose entry had been all but barred since 1924.

In co-opting and nurturing this nostalgic vision of America, Focus, too, offers an interpretation of Christianity that universalizes and sacralizes a white, middle-class, American ideal. While scholars have spent much time dissecting the roles of Whiteness, and to some extent Christianity, in this election, the effects of a women out of place, of Hillary Clinton wearing the pantsuit in the family, has been ignored. The notion of Clinton as a woman out of place, according to a broad, White Christian worldview, helps to explain why 81% of evangelicals chose the non-religious, perhaps atheist, Trump over the proudly Methodist Clinton.

Earlier generations of conservative Christians focused on the primacy of Adam in their reading of biblical creation.  With the guidance of Focus, however, contemporary Christians read Genesis to say that both men and women are blessed by God, created in his image, and worthy of God’s love and human respect, yet each has distinct roles in society: female submission and male headship are the correct biblical relationship. By the time of its creation in 1977, Focus instructed its members that by living within this biblical framework, they were fighting against a secular society in which the roles of men and women, husbands and wives, were blurred, creating family instability.

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A button from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 U.S. presidential campaign. It bears the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” and also reads “Reagan ’80” by Ronald Reagan presidential campaign, 1980. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally designed to answer letters and dispense information, Focus on the Family, which Dobson ran until 2009, became one of the most popular evangelical brands and multimedia ministries in the country with a radio program, multiple video series, and a publishing arm that has produced hundreds of books. Millions of Americans relied on this guidance to create a Christian family in the contemporary world and to learn what issues were worth fighting for. Through these various media, Dobson created a template that used frequently cited Bible verses like Ephesians 5:22, 6:1-2 to teach that men and women truly committed to God when they committed to their family. Only as fathers and mentors could men deepen their understanding of the Lord by being his guiding representative on earth. Simultaneously, through the nurturing and sacrificing required of being a wife and mother, women intensified their connection with Jesus. Working together to nurture children into their own divinely-defined heterosexual roles, Focus users were told, would unite the family in ways that secular parenting was failing to do.

While throughout the 1990s and early 2000s the national media spread the meaning of “family values” as a catchall for pro-life, anti-gay rights, and anti-pornography, explicitly and implicitly informing this definition was Dobson’s foundational teachings about the family as God’s original institution for a biblically-centered moral society. While commentators have noted the loss of power by the Christian right in recent elections, many former and current Focus users engaged in micropolitics by following Dobson’s teachings to provide a living witness to how aligning one’s self with this biblical message safeguarded both family and society against temptation. Dobson stated as fact that men naturally want to “provide and protect” and women naturally have “maternal inclinations” to “desire a stable home and a steady source of income. This income, however, could not come from a wife herself, because that would deny her husband his primacy as the breadwinner—a role through which he “discovers a sense of pride—yes, masculine pride—because he is needed by his wife and children.”

Without his wife’s submission, according to Focus, men are likely to drift into affairs (a la Bill Clinton) and divorce (a la Trump). Each of these turns to temptation results, in the end, from wives’ embracing their own desires for self-fulfillment and in so doing, refusing to fulfill their divine roles as mother, nurturer, and supporter. Time and again, Focus materials emphasized that mixing male-female roles, such as having the mother as breadwinner or the wife as say Secretary of State, destroyed the American family (though in reality the shift of middle-class white women to the workplace was a return to an earlier norm). When women fail to submit to God and to their husbands, their children do not receive the guidance they need, and so starts the breakdown of society.

By 2016, male and female voters who had been reared on or were in some way involved with organizations like Focus had learned that when the mother occupied the proper role in the family, the family was solid; when she shifted her position, the family crumbled. The divorce and crime rates demonstrated the truth of their long held Focus teachings: when the mother works, more than the children suffer. As the family goes, so goes the nation.

Current discussions of why women voted for Trump in the wake of his comments about sexual assault have skirted a central rationale: Rather than risk being abandoned by the men who were meant to protect them, either at home or on the national stage, these women who voted for Trump voted for the Godly familial structure—with the father as the head of the home—instead of a woman whose usurping of male authority threatened the stability of the nation, just as it had her own home. “Family values” had finally won the day.

Headline image credit: ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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