Progressive Voices

Misremembering family values

“Family values.” It seems that no other phrase is more frequently invoked by those who would outlaw same-sex marriage. The North Carolina Family Policy Council says that keeping current definition of marriage is about “preservation of the family and traditional family values.” The Heritage Foundation has argued that “Judaeo-Christian values that are the foundation of Western civilization.”

Traditional? Foundational? What is strange about these appeals that helped pass Amendment One in North Carolina is that both invoke something that has never existed, namely, one definition of family in U.S. history and Judaeo-Christianity.

Which version of American “traditional family” and “family values” is meant by this approach –the tradition that defined women officially as property? Women did not get the vote and citizen status until the early 20th century. Of course being “property” meant something very different depending upon your “race.”

For white women it meant once you married, you had no public status or rights until 1920. For women of color, however, the “traditional family” was different: being property meant you could be sold, raped, and torn away from your husband and children. These traditions were frequent effects of the 19th century “traditional (white) family.”

The rules of this version of family meant that slaves had to get the permission of their white slaveholders to marry. Such control was crucial to uphold certain kinds of “family values” – income for whites. Slaveholders were happy for slaves to have children; that meant more free labor. Owners could break up a slave family, selling mother, father, or children, and frequently did, to enhance their own profit. Of course that “traditional family” could never be interracial; “intermarriage of whites and negroes” was “forever forbidden” according to the Ordinances of North Carolina’s1875 State Constitutional Convention.

The idealized nuclear family with domestic wife, children and working husband was a modern invention, yet was available only to a privileged group for quite some time. The middle-class Victorian family with stay-at-home moms caring for children depended upon an economic system with enormous numbers of factory workers, including low income women and much child labor.

While women and children of color had always “worked,” expanding industrialization from 19th through early 20th century meant that this Victorian family was possible due to low-paid child and female laborers of all races. Nineteenth century childhood thus meant different things for different classes and races. Girls and boys under 11 constituted half the workers in many factories in 1820. Of the 36,415 workers in southern textile mills in early 20th century, 23.7 percent were children. Class, as well as race, were clearly significant markers of the group that qualified for this nuclear “traditional family.”

If there is no one “normative,” traditional family in the United States, how about Scripture? Which biblical family would contemporary opponents of same-sex marriage have in mind with their appeal to the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Genesis 1:26-28; 2:21-25 is often quoted, but that’s pretty selective. Biblical families also include the polygamous arrangements of Esau, Jacob, and Gideon. King David and King Solomon had lots of wives. Old Testament figures like Abraham, Jacob, King David and King Solomon had concubines as well as wives. Chattel slavery (Ex. 21:20f) complicated who counted as fully human.

The most important fall-back model for Christians would surely be Jesus. But literal faithfulness to Jesus that follows his way of life and his teaching would undermine, not support, the so-called “traditional family” and its values.

Not only was Jesus apparently single, but he said “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children,…cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus appears to have had no home (or children). He was always traveling…. (but not with a car; he certainly didn’t have the option of two Cadillacs). He connected with outsiders. No Christian appeal to “traditional marriage/family” seems to be based on Jesus’ discipleship. Agreeing with Jesus that celibacy is preferable to marriage, the apostle Paul gave us a teeny “way out”— better to marry than to burn (1Cor. 7:9).

But again, “faithfulness to Jesus” undermines a case for confining marriage or family to the heterosexual nuclear definition.

While the so-called traditional and biblical version of family invoked by supporters of Amendment One is the nuclear family – a couple comprised of one man and one woman, typically with children – this is clearly not the only American option nor is it the biblical option. Historian Stephanie Coontz puts it well when she insists that any appeal to the nuclear heterosexual family as the normative family is simply false nostalgia—“the way we never were.”

That does not mean there have not been plenty of such relationships, just that the heterosexual nuclear family is the way only some of us have been in recent times and the way most of us never were throughout human history. The important point however is this: restricting marriage to this definition is not an argument against allowing same sex marriage; it is a false use of history and the Bible.

Dr. Mary Fulkerson is a Professor of Theology at the Duke University Divinity School.