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In the late 1600’s, urged on by their Puritan clergy, a hysterical group of Massachusetts citizens hanged 19 members of the community of Salem for practicing witchcraft, pressed one to death, and imprisoned many others. In the 1950’s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and abetted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the House un-American Activities Committee targeted dozens of people from the communications industry—actors, writers, publishers, and university professors—accusing them of subversive activities. In the 1990’s, a small but well-organized group of right-wing Protestants loudly declaim a near-mythical group of “degenerates”—homosexuals, pornographers, and abortionists.

The witches were hanged because they threatened to corrupt Salem society by leading others into collaboration with the devil; the careers of “pinkos” were destroyed because they threatened the national security of America, and the “degenerates” are vilified because they pose a threat to American family values.

Every election year, we hear the phrase “family values” repeatedly. It was a favorite phrase of Dan Quayle, who used it in an attack on a fictional TV character who chose to have a baby out of wedlock; Bob Dole said in a televised debate that he wanted to return America to its traditional, Judeo-Christian family values; and even Clinton has used it. It’s specifically mentioned in the 1996 Republican Party Platform. The latest bandying-about of it comes from the Southern Baptists, who justify their boycott of Disney by accusing them of being anti-family values.

What are family values? Ever hear any of those people who love to use it actually define it?

I decided that I’d look to the oldest explanation of the term “values” I could find. I found one from Thomas Hobbes, a 16th-Century philosopher. According to Hobbes, “values” refers to things enjoyed, liked, etc. A thing is considered “good” because I like it. Values are also transient—one’s desire for something may change to indifference or even aversion, and they’re relative—because one person may love something, a second may be indifferent to it, and a third may hate it.

Ethics are standards of behavior that support an individual’s and a society’s values. Ethics are highly flexible. For instance, a county government that values clean air and the economic well-being of its citizens may have an ethical dilemma—is it less unethical to allow a plant that spews pollutants to stay open, or is it less unethical to force the plant to close, thus putting a thousand people out of work?

Values are only indirectly related to morality. Mores—the standards set by a society that determine what is or is not moral—are the rules of behavior its members are expected to follow. Morality is essentially a code of ethics that has been “etched in stone.” It exists mainly because leaders can’t trust individuals to make independent ethical decisions. Mores are generally considered to be absolute—unchangeable and eternal, because they are of divine origin. However, morality is actually relative and transient, too. What might be considered immoral to an American Christian—like nude sunbathing, for instance—might be perfectly acceptable to European Christians. Not only that, but morality is relative to circumstance.

I don’t think most of the people who tout “family values” really understand these concepts. Looking over the published agenda of the American Family Association, which claims to have been established to preserve “American family values,” there seems to be three main points that are, in their terms, “anti-family-values.” These three things are gay rights, abortion, and pornography.

These issues have damned little to do with either families or values. I have yet to read or hear a sensible argument supporting the fact that any of these three things are a threat to the things a family should value. I conclude, then, that the conflict is not between values, but over morality.

Consider the issue of abortion, for instance. The political left wants to see it as an issue of the value of a woman’s right over her own body. The political right wants to see it as an issue of the value of a human life. Both are misguided. The anti-abortionists do not want to control a woman’s body—they want to control individual morality. The value of a human life is not an issue here. If it were, they’d all be against capital punishment, as well. The human life becomes less valuable to them the farther away it gets from being cute and cuddly—were the fetus not aborted, the sociopath on death row it might become would have damned few anti-abortionists arguing for his right to life.

The real conflict in the abortion issue is between a value—the right to choose whether or not to have the child—and a moral dictum—don’t kill other humans. The more here, even, is flexible and relative. “Thou shall not kill” really means, “don’t kill productive, contributing members of your own society that aren’t a threat to your safety.” If it was not relative, then no “Judeo-Christian” person could ever go to war or execute someone.

A key word often associated with family values is “traditional.” What are these traditional values they want to return us to? It appears that the politicians who use the phrase to improve their chances for election want to return us to some time during the late fifties and early sixties, before psychedelics, the pill, and a war we didn’t win changed America.

I’m old enough to remember the early sixties. I remember signs designating which water-fountain “colored” people could drink from in the city park and which restroom they could use. I remember signs in restaurants that declared “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” which translated, “We don’t serve niggers, wetbacks, queers, or anyone else we don’t like.” I remember a lovely young college-girl who’d baby-sat me for years having to disappear mysteriously; she’d gotten pregnant, and in those days, families sent their unmarried mother-to-be daughters to “homes” for “wayward girls” before they started to look pregnant, so to avoid scandalizing the neighbors.

Do we really want to return to that?

The truth is that “family values,” as used by the American Family Association, Dan Quayle, and the southern Baptists, has nothing to do with either family or values, nor does it really have anything to do with homosexuals, “abortionists,” or “pornographers.” Those groups actually only serve as windmills to tilt at. The true agenda is power—power over the intellectually weak, emotionally immature, and ethically deficient Americans who are incapable of critical thinking and independent decision-making, and who are easily manipulated by the basest of human emotions—fear and the desire for revenge.

The homosexual is the nigger of the nineties. No politician seriously interested in getting elected would dream of blaming problems in our society on an ethnic group, as has happened in less politically-correct times. The gay male, however, is easily turned into a demonic symbol for all that is bad and scary about modern America. An instance of homosexual exploitation of an underage student can easily be used as “proof” that gays shouldn’t be allowed to teach—never mind that far more instances of inappropriate sexual behavior in schools are perpetrated by heterosexual males. Gays are barred from the military because of their potential to sexually corrupt it—yet scandals like Tailhook and Laurie Flynn prove that the military has plenty of sexual corruption already.

A televised depiction of a sympathetic homosexual character is highly unlikely to convert anyone to homosexuality. It may, however, encourage the viewer to be more accepting of homosexuals—to continue to accept a friend or family-member who “comes out.” And it is this acceptance that the American Family Association opposes. Why? That organization and the politicians who feed off the fear and anger they inspire need a “them” for “us” to blame our troubles on—to provide a smoke-screen for the fact that our leaders are not really doing anything about our society’s real problems.

There probably were witches in Massachusetts. It’s been established, however, that the motive for persecuting the Salem witches had more to do with the fact that, once arrested, the accused lost their land—which, not-so-coincidentally—was coveted by one of the forces behind the witch-hunt. There were probably communists in Hollywood and in America’s universities, too. The motive behind their ruination, however, had more to do with the fact that communists and labor unions worked together than it did national security.

Certainly, there are homosexuals, pornographers, and people who have abortions, too. However, the “perverts” and other anti-family-values people exist in far fewer numbers than the religionists would have us believe, and they have far less power. There is as much chance of America being over-run by pornographers, gays, and abortion-doctors as there was of the pinkos of handing America over to Kruschev—or of the Salem witches convincing their fellow Puritans to dance away hand-in-hand with the devil.

The average American family is not a traditional, Judeo-Christian family—if what is meant by that is an English-speaking, two-parent/first marriage nuclear family with a working father and stay-at-home mom, no homosexual members, and no atheistic or other non-Christian members. The American family of today is just as likely to be Hispanic, African-American, or Asian as it is to be white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Its members are likely to be Muslim, Buddhist, atheistic, or otherwise non-Judeo-Christian. It’s highly probable that the head of the household will be a single mom, and if not, it’s almost certain that mom works.

There are far greater threats to the American family than homosexuality, abortion, and pornography. Mom gets paid less than a man for doing the same job, for instance, and Dad works harder to earn less money. Junior can’t get a decent education in public school. Sis and her new husband won’t be able to afford to buy a decent house. The whole family lives in an economically troubled America with an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. These are threats to American family values.

Back to August/September '97 Issue