Editors' Note: Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Iowa State University. He is author of Warren's Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press); and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge).
We heard recently of a bill introduced into the Wisconsin State Senate Committee on Public Health, Human Services, and Revenue by Senator Glenn Grothman, targeting single parents. Senate Bill 507, if passed, would require the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board to highlight that non-marital parenthood is a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect, even though fully one-third of families in Wisconsin are headed by single parents.
According to a 2009 US Census Bureau report, there are approximately 13.7 million single parents nationwide, with single mothers passing single fathers by a five to one ratio. In addition, an estimated 1.4 million children (almost one child in twenty) live in a household headed by their grandparent with no parent present in the home.
I remember back to the early 1990s, when residents in a section of Los Angeles erupted following the acquittal of police officers accused of exerting excessive force against motorist Rodney King. A few weeks later, the fictional TV character, Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, gave birth. Vice President Dan Quayle, in his own inimical fashion, concluded that the riots in Los Angeles were caused by a deterioration of "traditional family values" as represented by the unmarried Murphy Brown.
Ross Parot, Texas billionaire and would-be independent presidential candidate, declared on ABC's 20/20 in 1992 before his withdrawal from the race that if elected he would not appoint "adulterers or homosexuals" to high position of government. "No, I don't want anybody there that will be at a point of controversy with the American people," said Perot. "It will distract from the work to be done."
In the fall of 2011, as I watched from my home in Ames, Iowa the political TV ads by the candidates running in the all-important first-in-the-nation Republican Iowa Caucuses, a recurring theme emerged. In their attempts to appeal to the estimated 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucus goers who define themselves as Evangelical Christians, most of the candidates emphasized their "so-called Christian family values," which, by the way, opposed marriage for same-sex couples and LGBT members of the U.S. military. We can see this theme most clearly exhibited in Texas Governor Rick Perry's TV ad "Strong":
I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.
In addition, political and theocratic Right groups attempt to ban books on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes geared to students over the accusation that these books do not promote "traditional family values."
One does not have to look far to see a basic confusion (translated as "deception") in terminology between "family" (denoting a configuration of individuals) and "values" (related to intrinsic human principles and qualities). In addition, the term "traditional family" - currently defined as a family constellation composed of two married parents (a man and a woman) with birth children - is even more problematic because it is a relatively modern invention constructed during the rise of the industrial age. The Right holds it up as THE standard against which all others are judged, even though a 2000 U.S. Census Bureau report found that a mere 24.1 percent of children currently reside within a "nuclear family" with a married birth mother and family who live with them. This is a drop from a relatively low 40.3 percent in 1970 (Williams, B., Sawyer, S. C., Wahlstrom, C. M. (2005). Marriage, families, and intimate relationships. Boston: Pearson).
In truth, the concept of "traditional family values," as used by the political and theocratic Right, has nothing to do with "tradition," with "family," or even with "values." It has more to do with politics, with separating people into distinct and discrete camps of "us" versus "them," while blaming and scapegoating "them" for the problems facing our country and our world.
At one time, the Right scapegoated "Communism" and the "Communists" using scare tactics to recruit members into its organizations and bring donations in to fill its war chests. Now, since the relative demise of world Communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Right needs other villains to scapegoat to further its own political agendas, and has thus targeted those who fall outside its current definition of the "traditional family," which includes single parents, extended family as guardians, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, those who fall along the transgender spectrum, people who favor and advocate for protecting women's reproductive freedoms, and even heterosexuals who either choose not to marry or choose not to bear children.
These politicians, educators, and clergy seem somehow to have forgotten the warning given by poet Walt Whitman: "I say of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn - they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account."
We must as a society, then, expand the definition and remove from our vocabulary words that delineate people according to relationship status, for example, the value-laden terms "unwed mother," "illegitimacy" and "illegitimate child," "bastard child," "out of wedlock," "bachelor," "old maid," "Miss," "Mrs.," and "traditional family" - and consign these words to the archives of history because when currently used, they separate people from one another and result in lowered self-esteem, marginalization, and demonization.
Human diversity is a true gift as evidenced by the fact that "families" come in a great variety of packages, with differing shapes and sizes, colors, and wrappings. If, however, we still need to cling to a common definition of "family," I would remind us of one offered by singers/songwriters, Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips, who tell us that "The definition's plain for anyone to see. Love is all it takes to make a family."