How they made “family values” this year’s hottest political issue.

These days, Washington’s three big profamily, Christian-based activist groups are reminiscent of singer Barbara Mandrell’s crooning a few years ago that she “was country when country wasn’t cool.” Despite this year’s partisan division over “family values,” and after years of toiling to persuade the news media and politicians to treat family concerns as at least something other than a backwoods song of political corniness, these lobbyists have found the profamily tune rising to the top of the pop charts.

And Concerned Women for America (CWA), Family Research Council (FRC), and Christian Coalition (CC) are struggling to maintain control of definitions and the agenda in the midst of their apparent success.

“By itself, the label profamily no longer means a thing,” Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, has stated bluntly. Even people intent on changing the traditional family to alternative structures have tried to incorporate the label, he warned. For example, Gregory King, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation’s largest homosexual advocacy group, told the Washington Times in August, “I personally think that most lesbian and gay Americans support traditional family and American values,” which he defined as “tolerance, concern, support, and a sense of community.”

Hardly any candidate this election year has seemed willing to venture forth without an umbrella of profamily rhetoric as protection in case of family-voter thundershowers. And chief among the cloud-seeders have been the Big Three profamily groups.

“No question, you can give them credit for the fact that ‘profamily’ is now fashionable,” said nationally syndicated columnist Michael McManus.

The Big Three groups are in virtual unanimity about the profamily agenda and see themselves as arbiters of it. But critics—including many Christians, and even some prolife evangelicals—have let it be known they are not willing to concede that role, suggesting that the Big Three have defined family issues too narrowly within politically conservative parameters and have neglected some of the most important issues concerning the health of the family.

“I weep when I see some of these groups tying these very good profamily causes into anti-gun control, opposing parental-leave legislation, and blocking efforts to raise wages,” commented Stephen Monsma, political science professor at Pepperdine University. “I’m just so afraid that although they started out with appropriate concerns, the danger of being co-opted by the secular Right—as for many liberal Christians by the Left—is very great.”

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Monsma, a former Democratic legislator from Michigan, is not altogether critical, however. “Since moving to California, I have a greater sense of the militant secularism for gay rights, pornography, and the like,” Monsma said. “There really is a Hollywood secular elite. So I compare the big profamily groups to the Northern generals in the Civil War. Even though they repeatedly fumbled and bumbled, it was still much better that they were out there fighting against slavery.”

A Reader’s Digest poll this year gave further credence to the idea that something like a profamily vote truly could be mobilized. It noted that, at nearly 100 million, married couples with children are the largest demographic voting bloc and that their attitudes on some of the family-value issues lean toward “traditional” by more than 20 percentage points difference from other adults. They also are far more likely to be churchgoers than any other demographic group.

The Big Three profamily groups have some key advantages in going after that bloc and continuing to claim the role of carrying the profamily banner defining the movement.

Distinct Roles

First, they provide a kind of solid institutional and unified front on most issues while each has a distinct function that complements the others.

• CWA stirs women’s activism as the largest grassroots women’s group in the country. It has a $10 million budget and a staff of 25 operating out of a building in the heart of the giant federal bureaucracy complex just southwest of the U.S. Capitol. Beverly LaHaye, who remains the chief executive, began the group as a San Diego effort in 1979. But it quickly achieved national status as the first major alternative women’s voice to feminist activists. Its motto is: “Protecting the rights of the family through prayer and action.”

• FRC is a think tank, churning out studies, daily reports, and quotes-on-demand for the news media. The nearly $3-million-a-year operation, with a staff of 25, is located in downtown Washington, D.C., a block from the National Press Building. Started in 1981, it has been a division of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family organization since 1988. Bauer describes it as a “conservative profamily organization.”

• CC is a new-fangled version of old-fashioned, get-out-the-targeted-vote political organizing. Its president, Pat Robertson, in 1989 spun the group out of the expertise and personnel accumulated during his 1988 run for the Republican presidential nomination. With plans to spend more this year than last year’s $4.3 million budget, it has a staff of 30 in its Chesapeake, Virginia, headquarters, which is organizationally unconnected to other Robertson-related entities in nearby Virginia Beach. All its efforts fall under the profamily umbrella, its leaders say.

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In The Rolodex

Another jump the Big Three have on would-be, profamily arbiters is that they were first to get their names in the issue files of journalists’ Rolodexes.

“Washington is a special-interest town, and almost every special interest has a high-powered lobbyist that speaks for it here,” Bauer said in an interview. In his years of government, including the Reagan White House, Bauer did not encounter many people representing the average American family. So two of the Big Three—and to a lesser extent, Christian Coalition—have set themselves up to be that voice.

Before Concerned Women and the Research Council, most journalists’ telephone card files were blank for where to turn for a quick quote from the traditional family point of view. Skimming recent news clips finds LaHaye and Bauer being quoted seemingly everywhere. The organizations clearly have established themselves as visible and credible enough that many news media do not think they have a balanced presentation of certain issues without comment from one of the Big Three spokespersons.

One example this year was in the release by the Children’s Defense Fund of a report on the worsening conditions of children in this country. They examined the statistics and focused on changes in government spending. But it neglected to give a full examination of the changes in illegitimate births and single-parent households and their effects on the child-poverty statistics. FRC, with its think-tank capabilities, immediately released the statistical analysis neglected by the Children’s Defense Fund and succeeded in adding that to the news media’s—and thus the public’s—view of the issue.

In approximately 80 percent of the instances in which Family Research Council is quoted, the call is initiated by the journalist, said Bill Mattox, policy analyst for the council: “The Rolodex function is working.”

Backed By Members

The Big Three also stake a claim for being the true voice of the profamily movement because they really do speak for a lot of people and have the organization to mobilize them.

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• CC’s bimonthly newspaper, Christian American, has 200,000 subscribers. Membership is up to 150,000. Their numbers are multiplied in political power by the members’ top activity, which is phone surveying of their precincts to identify voters who share their family views. Those people are put on file and called when one of their concerns is at stake in an election. The coalition has 31 statewide affiliate organizations and scores of local chapters in 47 states.

“Based on what I see in meetings across the country, our members are a real cross section,” said Guy Rodgers, national field director. They are a mix of ages, in a variety of family situations, and include both novices and veterans of political activity. He said heaviest membership appears to be in Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and North and South Carolina.

• FRC claims a monthly newsletter circulation of 125,000, from which most of its income is derived. Bauer sends a daily one-page memo to church leaders across the country. In addition, the think tank has access to millions of listeners to the Focus on the Family programs, including daily participation on the 5-minute and 15-minute “Family News in Focus” radio shows.

• CWA claims more than 600,000 (at least 80 percent of them women) as members on the basis of their financial support or participation in organizational activities during the last 18 months. They are organized in 1,200 “prayer/action chapters” in all 50 states where they also work on local and state issues. The national office stays in communication through the monthly magazine, Family Voice, with 200,000 subscribers, and through action alerts sent to chapters.

They and millions more now have an opportunity to hear from LaHaye daily during a live, half-hour radio show she broadcasts from a studio in her office.

The organization takes credit for generating 1.9 million post cards to TV network executives asking that they not open advertising to condoms. The main three networks still are barring the ads.

“I hear over and over, ‘You give us a chance to have a voice, those of us who never had one before,’ ” LaHaye said. “We represent millions of traditional women who care about their families, even though many may be working.”

Even after all its years of visibility, the group still has to throw its membership weight around at times to get at least equal opportunity with the National Organization for Women to speak for women. That was the case with the Supreme Court confirmation process for Judge Clarence Thomas. NOW and other feminist spokeswomen filled media stories with their claims to represent the disgust of American women for the nominee. LaHaye used her membership numbers to force her view into later stories that women, in fact, believed in Thomas as somebody sensitive to their concerns about traditional family values. Public opinion polls confirmed LaHaye’s claim.

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In a Washington Times article this year, Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, said about her adversary group on the other side of the abortion issue: “I always say a lot of people on the other side are paper tigers, but [CWA] wields more clout than they sometimes get credit for.”

Defining The Movement

No document defines the profamily movement. But a review of the Big Three’s past history, voter guides, publications, and interviews provides a fairly clear picture. The defining profamily issues appear to fall in seven categories.

1Abortion. An observer could read through the groups’ publications and be excused for thinking that profamily is just another name for prolife. Antiabortion concerns have tended to overshadow all other issues.

Ron Sider, of Evangelicals for Social Action in Philadelphia, has questioned the emphasis. Although he agrees with the groups’ prolife positions, he says abortion is more a result of disintegrating traditional families than a cause. It would make more sense to concentrate on the direct contributors to family disintegration, he suggests.

LaHaye admits that her group has stressed abortion but says that has been partly determined by what issues were coming up in Congress. She said she felt led a couple of years ago to switch gears some and to emphasize what “each issue has to do with children. Otherwise, our kids will never know an America like we know America.”

2Challenges to traditional moral values. These issues are at the core of the profamily groups’ identity. All three agree on what a true profamily politician should oppose: pornography, the promotion of homosexuality, condom distribution in schools, sexual education that does not emphasize abstinence, violent and sexually exploitative entertainment media, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The politician should also work to provide choices for parents in picking the kind of school that best imparts values and education to their children. And vigilance is necessary to protect against loss of religious freedom due to governmental intervention. A priority of CWA is to combat sexual and physical abuse of children and wives.

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The Reader’s Digest poll indicated that the groups are squarely in line with American families on many of these issues.

3Fairness to families. While legitimate family life can occur in other forms—sometimes out of necessity—the two-parent model is held as the bedrock upon which society must be built. Except when financially impossible, one parent (usually described as the mother) should remain home with younger children. The government should provide incentives for people to live the model family life and, at the least, should not make it difficult or discriminate against those who do.

The groups view the tax and welfare systems as biased toward single people and single parenting and support significant reforms. “The evidence is fairly overwhelming that we have constructed a welfare system that has made it easier for people to make bad decisions,” Bauer said. More galling to the groups is the taxation on families with children, which is far higher than in 1950 because the dependent exemption has lost more than two-thirds its value.

A recent issue in this category was federal child-care legislation. Profamily groups blasted the original proposals because all the benefits would go to mothers who worked, thereby creating another incentive for women not to be with their children. The groups claim a major victory in the change of language so that the child-care solution equally benefits mothers at home.

4Fiscal and governmental conservatism. It would appear that to be profamily under Big Three values one must oppose all higher taxes and nearly all forms of additional government spending. The groups tend also to equate profamily values with efforts to limit elected terms, congressional pay hikes, and franked mail.

All of that stretches the profamily umbrella too far for some evangelical critics. While appreciating the desire to limit government spending so as not to make the deficit worse for future generations, new government programs could be the answer in some cases for family problems, they argue.

David Medema, of the Christian JustLife political organization of Grand Rapids, complained that the “profamily groups are blinded by a distrust of government.… We believe there are times the government has to mediate the effects of the free-market system.… The groups back off from dealing with the systemic economic issues that cause mothers to go to work and children to be aborted.”

Monsma said groups attempt to marry the religiously felt profamily issues with political conservatism: “They may be very sincere in trying to be Christian, but when every time the position comes out right-wing Republican,” the ability to move masses of American voters is diminished.

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Bauer has allowed that the profamily movement indeed was born out of an alliance—“partly of conviction, partly of convenience”—with an already-existing conservative movement in the late seventies. But he added: “We are not an annex of the Republican National Committee.” He believes FRC is not so susceptible to the charge because it has been so critical of the Bush administration in the past year.

CC’s general position “would be that we would oppose any higher taxes,” field director Rodgers said. “The government is doing too many things. The bulk of taxes come from middle-class families.… There are good Christians who would say that the level of taxes isn’t a moral position. But it is so obvious from where we come that you can hardly argue with it.”

Is it difficult for Concerned Women to appear nonpartisan? “Extremely hard,” LaHaye admitted. “We have to be very careful with the FCC and the IRS. There are some Democrats on the Hill who know us and shake our hands. It’s not as easy with them as with the other party. But it is possible.”

5Conservative side issues. Two of Concerned Women’s major stances during the last decade were support for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. One of its 13 current top priority goals is to resist “increasing pressure to weaken the country’s defenses” and to “deploy the strongest national defense system in the world as a deterrent to foreign aggression.”

Christian Coalition’s California voter guide listed opposition to a handgun-purchase waiting period as a profamily position. Its national guide included an amendment to limit the “hiring quota” qualities of a civil-rights bill as one of the “key family values” before Congress during the last two years.

Critics regard these types of issues, with no obvious direct relationship to the family, as convincing evidence of the prevailing political ideology. Sider proclaimed “incredible irony” about the gun-control opposition in the face of terrible violence suffered by families from licentious handgun use.

CC recognizes that not all issues have the same moral weight, Rodgers said. “We recognize voters have different feelings. The handgun waiting period is one of those issues that there isn’t a consensus on in the Christian community. But it is a position that most of our people take because they tend to be conservative in general.… A lot of our people have decided … that violence is a problem from the breakdown of the family culture, not from the availability of handguns.”

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LaHaye said her group regards defense issues as essential: “We feel to protect the family we have to defend it nationally. Yes, we supported SDI. We felt it would protect families.”

She pointed out, though, that some of the group’s issues fail to draw overwhelming support from members. “When we’re in an issue they really support, they are gung-ho and send money,” she said. But a lot of members held back, and even complained, about the activism for the controversial and expensive SDI missile-defense system, she said, so “we didn’t do much more with SDI. Our contras work got pretty strong support. We were releasing a biweekly newsletter offering information not in the secular media.”

6Stances that seem backwards. No profamily stance has been as tough to explain as the Big Three’s full-force opposition to legislation that would require businesses to hold a job for anyone who took up to three months of unpaid leave for the birth of a baby or care of a sick child, spouse, or parent.

“I want to ask who is setting the agenda?” Sider said. Medema suggested he might know: “I think the organizations opposed parental leave to avoid conflict with their conservative patrons and the business community.” Medema’s and Sider’s evangelical, prolife organizations supported the measure.

But the Big Three’s leaders say their stance was entirely consistent with their principles not to bias the system toward working mothers. “I don’t like big government telling free enterprise what it must do,” LaHaye said. “We reject that every chance we get. We felt the bill would be unfair to women.”

The profamily groups worried that small businesses might decline to hire women of childbearing age to avoid the cost of potential parental leaves.

Based on research from FRC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they argued that employers would have to pay for the costs of the parental leave by cutting the pay and benefit opportunities for all workers. That would mean men workers whose wives chose to stay home with the children would be subsidizing women who chose not to stay home, they said.

The groups also objected that the law would teach parents that three months was long enough to stay home. They did not propose lengthening the leave, however, because the burden would be too great on businesses. What they did propose was a law that would require companies to give preference to workers who took up to six years of parental leave. They wouldn’t be guaranteed their old job back but would be placed first on the list for the next job for which they were qualified.

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7Missing issues. Perhaps as defining of the profamily movement as anything are the issues the groups do not emphasize or even handle. “What about tightening laws to push fathers to pay child support?” asked Sider. Several critics cited the need to move toward a high-skill/high-wage economy, noting that many mothers have to work because wages for nonsupervisory male workers have actually declined since 1973, while the cost of housing and other essentials has soared. That also has a role in why poor young men are not marrying young mothers at the rate of earlier decades, some said.

“If they researched why women have to work, it inevitably would lead to issues of wage structures and benefits,” Medema said.

But the Big Three’s voice on those issues is virtually silent.

The biggest gap in the profamily groups’ advocacy is in the area of divorce, said McManus. “The most important issue for American families is, How do you hold them together?… We have a 60 percent divorce rate, the highest in the world.” McManus marvels that the profamily groups not only have not placed top priority on changing no-fault divorce laws but essentially have ignored the issue. He salutes Family Research Council for recently beginning to address it seriously, though.

The fact that most divorce laws belong to the states is the reason FRC has been so slow on the issue, Mattox said: “We’re seeing the need to develop model state legislation and need state organizations to make it work.”

While serious work remains to be done on the profamily agenda, the Big Three have proved themselves effective communicators of a point of view that until recently was not often heard in Washington. Speaking out for families may not always be cool (especially after the election), but it is necessary.

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