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What Are “Family Values”?

The anti-abortion movement and Religious Right have a number of similarities, notably their opposition of abortion rights, but they define themselves differently. While the anti-abortion movement “describes itself as the pro-life movement, […] the [Religious Right] defines itself as pro-family” and takes on issues more far reaching than abortion alone20. The 1970s gave rise to more liberal divorce laws, which affected conservative Christian families in almost equal number as the rest of the American population. Feminism took the blame for many of these changes that were seen as antithetical to the biblical family. No-fault divorce made it easier for marriages to dissolve, creating “broken” families. Birth control and access to safe, legal abortions allowed women sexual freedom with less worry about becoming pregnant or having to carry an unwanted pregnancy. The ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment would have protected women in the public sphere from discrimination because of gender.

In addition to opposing abortion, the Religious Right contends that “skyrocketing ‘out of wedlock births’ [are] ‘ripping apart our nations social fabric’”21. They seem to have created a catch-22 for themselves; by opposing abortion (and often contraception, as well), they give women little recourse should they accidentally become pregnant outside the context of marriage. Their solution to this problem is to promote abstinence only sex education for middle and high school aged children.

A number of abstinence only sex education programs include “virginity pledges,” in which students sign a document, or in some cases wear a ring, in order to pledge that they will not have sex until marriage. These pledges are distinctly religious in nature, despite being incorporated into federally funded sex education programs. In fact, the two most prolific organizations promoting virginity pledges are overtly Christian. True Love Waits is run by Lifeway Student Ministry, and has students sign a pledge stating:

“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship”22.

The Silver Ring Thing calls itself a “para-church youth ministry” and states that itsmission is “to motivate, educate, support and transform generations of young people to embrace a lifestyle of Christ-centered sexual abstinence until marriage” in order “to create a culture shift in America where abstinence becomes the norm again rather than the exception.”23 The assertion that abstinence was the norm, rather than the exception, in previous generations is, in reality, a nostalgic idealization of the past, rather than a reflection of the truth24. The Sexual Revolution may have made non-marital sex more acceptable, but young women had been having sex outside of marriage long before the 1960s. Instead of reflecting American cultural norms, Silver Ring Thing and like-minded organizations seek to recreate an history of sexual purity that never truly existed. Their efforts to bring conservative Christian morals into the public sphere have been problematic. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts brought suit against the United States Department of Health and Human Services for providing federal funds to the Silver Ring Thing, alleging that the virginity pledge presented to students in a three hour multi- media presentation is “permeated with religion” and “is a highly religious program that promotes Christianity”25.

The prevalence of these Christian-based programs touting the virtues of abstinence speaks to the conservative Christian concern regarding sexual immorality. Even though the Sexual Revolution may not have directly caused more women to have non-marital sex, it did create an environment in which they could be more open about sexuality and sexual pleasure. By defying the traditional mandates to be obedient and sexually demure, women of the Sexual Revolution spurred conservative Christians to embrace sexuality as a primary political issue. Abortion, generally framed as murder by conservative Christian groups, is not considered by them to be a valid option for women who become pregnant outside of marriage. Before the advent of reasonably reliable birth control, single women who became pregnant either quickly married, found someone to perform an abortion illegally, or were sent away until they gave birth and the child had been adopted. Both the pill and legalized abortion changed that. Women could have sex without facing the physical consequences. The threat to Christian morality was even more ominous than before, because women could act “immorally” and their family members and religious leaders might never know. They had lost control over the sexual purity of women.

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20. Durham p. 85.
21. Durham p. 94.
22. “Welcome to True Love Waits,” Lifeway Ministries. (Retrieved 2 May 2010).
23. “What is Silverringthing?” (Retrieved 2 My 2010).
24. Elizabeth Alice Clement, Love For Sale (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 2006) p. 13.
25. ACLU of Massachusetts v. Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (This case was never assigned a court case number as it was settled out of court.)