Chapter 5 of Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were discusses how the turn toward "family values" in the U.S. resulted in a turn away from community values and encourged consumerism and selfishness.
The turn toward family values in the U.S. signals a break from the previous conventional wisdom that public values were superior to private values of love and personal nurturance (p. 96). The goal to spend more time with one's family was not an important one to our nation's founders (p. 96). Coontz continues:
[T]he elevation of family life to the center of morality sanctioned a rising degree of consumerism and selfishness within the middle class, by distinguishing its legitimate spending from the "irresponsible" dissipation of others.
(p. 109). Post-Civil War, Christian theology helped with this move toward private, family morals. "The popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher gradually shifted his message after the Civil War from emphasis on the corruptions of wealth and urban life to a defense of private domesticity" (p. 109). Spending money on your family meant, to Beecher, that children's lives would be improved.
I criticized U.S. Christianity's role in the turn toward individualistic family values when I left behind conversative politics and Christianity. Al Hsu's The Suburban Christian, Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution, and Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith all came together in a great way to demonstrate that U.S. Christians' "family values" do not jive with the Gospel.
I wrote about Hsu's book here:
I tend to notice alternative ways of thinking about families, mainly because one political/religious group in our country has a monolopy on "family." They think they get to define and defend it. What bothers me most is some say their focus on the family is Christian-based, when really their notion of family comes from our culture or even capitalism. Since I'm currently reading The Suburban Christian by Al Hsu, a few sections regarding family jumped out at me.
The very layout of suburbia is driven by American individualism. Each family is to have its own home, yard, transportation etc. Hsu notes, "Inherent to American suburbia is an emphasis on the pursuit of individual homeownership rather than a communal or corporate vision of civic community" (39).
[I]t seems truly having family values involves more than making sure movies don't have sex scenes or curse words. It means more than focusing on "sanctity of marriage" or "sanctity of life." Espousing family values that correspond with the Gospel may mean practicing things that hit closer to home. Sure, it would be easy for me to parrot the talking points of James Dobson, but thinking about my living space in terms of economic justice and community is a different story!
I've pondered "a new vision of family," wondering if we as Christians have used the idea of family as sort of an exclusive tribalism:
Recently I’ve been reading Shane Claiborne and Anne Lamott. A theme in both of their books that I’ve read centers on family—but a different and broader sense of family. Both mention Jesus’ (and Gandhi’s) teachings—that to be saved means to see everyone on earth as family. Claiborne, in The Irresistible Revolution, talks about a “vision of family that is larger than biology or nationalism” (163). Evangelicals like to use the term “born again.” What a great way to think about being born into a global family! Claiborne asks what it means to be born again into a family where our brothers and sisters are starving to death. In the “dysfunctional family of Yahweh,” what does it mean for churches to spend insane amounts of money on maintaining/building church buildings when our family members are going without? A good biological father would never let his children starve while he fancies up his house. Allowing people to go hungry, without decent housing, or without healthcare would be difficult if we thought of them as family.
In Scripture, the ever-subversive Jesus doesn’t really come across as pro-traditional family. He offers a new way to think about family, one that transcends geographical and biological lines.
What Coontz calls a "turn toward home" has resulted in a "truncated sense of larger social obligations and commitments" (p. 120). The turn toward private morality and individualism in U.S. evangelicalism mirrors the larger trend that Coontz explores. David Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism, reveals the damaging individualism of U.S. evangelicalism. For example, Enron and WorldCom CEO's, heavily involved in the church and necessarily great family men, committed acts of greed and plunder on a large scale.
Because of the emphasis on private moral values, U.S. evangelical Christianity suffers from a disconnect between private and public, home and community. Coontz does an excellent job of showing how an emphasis on family values actually denigrates community values and fosters selfishness. It's too bad that many U.S. Christians have been unable to critique this characteristic of our culture, instead absorbing it completely. Perhaps we need to change course and figure out how to follow the Jesus who was subversively not a proponent of what we now call traditional, U.S. family values. Would Jesus promote "family values"? Probably not the way we've framed them here in the U.S.