Shortly after the city of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples and within days of President Bush’s announcement proposing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Aaron Brown interviewed Dr. James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, on CNN’s Newsnight. In the interview, Dobson stated his view that allowing gay marriage would lead to the breakdown of the family and ultimately harm American and Western society. Brown several times asked Dobson how gay marriage harmed straight family life and American culture. To Dobson, the answer seemed self-evident, and he and Brown clearly became frustrated with their inability to communicate with one another. (“Brown: Let me—I’m really working hard at understanding this, truly… Dobson: I’m trying real hard to explain it to you here. Brown: I know you are. And I appreciate it. Dobson: And I don’t think you’re listening to me. Brown: I’m listening to every word, sir. That’s not fair.”) Finally Dobson said that gay marriage would lead to unstable families where spouses would leave one another, and children, especially boys, needed stability to grow into healthy adults.

Clearly, as this encounter illustrates, family is important to evangelicals. The positions politicians take on social issues related to family life—traditional family values, gay marriage, pornography, abortion, and stem-cell research—will impact the support they receive from evangelical voters at the polls this November. But do evangelicals understand why such issues are of critical importance to them? Yes, the Bible frequently addresses the issue of marriage, family, and sexuality. But why have they taken on political consequence? Is it merely that evangelicals are using legislative means to reverse the increasing pluralism in America and force society to conform to biblical standards (which Stanley Hauerwas would argue is the wrong agenda for Christians to pursue) or that the psychological health of children raised by homosexual parents is at stake (if so, then divorce, which is as widespread among Christians as non-Christians, long ago opened the door for producing unhealthy adults)? Or is there more to it than politics and psychology? It is important to understand why family matters are so significant to evangelicals, for only then is it possible to evaluate whether they have achieved their goals.

Dobson’s final comment hints at what more is at stake: not just family stability, but a stable civil society for families to live in. Since the time of Constantine, the family has been considered one of the three primary bedrocks for the maintenance of civil society (the other two being the church and government). Family has been considered a bulwark against rampant individualism, unbridled male aggression and unchecked competition. It also is seen as promoting discipline and connecting individuals to a community. Many arguments against feminism, heterosexual divorce and promiscuity and homosexual unions reflect this by focusing on the role that unrestrained sexuality would play in the downfall of civilized society. Evangelicals, then, have dual stakes in supporting strong families: the biblical one and a practical, social one to maintain a stable civil society, which will enable families and churches to thrive and, in turn, serve the larger community. The family, thus, has become the principal avenue by which evangelicals work to preserve civility.

Such a conclusion does not indicate what form, however, support for family values ought to take. Christians need not (Hauerwas argues, ought not) resort primarily to a defensive stance manifested through legislative solutions. Yet most evangelicals take predictable, often unconsidered, conservative, political positions on issues like women’s roles, abortion, and gay rights as means for supporting and strengthening the family—though not always consistently. Thus evangelicals have expended an incredible amount of energy attempting to pass legislation outlawing abortion, limiting pornography and banning gay marriage. These efforts, however, have seen little success. (In fact, most Christian efforts to legislate morality have failed in American history: temperance, the teaching of creationism in public schools, prayer in school. As Hauerwas rightly points out, Christians’ private efforts—hospice, orphanages, prison reform, etc.—have been more successful at influencing society.) At the same time, the use of pornography, divorce, and the questionable creation of excess embryonic life have become pernicious problems in the evangelical community. (The latter issue is most likely a direct result of evangelical passion for a particular notion of family and increasing individualism that leads to a desire for one’s own physical off-spring. Ethicist Amy Laura Hall, however, has put well her objection to this: “The irreproducible gift of Christ must shape the way we think about procreation. The prayer of Hannah cannot be the prayer of the Christian woman because the child on whom our hope depends has already been born and has become our brother. The supposedly natural, desperate desire to bear a particular, promised child may be changed by our faith in the birth of a baby boy in an inauspicious manger in Bethlehem.”)

Christians also need not resort to promoting a particular notion of the “traditional” family (as it has come to be accepted in American evangelicalism) as their primary method of strengthening civil society. Sociologists and historians have shown, in fact, that the “traditional” Christian family (one that is emotionally nurturing, with two parents, of which only the father is employed outside the home, the mother’s attention being focused on rearing the children) is actually novel. By contrast, according to James Davison Hunter, from the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century the most important function of the family was survival. Thus, it was defined more as an economic enterprise than an emotional one. Later, Victorian society believed that women had a natural aptitude for morality and keeping the home was given sacred value. The Industrial Revolution finished the process of a split between the public and private by removing meaningful work from the home. Men began to work outside the home as wage-earners, and women no longer contributed to the family income, nor did they need to spend as much time to maintain their families due to advances in medicine, and the production of food and basic consumer goods. Hunter concluded that evangelicals have come to view the Victorian model of family as the model of a “traditional,” meaning “biblical,” family.

Another sociologist, Sally K. Gallagher, has recently found that, although evangelical ideology remains committed to a “traditional” family model with the husband as head-of-the-household, few marriages actually operate this way. Evangelical wives are as likely to be employed outside the home as American women generally and rarely do husbands make unilateral decisions or wives submit in silence. Yet, the people Gallagher interviewed explained that they hold to a concept of male leadership since to abandon it would result in marital infidelity, family break-down, and the moral break-down of society. Gallagher argues, however, that the disjuncture between evangelical ideology and practice is not merely a Victorian holdover and pragmatic (though it is both of these). More importantly, she concludes, gender and family issues serve as a symbolic, theological boundary to set evangelicals apart from the outside world, both secular and religious, thus allowing people who are in reality comfortable insiders in American culture (educated, middle-class, technologically savvy consumers) to remain symbolically on the outside as prophetic witnesses to the world.

Perhaps, though, evangelicals need to consider whether there is a better way to witness to the world and bolster civil society than by a blanket opposition to “feminism” and trying to maintain “traditional” family values. Are there better ways to oppose individualism, check competition, promote discipline and connect individuals to a community? Certainly extreme forms of feminism promote individualism, but a more fundamental source of individualism and competition is our pervasive consumer economy, in which evangelicals heartily participate. (Technology, which evangelicals embrace as a method of spreading the Gospel, is another insidious cause of individualism because of its tendency to isolate individuals from real, non-selective community involvement.) Martial fidelity and commitment to family may encourage discipline, but this proves true whether it is based on a “traditional” or “egalitarian” model, as Gallagher and others have shown. And rather than advocating for male “headship” and a limited role for women in the home and church, a better way to draw people in contemporary society into the community of faith is to encourage women to use their gifts as agents of Christ and for the benefit of the common good.

Evangelicals will go to the polls in November and overwhelmingly will vote Republican. Without these votes George W. Bush would not have won in 2000 and will not be able to win in 2004. It is time to wonder if voting, however, is enough civic involvement to counter the tilt toward incivility in our society or whether it is time, as thinking believers, to work in new ways to renew the community of faith and serve the welfare of the common good.