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No Monopoly on Family Values

By E. J. Dionne

WASHINGTON -- We need to have a long talk about the meaning of "family values.''

The "we'' here is our country, and the discussion should be encouraged by the shameful behavior of Mark Foley and the reaction, or non-reaction, of the House Republican leadership.

Over the next few weeks, the argument will be partisan in nature because that's what always happens during an election. Democrats will rightly argue that the Republican brass seemed far more interested in ignoring Foley than in doing anything that might endanger their grip on power. The Republicans should pay a price, and I suspect they will.

But in the long run, this episode should be our national opportunity to break free from empty, politically driven rhetoric that has nothing to do with strengthening families and everything to do with electoral advantages.

Right out of the box, the widespread reaction to the Foley episode was that it would hurt the Republicans with their "base'' of Christian and moral conservatives.

Well, yes it will. But the implication here is that those of us who are not conservatives might somehow be less affected by what Foley did. Excuse me, but I am a married father of three children and that's more important to me than the fact that I am a liberal. Our kids matter infinitely more to my wife and me than the results of an election, even an election we both care a lot about.

Like just about every parent I know, I was horrified by this episode because I couldn't believe that the politicians involved didn't themselves think first not as politicians, but as parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles when they learned of Foley's special interest in a page.

"Family values'' is more than a political slogan to be pulled off the shelf at election time. Republicans and conservatives do not have a monopoly on the commitments behind the phrase. For too long liberals have reacted against the idea of "family values'' because they wrongly accepted it as a conservatives-only slogan. And many liberals who lead thoroughly old-fashioned, child-centered, family-oriented lives have not been willing to integrate that fact into the way they talk about policy.

Some liberals have been reluctant to embrace "family values'' because they see the phrase as implying a negative attitude toward single people or gays or lesbians. But the Foley case should demonstrate that the issue here is not about homosexuality. It is about whether adults, straight and gay alike, behave responsibly toward the young.

The fact that Foley is gay is not the issue. What should upset us are the inappropriate ways in which he expressed his sexuality. We would be condemning him if he had been a 52-year-old heterosexual making similar come-ons to underage females. And, yes, we should be unapologetically judgmental about such things.

And, by the way, isn't it strange that politicians who expressed moral objections to the desire of adult gays and lesbians to marry seemed to take the Foley matter so lightly when it first came to their attention? Where is the morality here?

I would ask my friends who are Christian conservatives to think about this. But I'd also ask my liberal friends to be more willing to come out as family-oriented people. Gay marriage is not the greatest threat to the heterosexual family. Misbehavior and irresponsibility by married heterosexuals do far more damage to families and children. Liberals should be unafraid to embrace the language of personal responsibility. In my experience, there's not a dime's worth of difference between my morally conservative friends and neighbors and me in our attitudes toward the obligations of parenthood.

And let economic liberals and moral conservatives come together to discuss how our society has made it more difficult for parents to do the job right. The family values issues that we can do the most about through government and private-sector policies include how we organize work, how we provide for parental leave time, how we schedule the school day, how we guarantee medical benefits -- in short, how we can make it easier for mothers and fathers alike to juggle their responsibilities.

You might say that these questions are far afield from the Foley scandal. They are not.

The issue in the Foley case, at root, is no different from the issues raised by the great array of policy questions Congress faces all the time: When confronted with an issue, do politicians focus on narrow political imperatives, or do they care most about the well-being of children and families? The politicians should have asked that question in Foley's case, and they should ask it about a lot of other issues, too.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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