Family Values Rise Above Political Hoopla

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

Former Vice President Dan Quayle doesn't apologize for his controversial criticism 10 years ago of the trend of fatherless households portrayed on television. His feelings, expressed in response to a "Murphy Brown" storyline about a single woman having a baby, haven't changed. "I didn't think that talking about having two [parents] rather than one was that controversial. I thought it was just common sense," Quayle told National Press Club members earlier this month. Although he took a lot of criticism from people who didn't feel single motherhood should be pilloried, he said his comments put the "values debate" at the forefront of American conversation, and he is right. The debate is inescapable.

During every election year in the United States, the notion of "family values" becomes a useful tool for politicians. Accusations of attempts to destroy families, or at least American family values, are tossed back and forth between political parties like a hot potato. However, Gallup data indicate that despite the political hoopla over the destruction of family values, most Americans believe that their own families' values are quite strong: a June 2001 Gallup poll* found 96% of U.S. adults "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with their family life. In contrast, in an April 2002 Gallup poll, "breakdown of the family/values" was mentioned spontaneously by less than 2% of respondents when asked to name the most important problem facing the country today. Most Americans seem to see family values as an important issue, but not necessarily as the most important problem in society.

Religion as a Family Value

Many politicians certainly view religion as a key family value, and the American public seems to agree. In a 2000 Gallup survey for the American Bible Society (ABS)**, Americans were asked what activity strengthens families most. A plurality of Americans (24%) said, "attend church or religious activities together." Several other activities were suggested, several of them religious. Americans suggested "pray together" (18%), "read the scriptures together" (4%), and "religious activities" (1%).

Only 14% of Americans say they never attend church or synagogue, according to an April 2002 Gallup poll. Fifty-seven percent (57%) attend church or synagogue at least once a month, and about a third (32%) go every week. In March 2002, 85% of Americans said that religion is "very" or "fairly" important in their lives. Fifty-four percent (54%) of teens are involved, or would like to be, with a church group or Sunday school***. (See "Religious Activity, Teen-Style" in Related Items.)

Other Family Activities

Dr. Mary Pipher, best-selling author of The Shelter of Each Other, said that adults with happy family memories remember three things: family meals, family vacations and time outdoors. In fact, she says, family meals are "the core curriculum in the school of civilized discourse." Americans support that curriculum, and a majority of them seem to be following it. According to the ABS survey, the second most common suggestion for strengthening families (after "attend church or religious activities together") was "eat at least one meal a day together" (22%). In a December 2001 Gallup poll, a plurality of Americans with children under age 18 (38%) said they eat together every night of the week, and another 31% eat together five or six nights a week. A majority (70%) of those with children took a vacation outside the home some time in the past year.

Key Point

The supposed destruction of the American family has long been a cornerstone of many political agendas, and the media reinforces the impression that American family values leave much to be desired. But it appears that Americans are more content with the values of their own families than one might expect. The vast majority of Americans are satisfied with their family lives. Religious activities are very important to a large proportion of American families, and activities such as eating and vacationing together are regular occurrences in most households.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of approximately 1,000 adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3%. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

**Findings are based on telephone interviews conducted in October 2000 with a representative national sample of 1,006 adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.

***Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national cross section of 454 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted July through September 2001. For this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5%.

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