FactChecker: Who Really Started the Family ‘Culture War’?

Only a hermit would be unaware of, much less have an opinion on, the contemporary culture war smoldering over the last few decades in America, a spirited punch ‘em-up political and social debate on the state of the family and its importance to social cohesion and community well-being.

Ask anyone—even leading journalists and intellectuals—about the origins of this debate, and you will get its time-frame of its birth as the late 1970s/early 1980s and the names Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson as some of its most prominent founders.

This is common knowledge. But is it correct?

It is not. The contemporary culture war on the family was,

1) not started in the late 70s/early 80s

2) not started by religious conservatives, or religious folk at all

3) not started by Republicans

So when and how was the first shot fired in the modern culture war on family?

From an interesting source. It was in March 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson’s assistant secretary of labor, the young Daniel Patrick Moynihan, released his groundbreaking research report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.

Full of charts, graphs and concerning sociological data, it was a shout from the roof of the White House that important parts of our society were facing increased trouble and hardship because of one central but unrecognized problem: the dramatic decline of the married, two-parent family. The preface of the report—which came to be known as “The Moynihan Report”—lamented,

The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence—not final, but powerfully persuasive—is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. . . . So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.

He explained—just after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—that our nation’s progress toward full civil rights for African Americans and a better opportunity for earning a part of the American Dream, would either rise or fall with the cohesion of the family in urban black America.

And this started a culture war over the family as explosive and divisive as at any subsequent time. Perhaps even more.

Criticism of Moynihan’s report was fierce, immediate, unanticipated, and highly personal. Upon the report’s release, he was called a racist by many, and a noted social historian of the time described the report’s effect as “one of the most turbulent public controversies ever generated by a social scientists.” The blowback was so turbulent that Moynihan sunk into deep and sustained depression.

President Johnson gave a famous speech based on the report at Howard University in the summer of 1965, making clear that,

The family is the cornerstone of society. More than any other force it shapes the attitudes, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of children. When the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale, the community itself is crippled.

Sounds a good deal like the pulpit thundering of either Falwell or Dobson, not a President in the mid-60s. But Johnson also faced tremendous criticism for his judgmental “moralizing” on the family and soon backed away from Moynihan, the report, and the topic itself.

Writing to a fellow White House aide months after the report’s release, Moynihan noted its general reception in dramatic imagery, “If my head were sticking on a pike at the South-West Gate to the White House grounds, the impression [of disdain toward me and the report] would hardly be greater.”

Beyond the name-calling and personal accusations, the larger social debate it launched was seismic. James Patterson, in his 2010 book Freedom Is Not Enough, which explores the political waves the report stirred up even to the Obama administration, explained that more than 50 books and 500 journal articles appeared between 1965 and 1980 on the topics presented in the Moynihan Report.

Today, however, opinion about the Moynihan report has thankfully changed. As James Q. Wilson, the dean of modern social scientists, explained how it was originally “denounced left and right by academics . . . now it is generally regarded to be right on the mark.”

On the 40th anniversary of the report, Ellis Cose in Newsweek noted that,

Moynihan’s report died a public death—a victim of ideological politics, misleading press coverage and the report’s own loaded language. Yet, the truth is that Moynihan was onto something—just not precisely what he thought he was.

Finally, what’s very disturbing is that the family trends that gave Moynihan such concern have only gotten dramatically worse. This should concern each of us who are called to love our neighbors, because the health and strength of family has a profound effect on personal and societal well-being. The rate of unmarried births to white women is now higher than it was for black women when the report was released, 29 percent and 25 percent respectively. That rate is sadly 72 percent today in the African American community. And it is undeniable how much harm this has caused for our nation and the fortunes of our various communities.

Whether or not the term “culture war” is helpful, the work it has sought to accomplish on behalf of the family and our nation is important, so important both Democrats and Republicans have for some time been concerned about it.

  • http://cause-of-our-joy.blogspot.com Leticia Velasquez

    This is fascinating. I heard that Jesse Jackson got his start as a pro-life, pro-family activist in New York. His father was a white businessman who gave his black mother money to ‘take care of it’.
    Jesse sold out to run for president in 1980. Johnson sold out for the same reason; to get the black and liberal vote.The black community has suffered immeasurable damage as a result. The Democratic Party is using the misery of the black community to stay in power.
    Just before I was married, I worked with black teens who were felons and pursuing a GED, they had never met a married person in their lives. This was 1991.

    Now foolish white women are imitating them. And the women and children are the victims of the chaos which ensues.
    Listen to Bishop Harry Jackson in this issue. http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/being-pro-life/videos/5716257/title/bishop-harry-jackson-pro-life-comments

  • http://Blog.ex-ps.com Tyler Fitch

    This is a very interesting article and it calls attention to the fact that the “culture wars” predate the 70’s as is the common misconception. It also calls attentions to the importance of the family.

    I think one of the undertones of the article is that somehow the future culture warriors such as Falwell or Robertson are validated because an a-religious party came to the same correct conclusion as they did, and they were just carrying on the valid cause.

    However, we can see through history now that said cultural warriors not only failed at fixing the family (as shown by African American numbers in the article), they perpetuated and exacerbated the problem for future Christian engagement with culture.

    To quote James Davidson Hunter –
    “The deeper irony is that in the Christian faith, one has the possibility of autonomous institutions and practices, both in judgment and in affirmation that could be a source of ideals and values that could elevate politics to more than a quest for power, but the consequence of the whole hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been in effect to reduce Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups. The political engagement of the various Christian groups is certainly legal, but in ways that are undoubtedly unintended, it has also been counterproductive to the ends to which they aspire.”

    “What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.”

    So even though the article doesn’t explicitly say that the culture warriors on the right are pursuing a worthy cause, I would like to at least voice one opinion from a Christian that they are going about it the wrong way. As a young professional Christian, I am constantly battling the stereotype of political cultural warrior.

    Secondly, a reading of the 1960’s book by Richard Hofstadter Anti-Intellectualism in American Life would indicate that culture wars were brewing much earlier than this article would indicate. The Moynihan article may be one of the first explicit examples of the degradation of the American Family, but the split between secular liberalism and Christian conservatism had occurred much earlier.

    • Brian Considine

      Tyler, good stuff. It’s great to see a “young professional Christian” who is such a good thinking Christian. We need many more like you. God bless.

  • Knut E. Lauritzen

    Well written, thanks for sharing! When will people admit that the laws of / for life that our heavenly Father gave us, explained & strengthened through his beloved son, the Lord Yeshua, are good and right for all?

    • http://twitter.com/natemup Nate


      We as Christians must learn to apply the Biblical revelation of universal human sinfulness—the inability to see sin for what it is apart from God’s opening their blinded eyes to the Gospel—to our politics. We must preach the Gospel as the ONLY solution for societal ills caused by wicked human hearts, and at the same time realize that not everyone will believe our message (that is, most societal ills will continue and worsen).

      Jesus FULFILLED the Law, so attempting to implement it through politics will do no good for those whose hands are tied by Satan.

  • greyham28

    Tyler, I think I agree with you completely. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

    Knut, I do not believe that that will ever happen. Not everyone accepts the same God, and even amongst those that share your faith, there is significant controversy. Comments like yours do not strike me as coming from a loving, Christian place. We must accept individuals as they are–as I believe Jesus would–and respond with love & understanding, not arrogance.

    I also want to add that I am beginning to come to the conclusion that, whatever the motivations for drug control were, the war on drugs is somewhat–perhaps largely–to blame for the dissolution of strong familial bonds. Whether a person has a right to ingest substances of their choice, I have recently been persuaded by evidence that the legal enforcement of drug laws disproportionately affects minorities relative to drug use. What good is a marriage if one of the parents is in prison? And how much of a father can a man be when he can’t get a job because he has to check the box marked “Convicted of a felony”?

    It can be hard to take an honest look at the evidence because most of the people making this argument are making many false claims as well–and in particularly irksome ways. But, I have been persuaded: Whatever the social ills of drug use, the social ills of drug prohibition are far larger. Perhaps this is one area where our “culture war” can come to an end, and perhaps we can begin to heal some wounds. And some lives.

    • Darren Blair

      There’s a glitch in your hypothesis: you discount the prospect of efforts to discourage drug use in the first place.

      Right now, the culture says “drugs are awesome!”. If we can change that part of the culture, then arrest rates won’t be such an issue since there should be fewer people for the cops to have to arrest.

      • Knut E. Lauritzen

        Quote: “Whatever the social ills of drug use, the social ills of drug prohibition are far larger.”
        This is one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve ever met. For 40 years I’ve (with great interest) read & heard about these problems, but not one has ever even tried to establish such a case. Could I have missed so many reports and statistics?

  • FISH

    Moynihan’s report sounds precisely like what Bill Cosby has been saying in the more recent years.

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