Washington — Family issues, particularly those related to educating and rearing children, are emerging as key factors in American politics. Ronald Reagan has long carried the banner. And he will continue to push Congress to enact controversial family-related legislation, including a school prayer bill, and to take an active stance against abortion. The President is also expected to take up the cudgels for scholastic reform, prodded by recent high-level reports on the lack of quality education in the United States.
Democratic presidential candidates have also indicated they won't be outdone on family issues. Former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale and Sen. Alan Cranston of California have long fought for laws to help indigent families, shore up foster care, and facilitate adoptions of hard-to-place children. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio is seen as a family advocate with strong religious views.
Meanwhile, the American family itself is undergoing a transformation of sorts. Changes in population trends, marriage and divorce mores, attitudes toward drug and alcohol use, schooling priorities, and the work ethic are etching a new profile of family life.
These assessments come from politicians, clergy, scholars, census statisticians, family advocates, and other US thought leaders who met with 17 writers and editors here for several days under the auspices of the Washington Journalism Center. The general topic was America's changing social and religious values.
One of those present, Rep. George Miller (D) of California, insists that families are increasing in political importance. He predicts that one or both major political parties will adopt a family-and-children agenda for the '84 elections.
Mr. Miller is chairman of the newly formed House Select Committee on Children , Youth, and Families, which will spotlight major problems - such as the lack of proper child care, drug use in schools, and the challenges of single parenthood - for lawmakers on a variety of committees that deal with family issues.
The Washington seminar dealt with several major areas of concern related to family life, among them:
Education. Richard Berendzen, president of American University, lays significant blame on the family for failure of many children to acquire needed learning skills. He generally agrees with recent reports scoring the government for deficiencies in the educational system. But he also stresses that families have allowed television to fill a void for their children and make them complacent.
''And schools are expected to do too many things - maintain order, prevent violence - along with teaching respect for knowledge,'' Dr. Berendzen points out. He suggests that schools concentrate on academic excellence and allow families and society to handle social problems and prepare young people for marriage and careers.
Religion. The participants generally agreed that there is a strong movement today, notably among young people, back to basic religious values. ''Many youths now are looking at religion without embarrassment,'' Dr. Berendzen says. ''Ten years ago, they wouldn't have done that.''
The Rev. John T. Walker, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, D.C., agrees that there's a ''movement back toward religion.'' But he stresses that this does not automatically translate into church attendance.
Mr. Walker sees a decreasing need for the large church buildings of the 1940s and '50s. ''People long for something smaller where they can get to know each other,'' he explains. He says Americans may worship in smaller units in the future - even in people's houses, as did St. Peter and St. Paul.
The bishop also says mainstream religious groups should better use the broadcast media to convey their messages and teach the Scriptures. ''Young people (today) know very little about the Bible,'' he laments.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist Baptist preacher and leader of the ultraconservative Moral Majority, says evangelicals have moved to fill this void through their media ministry. These groups reportedly now own some 1,600 radio stations and 65 television stations across the US. ''At least 82 percent of all religious broadcasting today is fundamentalist,'' Mr. Falwell says.
Critics of the Moral Majority, including the Rev. Mr. Walker, accuse fundamentalists of using television to propagate right-wing political messages. But few play down the impact of this medium. ''Television is the mirror of American values,'' says communications consultant Peter S. Hoffman, ''and it usually responds (to public needs).''
Social mores, drug use. The use of drugs, including alcohol, is still a very serious problem in today's society, says Robert L. DuPont, president of the American Council on Marijuana and Other Psychoactive Drugs. He says that ''an estimated 1 million families a year are newly affected by drug problems.'' But he explains that parent and peer pressure and widespread media exposure of the wrongs of drug and liquor use are having a positive impact.
Dr. DuPont also says studies show that ''the more religious values in the home, and the less time spent away from the home in the evening, the less likely (young people are) to use drugs.''
Other studies show a new backlash from permissive and promiscuous values of the 1960s and '70s. William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, says the majority of Americans have broadened their views of the role of women, and now approve of married women working. But most men and women still place a high priority on family and children, and oppose marital infidelity. ''And over 98 percent say they believe in God,'' Mr. Bennett says.
But the Harvard-trained philosopher adds that there is a value gap between ''leaders'' and the general public. The former tend to be much more liberal about abortion, marijuana smoking, and attitudes toward sex, according to a report by the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company on values.