"Family values" is the war cry of politics in this decade. In the 1992 campaign the phrase tended to mean its opposite: "My opponent is for divorce, drugs, unmarried parenthood, and railroads that don't run on time. I am the champion of family values." A nondefinition if there ever was one.
This is the problem with the family values debate - there is no universally accepted definition of the term.
After the tribe, the family is the oldest communal mechanism of our species. Tribes were held together by the crude necessities of protection and collective labor. Families involve much more: a skein of deeply ingrained affections, traditional loyalties, lines of authority, and sense of shared destiny.
As civilizations entered more complicated social and technological epochs, families also became more complicated. King/fathers or queen/mothers bequeathed authority to their children. After the Industrial Revolution, vast commercial enterprises were controlled by single families. Laws of property, divorce, and women's rights evolved to accommodate the changes.
What threatens contemporary families is not wrongheaded political ideas hatched in Washington but the fallout of modern civilization itself: the economic pressure that often requires both husband and wife to work; the alien voices, radio, television, telephone, in the heretofore shuttered intimacy of the household; the mores that challenge ancient authority systems; the drugs and the guns; the volume of consumer goods that, however innocent in themselves, create hungers among children and adults alike.
History records simpler but more horrific assaults on families - periods when monarchs' rights were considered divinely bestowed, ordinary citizens had no rights at all, a man could be hanged for stealing a potato to feed his starving children, or American slave families were broken up as members were sold.
The supreme family value is survival. Washington's wars on drugs, V-chips to control TV, and denunciations of illegitimate births may soften today's blows on the family. But they don't ensure survival. Nor would a huge reorganization of the economy.
Having no precise definition, political debates about family values promise nothing. Ultimately, families will be saved by themselves as they always have been - by the ancient values of love and interdependence that created them in the first place.
*Rod Macleish is Monitor Radio's Washington editor.