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 political and social debate on the state of the family and its importance to social cohesion and community well-being.

Ask journalists and academics who follow such things about the origins of this culture war debate over family and you will likely get the time frame of its birth as the late 1970s / early 80s and the names Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson as its most prominent founders.

This is common knowledge. But is it correct knowledge?

It is not. The contemporary culture war on the importance of the natural 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?

It was fired 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, particularly in the black community.  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.

Moynihan explained – just after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 – that our nation’s progress toward full civil rights for black Americans and a better opportunity for earning their 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. A noted social historian of the time described the report’s impact as “one of the most turbulent public controversies ever generated by a social scientist.” The blowback was so explosive 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 some conservative preacher, not a Democratic President from the mid-sixties. 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. The issue was just too hot for him and not worth the trouble.

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, exploring the political waves the report stirred up even to the Obama Administration, explained that more than 50 books and more than 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 across the board. This should concern each of us who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves because the health and strength of family impacts personal and societal well-being like few other things. The rate of unmarried births to white women is now higher than it was for black women when the report was released, 29% and 25% respectively. That rate is sadly 72% today in the black community. And it is undeniable how much harm this has caused for our nation and the fortunes of various communities who are our neighbors.

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. But it indeed started with the Democrats.


 Photo from Getty.