The “Traditional Family” Trope as American Religious Imperialism


This article looks at the use of so-called “pro-family” language in American politics and the fundamentalist religious notions this language represents. Additionally, it examines the exportation of these beliefs around the world, and the dangerous consequences this has.


Anyone who’s been the least bit tuned into American politics in the last few decades has undoubtedly come across the notion of “traditional family values.” While this term, and others like it, are virtually meaningless outside of a cultural context (whose tradition? whose values?), they are usually used to refer to a very specific set of beliefs and policy agendas articulated by those on the extreme right of the American political spectrum[1]. In recent years, these “traditional values” have primarily focused on preventing gay and lesbian couples from accessing the benefits of legally sanctioned marriage. The phrase “one man, one woman” is often used in this case.

But the goals of these “pro-family” advocates extend far beyond an anti-gay agenda. Their list of traditional family values includes notions such as: heterosexual monogamy as the only acceptable form of sexual behavior, eliminating all access to abortions and birth control, promoting patriarchal family structure (complete with working dads and stay-at-home moms), undermining public education systems, and further promoting Judeo-Christian religious beliefs into government policy and laws[2].

In reality, the “one man, one woman” cliché is actually meant to represent the monogamous, love-based union of a heterosexual couple who refrained from any sexual activity prior to marriage, utilize no means of contraception, practice male dominance in the home, and raise any children resulting from their sexual intercourse with proper Christian values.

Advocates of this so-called “traditional family” often use soaring rhetoric about the establishment of marriage by God[3] and cast their version of marriage as the cornerstone of all civilization and human progress[4]. Fear-mongering about the supposed radical harm that will befall society for “redefining marriage” is quite prevalent[5].

They trace their arguments back to the story of Adam and Eve in the biblical book of Genesis, where God creates Eve as a “suitable helper” for Adam. From here, these advocates tend to jump over all of human history (factual, mythical, or otherwise) and land squarely in the middle of 1950’s post-World War II America. Here the most prominent “traditional family” on display was that of the fictional Cleaver family in the TV show “Leave It To Beaver.” This fictional family resided in a white, middle-class suburban neighbourhood and included a prim and proper stay-at-home mom, a hard-working dad, and two happy (if not a bit mischievous) sons.

Aside from completely ignoring the vast swath of recorded history regarding the familial structures between the writing of Genesis and the 1950’s, the traditional family advocates fail to acknowledge one tiny but imperative fact of this supposed ideal family: it was fictional!

Fully recounting the vast array of family structures found throughout human history is far beyond the scope of this post. However, I believe it is important to provide a few examples to demonstrate the flaws in this notion. If we return to the book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve we see an almost immediate unravelling of these “traditional family values.” According to the Biblical account, if interpreted literally, within one generation we see incest[6] (which appears to be wholly acceptable not only then, but also to conservative scholars now) and in just six generations we see polygamy, with Lamach taking two wives, Adah and Zillah (again, without any apparent condemnations).

In fact, the entire text of the biblical marriage is rife with stories of polygamy, extramarital affairs, divorce, incest, and abortion[7]. From there, if we move throughout recorded human history, supposed “one man, one woman” tradition is virtually non-existent. While individual cases of this type of behaviour surely existed in some societies throughout time, arguing it as the traditional norm throughout all of human history is simply untrue. In fact, marriage as we know it today is a fairly new creation. It has only been in recent centuries that women were seen as individual humans instead of property, and even more recently that they were allowed to enter into contracts (such as marriage) with men.[8]

Even today in much of the world polygamy, child brides, arranged marriages, and dowry or economically-based unions are quite common and accepted as normal and even good. “One man, one woman” in loved-based union is not only historically inaccurate, it is not even the majority norm in the world today.

While the ludicrous notion of a “traditional family” is offensive in its dishonesty, it wouldn’t be so bad if believers of this idea kept to themselves and didn’t attempt to enforce this notion onto others via governmental regulations. But as watchers of American politics know, every year millions of dollars and thousands of broadcasting hours are being poured into enacting this false notion into American law and policy. Even still, these attempts could possibly be accepted as just a tiny fringe political group in just one nation. But the most disturbing part of this movement is the effort to export this belief system around the world.

The US-based Human Rights Campaign recently released a detailed and graphic document of these efforts entitled “The Export of Hate”[9]. This document outlines some of the most egregious actors in this movement, including, for example, those who have partnered with politicians in Uganda[10] and Russia[11] to criminalize homosexuality. These activists have attempted to extend their reach all over the world by partnering with politicians, religious organizations, and local NGO’s to distribute false information about gays and lesbians. And it is not just an anti-gay movement. Efforts to impact education, women’s health, religious activities, and child custody issues have also been seen[12]. Using a combination of fear-mongering, pseudo-science, and outright lies, they have been successful in exporting, and in some cases enshrining in law, their version of family values in numerous countries.

This type of behavior ought to be frightening to the global community. Using the quaint notion of “family values” a small but powerful group of American activists had a few successes in influencing policies around the world, both large and small. Emboldened by these successes, and able to raise more funds, these seemingly fringe actors are in fact doing great harm in far-reaching places. Violence and arrests of LGBTQ folks in Russia, Uganda, and elsewhere have risen in recent years. There are continued reports of ongoing talks between these imperialist and government officials of various countries. And while I believe it is not (yet) appropriate to compare this movement to other extremist and imperialist efforts throughout history, I do think these deceptive, false ideas wrapped in a seemingly innocuous “pro-family” cover do real harm to real people. Advocates of human rights and international justice should not ignore such efforts.