Although there may be some other important details, it seems to me that the coming presidential election is going to be decided primarily by the issue of gay marriage. From what I’ve been able to scrape from the news, although their style of rhetoric and some of the finer points differ, their overall policy positions on most other areas are substantially the same.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come under some pretty serious criticism, both from some of its own members as well as people of other beliefs with regards to the church’s position and influence in anti-gay marriage legislation such as Proposition 8. A lot of this work has been rooted in the principles articulated in a 1995 document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” After describing God’s plan for families in this life and beyond, the signers “warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”
They continue to “call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”
Although I, personally, am pretty ambivalent about the issue of gay marriage, I strongly believe in the importance of families and agree that a primary interest of elected and public officials should be to articulate and enact policies with the health and stability of families in mind. What concerns me most about the whole gay marriage piece is that it distracts the public discussion from dealing with issues that I would argue are more important to the strength of families.
At the risk of being tastelessly blunt, I think one of the biggest threats to the family is war. US foreign policy of the last decade has separated more than 2.3 million members of the US armed forces from their families. 20% of them have returned home less able to care for dependents due to post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, and 19% due to traumatic brain injury. About 6,500 will not return at all. Not only are American families affected, but it’s important to consider that each of the 1.4 million Iraqis, and 11,000 Afghani civilians who died, left behind others who loved them and needed them. A tremendous way of strengthening families would be to end these wars.
Another area where families could use some help is in our economic situation. Financial stress is known to be a major contributor to divorce. As the current system’s distribution of wealth becomes increasingly uneven, more and more families are pressed into having two full-time incomes. As both parents are removed from the home, children suffer greater physical and emotional risks, while family relationships are weakened. This is a major problem affecting family life, and unfortunately the popular political discourse focuses more on whom to tax and how much than on restructuring for self-reliant egalitarianism.
Finally, I have serious qualms about the impacts of compulsory schooling on families. Current trends in educational policy include increasing the amount of time children are required to spend in school, centralization of control over content and curriculum, and holding schools and teachers accountable for educational outcomes. In the debates around accountability there is a great deal of discussion about testing, evaluation, and consequences, but almost none about who schools need to be accountable to in first place. We need to be aware that all families and children are different and have different needs. In the current trajectory of increasingly top-down educational management, families in diverse situations are undermined by conflicts between the arbitrary demands of school and parents’ informed judgment. Good policies will give parents and children more freedom in determining how to meet their educational needs, both in terms of time and content.
 This is a conservative estimate computed from UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch, and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission data available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilian_casualties_in_the_War_in_Afghanistan_%282001%E2%80%93present%29