Today, Roy Moore stands as Exhibit A in conservative hypocrisy when it comes to family values—saying one thing in public and doing another in private. Yesterday, it was others: Plenty of Republican leaders, from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump to Joe Barton, have failed to practice the values conservatives preach. But are conservatives outside of the political class failing to live up to the family values associated with the right since the 1980s?
In the wake of the Moore scandal, a spate of articles on evangelicals, fundamentalists, and conservatives have made just this case, arguing that conservatives of one stripe or another are family values hypocrites. Writing in The New York Times, for instance, Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, “conservatives thunder about ‘family values’ but don’t practice them.” To add insult to injury, Kristof also argued that it is actually “liberals [who] practice the values that conservatives preach.” His primary evidence: Red states often do worse than blue states when it comes to family-related outcomes such as divorce and teen pregnancy.
Here, Kristof is indebted to a book by family scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families, which makes the case that blue states have more successful and stable families than do red states. Arkansas, for instance, has one of the highest divorce rates in the nation, whereas Massachusetts has one of the lowest. Cahn and Carbone go on to contend that blue families, more than red families, “encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.” In other words, blue Americans are more successful at forging exactly the sort of stable, two-parent families that red Americans say they support.
But this state-based argument obscures more than it illuminates about the links between partisanship and family life for ordinary families in America. Scholars and journalists who have bought into the idea that red Americans are hypocrites on family values because some red states do poorly when it comes to family stability are committing what is called the “ecological fallacy” of conflating the family behaviors of individual conservatives with the family behaviors of states dominated by conservatives. So, while it is true that Republican states in the South have more family instability that Democratic states in the North, that does not mean that Republicans as individuals necessarily have more unstable families than Democrats as individuals.
Indeed, when we look not at states but at counties in the United States, we see that counties that lean Republican across the country as a whole have more marriage, less nonmarital childbearing, and more family stability than counties that lean Democratic. In fact, an Institute for Family Studies report I authored found, “teens in red counties are more likely to be living with their biological parents, compared to children living in bluer counties.” So, even at the community level, the story about marriage and family instability looks a lot different depending on whether or not one is looking at state or county trends. At the county level, then, the argument that Red America is doing worse than Blue America isn’t true.