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Staking out high ground in `pro-family' debate

IS marriage, once almost universally viewed as a sacred institution, still a religious issue? In much of the Western world, the answer is clearly ``No.''

Most of the United States and European specialists interviewed for this series did not see a significant religious dimension to the difficulties facing marriage today.

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In America, however, several groups feel otherwise. One is the Mormon Church, a worldwide organization dedicated to home and family values, which is doubling its size every 15 years. But because Mormons are still small in number, heavily concentrated in several Western states, and not politically outspoken, they have had little impact on the nation's attitudes toward marriage.

More influential is the ``pro-family'' movement of the fundamentalist Protestant right wing, which began in the late 1970s and embraces such groups as the Moral Majority, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, and Paul Weyrich's Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress.

``From the very beginning, God intended marriage to be for life,'' writes pro-family author Tim LaHaye in ``The Battle for the Family.'' ``One of the best preventives against divorce is to accept that fact.''

His book goes on to list ``the 15 enemies of the family,'' including secular humanism (``an anti-Christian system of thought''), big government, the public schools, television and the media, rock music, homosexuality, materialism, urbanization, and the presence of women in the work force.

The latter comes in for particular criticism. A woman's income, says Dr. LaHaye, ``may inhibit the wife's feeling of dependence on her husband, particularly in times of marital tension. . . . It is far better at such times, as the Bible teaches, that `her desire shall be to her husband.' ''

Not surprisingly, such views have provoked considerable opposition -- not only from feminists but from other Protestant Christians. John Buchanan, a self-described ``Baptist Christian'' who is president of People for the American Way, charges that the pro-family agenda ``actively discriminates against all except their own concept of the traditional family, and somehow makes it sinful for [a] wife to work.''

Bob Frishman, author of ``American Families: Responding to the Pro-Family Movement,'' published by Mr. Buchanan's organization, notes that the pro-family leaders ``mistake change for collapse'' and ``crudely distort the facts about families in order to frighten people into supporting a regressive political agenda.''

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The rhetoric on both sides is strong, sometimes vitriolic. But how strong is the pro-family influence in America?

According to Tom Smith, senior study director at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the group of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants apt to share these views constitutes some 20 to 25 percent of the US population. ``There is little or no survey data to support the idea that the size of [the pro-family] constituency has increased,'' he says. In fact, NORC surveys show that many of the ``pro-family'' values -- opposition to premarital sex, abortion, and sex educatio n in schools, for example -- are losing popularity with the US public.

``I respect the ethical views of those who say it would be better if women stayed home and took care of their children,'' says Prof. Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. ``But I'm convinced by years of looking at history and sociology that that's not going to happen, that the change in women's roles is deeply rooted in our society.''

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