Is the American family in better shape now than 30 years ago? CPAC speakers disagree

CPAC 2020
American Principles Project Executive Director Terry Schilling (R) speaks during a panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland on Feb. 28, 2020. He was joined on the panel by Mary Eberstadt (middle-right), Matthew Spalding (M), Rachel Greszler (middle-left) and David Harsanyi (National Review). |

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The state of the American family was among the many topics of discussion at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference, with some speakers disagreeing about whether the strength of American families is better now than it was decades ago. 

On Thursday afternoon, expert panelists took part in a breakout session titled “The Future of Family” in which they discussed the ongoing debate in conservative circles over what the government’s role should be in helping families grow. 

“I think family is in better shape now than it was 35 years ago,” David Harsanyi, a senior writer with the National Review, said at the start of the discussion. 

Harsanyi, who describes himself as a “classical liberal” with socially conservative views, pushed back against a notion that families in America today are in trouble. 

“The foundation of the debate that people have on this today ... I don’t accept that the family is in huge trouble,” said Harsanyi, who used to write for The Federalist. “Obviously, we are not in a utopia. There are problems, but I think we are doing better.”

Harsanyi was asked if he is upset by the changing sense of what defines a family.  

“People probably call me Libertarian on many things but I am also sort of socially conservative in the sense that I believe in science and life and protecting life and protecting families,” he said. “So yeah, that upsets me. But I am not sure we are going to be making people more moral by having more government. I have never seen that happen.” 

Terry Schilling, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank American Principles Project, pushed back on Harsanyi’s assertion that the state of families in America is the best that it has been. 

“I completely disagree with that,” Schilling said. “The two stats that I would point to is the record-low marriage rate and birth rates that we have.” 

Schilling contended that families today generally are “not forming” as well as they used to. 

“When they do form, they form with record amounts of student loan debt, they are putting off having children longer and longer and longer,” Schilling stressed, adding that having children and getting married is “important to the pathway” to strong family life in the U.S. 

“Those are the two statistics that I am very concerned about … from an economic standpoint,” he added. 

As more people are getting married later in life, Schilling also noted that online pornography is a serious “cultural threat” to families. 

“We have an online pornography industry that is completely unregulated, except for maybe child porn,” Schilling said. “If you think about it, today an 11-year-old with a smartphone has access to more hardcore pornography than even the worst of the worst porn consumers of the 1970s.”

“They have it instantly, they have it privately. There is no tracking it,” Schilling continued. “What that leads to is that young men don’t really need women as much as they used to.”

Schilling stressed that the family in America is “culturally” and “economically” under attack. 

“I think those things combined are leading to disaster when it comes to family formation,” Schilling said. “But in America, the birth rate just went below replacement levels. That means we are creating fewer people than are dying, which means that America is dying.”

On Friday, veteran National Football League tight end Benjamin Watson, a devout Christian who regularly speaks out about issues of race, fatherhood, and abortion, warned the audience that the current state of the family is a “perilous one.”

Benjamin Watson
Veteran National Football League tight end Benjamin Watson speaks at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland on Feb. 28, 2020. |

“We have out-of-wedlock birth rising. We have divorce. Our families are sometimes crumbling and breaking down,” Watson warned. “We see this carnage all around us. Families should always be at the center of domestic policy. We should always make decisions that support the family because that is how civilizations remain thriving.”

Watson labeled three of the biggest threats to families in the United States today. 

The first threat Watson listed is “moral relativism.”

“We are increasingly living in a culture where we do what seems right to us. And in the name of tolerance, no one can tell us any differently,” said Watson, who has played 15 seasons in the NFL. “This can be seen in many of the evolving social issues that we deal with. All morality is increasingly being tied to cultural norms instead of transcendent standards.” 

Watson called for a “return to traditional values” that are “rooted in the soil of truth.”

“I don’t necessarily believe in ‘family values’ but I do believe in the biblical values that serve on the foundation in which family values stand,” Watson said. “Some say that family values are outdated or too traditional for a changing world. To that, I say, the truth never changes, only people’s opinions of it.”

Watson said that God laid out a “perfect plan for our lives.” 

“If we step out of that as we all do from time to time, we can’t control the consequences,” Watson said.

The second threat to families is “fatherlessness,” Watson relayed. He explained that in many communities in the U.S. today, more than one in four children are living without a father in their homes.

“Studies prove that these children are at greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, teen pregnancy, incarceration,” Watson explained. “The list goes on and on because that father is not in the house. 

“Our roles as fathers extend far beyond conception,” declared Watson, who authored a book on fathering in 2017. “The American family will continue to suffer until men acting with courage, honesty, self-control, humility, integrity characterize what true manhood really is.”

The third threat to families that Watson warned about is abortion.

Watson, who is producing a documentary that aims to "unveil the truth about abortion," called abortion the “most important human rights issue of our day" as just under 1 million babies are aborted in the U.S. each year. 

“Human dignity begins at conception and extends all the way to the grave,” Watson said. “What greater threat is there to the family than the legal and celebrated extermination of families’ most vulnerable members. This issue has become political when it should not be.” 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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