Family values. Simple. Straight forward. Everybody knows what the words mean. Good for everyone. Right? Shorthand for all things good and honest. And God and country. Right? You really think so?

To me, the phrase “family values,” introduced into our American political lexicon 20-25 years ago, has become little more than an overused code for people who think their “family values” are – or should be – everyone’s “family values.” The words, as normally used by the political right, originated as shorthand for “God, Mom, the flag and the good ol’ U.S. of A.” Politicians have wrapped themselves in them – often absent any demonstrated personal sincerity – to show this particular voting base they are as honest, sincere and God-loving as the narrow electorate for which the phrase is a mantra.

The world is full of – as I like to call them – personal values. We have ‘em at our house; you do at yours. We like ours and they work for us. You probably like yours and they seem to work for you. Maybe we have some different ones on the same subject. But so what? That’s what this country is supposed to be all about, isn’t it?

Let’s see. At our house, a real value is that of the individual and that individual’s right to do what he or she thinks is best for him or her – or all of us – within lawful boundaries. We support ‘em. So, if a daughter or a sister is trying to decide how best to deal with a pregnancy, our family value is that – after some family discussion where family listens a lot – she and her doctor should decide. Other families have values that want a state or federal employee sitting in the counseling room to steer discussion away from abortion. Same situation. Different values. But ”family values” just the same.

We have some Hindu friends. A Hindu family value can include arranged marriages in which the couple has little or no say in the match-making. Very honorable in their family. At our house, we prefer to allow the situation to develop without parental interference, relying on the “family values” we tried to instill in our son or daughter to guide their course. Both respected “family values.” But different.

We have some wonderful Pentecostal friends. They say grace before each meal, even at restaurants. We occasionally say grace at home but not in public. It’s a family thing. Theirs. Ours. Works for them. Works for us.

We’ve helped one or more of our offspring buy a first car when they were teens because we thought a little help was the right thing to do. Other parents I know would never do that, expecting their teens to go it alone to learn responsibility. Both “family values.” Both seem right.

But the two-edged sword of these two seemingly innocent words meant to describe love, responsibility and honesty can cut deep gashes in the body politic when soliciting votes. Sen. Vitter of Louisiana, co-sponsored the “Defense of Marriage Act” as he pledged support of “family values.” Of course, he later was caught red-handed using prostitutes to take care of some values that weren’t so “family.” At least not his.

Sen. Ensign of Arizona, and Newt Gingrich loudly and repeatedly espoused family values while bed-hopping with members of their office staffs. One engaged in what appears to be an illegal payoff to try to keep it hushed up; the other guy divorced one, kept going, then divorced the second. Both claim they were – and still are – “family values” guys.

There are dozens of other known examples of this hypocrisy in public officials. And in business. And religion. Everywhere. Probably thousands on any given day. Which is why I’ve come to treat the phrase “family values” as someone telling me “Do what I say; not as I do.” The credibility and meaning – whatever there originally – are gone. The words are just code – shorthand – for some narrow-minded individuals telling me and mine that their “values” are the “right values” and those who disagree – maybe us – are wrong.

Acquiring, nurturing and developing values – individual or family – are good traits. All of us should occasionally take inventory of our system of values to keep them in mind and measure how well we’re doing in meeting them. We’d all be better for the introspection.

But before accepting others values as the “right” values in any conversation or in any polling place, we’d all do well to remember that each value is as different and as unique as we are – one to the other. There are some “family values” out there that my family wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole. Or with a vote, either.

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