Liberal thinker champions family values

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 29 2012 11:22 p.m. MDT

NEW YORK — In a snug Manhattan office lined with laden bookshelves and adorned by a purple antique oriental carpet, David Blankenhorn holds up a ragged copy of Blackstone's "Commentaries," recent fruit of his frequent used bookstore hauntings.

"Two dollars," he brags. "A bit beat up, but I'll get it repaired."

An English classic that deeply influenced American law, that rescued, battered copy of "Commenatries" is a metaphor for much of what Blankenhorn does. He sifts through the used bookstores of American culture for valuables others miss.

Blankenhorn is a maverick. A soft-hearted liberal raised in Mississippi and educated at Harvard, he started his career as a civil rights organizer and has since carved out a unique career cutting across ideological lines. He is one of America's most important liberal thinkers concerned about family issues.

"I spent years trying to persuade my fellow Democrats that we should pay attention to family structure and family integrity and not look at them as something that merely requires programmatic responses from the government," said Bill Galston, an early Blankenhorn partner and ally.

Galston, who served as a key domestic policy adviser at the Clinton White House and is now at the Brookings Institution, sees Blankenhorn as a critical link in America's dialogue on family issues, with a unique ability to get smart people who often disagree to talk about things that matter.

In the late 1980s Blankenhorn founded the Institute for American Values and reached out to Galston. "It was clear from the beginning that David did not want the role of families in nurturing children and strengthening civil society to be a conservative issue or a liberal issue. He wanted it to be an American issue."

Starting with the collapse of fatherhood in the early 1990s, and moving on to divorce, single parenthood and now the rise of debt and gambling, Blankenhorn has sought for more than 20 years to highlight fragile and fraying social institutions that hold together the fabric of American culture.

Reluctant warrior

His explorations have sometimes led him into the weeds of the culture wars. In 2010, his views made him the reluctant star witness for the legal defense of California's gay marriage ban.

Blankenhorn had arrived at his position on marriage reluctantly and by sidesteps, and those who had watched him closely were not completely surprised when he retreated on marriage in a widely noted New York Times op-ed in June.

While some might be thrilled with the high-level attention given to his foray into the marriage wars, Blankenhorn was exhausted and anxious to get on with other issues. "As I look at what our society needs most today," Blankenhorn wrote in his op-ed, "I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call 'culture wars.' Especially on this issue, I'm more interested in conciliation than in further fighting."

Even in retreat, he still forcefully articulated his critique in his New York Times piece. The purpose of marriage, he wrote, was to protect the child produced by sexual union. More specifically, it was to ensure a child's right "to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world."

"Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right," he wrote. "Marriage is the planet's only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children."

Fatherhood to marriage

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