David Blankenhorn founded the Institute for American Values in the late 1980s.
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. —David Blankenhorn

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

Blankenhorn has spent his career bucking against corrosive social trends. In the 1990s he was an early voice decrying the decline of fatherhood. "As a cultural idea," Blankenhorn wrote in "Fatherless America" in 1996, "our inherited understanding of fatherhood is under siege. Men in general, and fathers in particular, are increasingly viewed as superfluous to family life."

Out of that project grew an ongoing and escalating commitment to battle threats the family and children face. A 2002 IAV commission report on divorce suggested that divorce does not make unhappy people happier, and a 2003 commission report on psychological challenges among children warned against a decline in "enduring connections to others ... for moral and spiritual meaning." Subsequent work has focused on the inner lives of sperm donor children and others raised without ties to their biological parents.

It was this emphasis on children that drove Blankenhorn into the marriage wars. But this was just one step in a tightly connected but eclectic career that began at the age of 15.

Preaching and teaching

In 1971 racial desegregation in Mississippi was a flashpoint of tension. As a high school sophomore, Blankenhorn sought a way to bring blacks and whites together for a common purpose, and found it in an after-school tutoring program that brought older students to underprivileged grade schools.

"I think maybe we had more black tutors than white tutors," Blankenhorn said. "But it was well-integrated. That was the whole point of it. The point was to do a common project."

Blankenhorn has, more or less, been doing similar work ever since.

When he was finishing high school, some friends suggested he apply to Harvard. "I didn't even know what state it was in," he said. But he applied anyway, and then handed his father the acceptance letter, along with hefty tuition and living expense projections.

After studying the numbers, the elder Blankenhorn, who sensed where this was heading, said to David, "Make me one promise. If you graduate from this fancy school, I don't care what you do. But there are three things I don't want you doing: I don't want any preachin'. I don't want any teachin'. And I don't want any social workin'."

Years later, Blankenhorn asked his dad to sum up what he does in a few words. His dad smiled and said, "Let's see, how about preachin', teachin' and social workin'?"

Confronting debt culture

A big, charismatic man who looks you directly in the eye, on this warm summer morning Blankenhorn is sitting in his New York office wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt and sporting a stubble of beard. A lingering bit of Southern drawl adds to his disarming informality. Asked for an interview, he offers to buy lunch. It's not hard to see why he excels at bringing people together.

His patented approach is to get really smart, serious people of divergent viewpoints together at his think tank, the Institute for American Values, to help clarify hard but vital cultural issues affecting American families.

Lately, Blankenhorn and IAV are focused on the payday loans, debt and gambling culture that increasingly plague American cities and America's underclass. Naturally, IAV formed one of its patented commissions, with 62 scholars contributing to a 2008 report on the "linked problems of over-indebtedness, lack of savings, and growing inequality."

Confronting the debt culture in the American heartland, Blankenhorn recently visited El Dorado, Kan. There, he toured the town's historical society and saw photographs of a prosperous main street sprinkled with savings banks and credit unions.

Outside the museum, things are starkly different. "If you go there now, it's instant cash, payday loans with bright signs that look like fast food places. Free money. Buy your lottery ticket. Rent to own."

It's the change in the landscape that has him concerned. "It's not as if the people of El Dorado suddenly got corrupted values. That change in the institutional landscape over 30 years on one little street is dramatic. One set of institutions gets crowded out, and another set of institutions comes in."

How does Blankenhorn hope to reverse the tide on savings and thrift? Many proposals can be found in the IAV commission report, "For a New Thrift." Blankenhorn favors a return to usury laws that limit exorbitant interest in payday lending, controls on credit card companies targeting low-income sub-prime consumers, fewer lottery outlets, and more incentives for lower income people to save, and concerted thrift education efforts.

One of the most frustrating anti-thrift institutions, to Blankenhorn's thinking, is gambling, including state-sponsored lotteries. "Gambling addiction is a terrible, terrible thing," Blankenhorn said, "not only for the addict, but for everyone in the addict's life."

The future of gambling, if unchecked, worries him more than the present, and like the anti-thrift institutions in El Dorado, it hinges on institutions that offer harmful and immediate stimuli.

"If all goes well, according to the people who are doing this," he said, "in a couple of years everyone will have a casino in their pocket, called their mobile phone. Then it all becomes almost surreal, the loss of integrity in our society."

Today, it's the rising specter of casino gambling in New York that has Blankenhorn agitated. Over pad thai and curry around the corner from his office, he describes a half-serious notion to march up Broadway from the tip of Manhattan to Albany, New York's upstate capital — smashing slot machines along the way, in tribute to the iconic 1937 photo of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia doing the same.

But for now his outlandish, social agitator instincts give way to coalition building on the ground. A few weeks later, he reports back from Philadelphia, where he is working with 20 public school teachers to launch a program for teaching thrift values in inner city schools.

Blankenhorn's father, who has long since come to appreciate his son's odd career, saw it all coming.