Michelle Obama Speech: What the First Lady Told Us About Family Values

In her Tuesday night speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama purposefully reclaimed family values. To thunderous applause, she tearily reminded us, “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’”

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. After all, Ann Romney talked about her family, too. She told us, “I want to talk to you about that love so deep only a mother can fathom it — the love we have for our children and our children’s children.”

But Michelle Obama’s version of family values differs from the conservative nuclear family ideal. Instead of focusing on the family in her speech, she focused on the values. And the values that she espoused, that she attributed to her husband, are progressive values. It is those values, their merit, and how Obama has acted upon them that we should be judging in this election.

The term “family values” as we use it in political discourse today originated with the 1976 Republican Party platform. The platform states, “Families — not government programs — are the best way to make sure our children are properly nurtured, our elderly are cared for, our cultural and spiritual heritages are perpetuated, our laws are observed and our values are preserved.”

In 1992, former Vice President Dan Quayle argued:

“When families fail, society fails. The anarchy and lack of structure in our inner cities are testament to how quickly civilization falls apart when the family foundation cracks. Children need love and discipline. They need mothers and fathers. A welfare check is not a husband. The state is not a father. It is from parents that children learn how to behave in society; it is from parents above all that children come to understand values and themselves as men and women, mothers and fathers.”

Essentially, family values hold that the traditional, nuclear, heterosexual family is the bedrock of society. According to the Family Life Institute, family values “are commonly known because they are infused within our nature. To see them one needs only to ask the question, ‘What are the values in a healthy family?’”  

Today, in common parlance, family values refer to a set of socially conservative stances on social issues. Political candidates who portray themselves as promoting family values are usually pro-life and anti-gay marriage; their politics are often rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions.

These values are Mitt Romney’s values, according to his wife. She observed that her husband “has tried to live his life with a set of values centered on family, faith, and love of one’s fellow man.”

The values that we heard about last night from Michelle Obama are a different kind of family values — they are progressive values passed down through families, through generations.

Progressive values including the freedom of choice, speech, religion and self-determination, as well as “freedom from illness, hunger, violence, war, chance disasters, poverty, exploitation and ignorance.” Progressives emphasize communities in many forms, rather than exclusively nuclear families. Progressives believe that all families are “in it together” and therefore must work together for progress.

The First Lady has spoken about her family’s progressive values before, back in 2008.

“Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them, “said Michelle Obama in her first DNC speech in 2008.

She repeated many of the values that she and Barack learned from their families on Tuesday.

“We learned about dignity and decency — that how hard you work matters more than how much you make…that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself. 

We learned about honesty and integrity — that the truth matters…that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules…and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square. 

We learned about gratitude and humility — that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean…and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.

 Those are the values Barack and I — and so many of you — are trying to pass on to our own children.  That’s who we are.”

The First Lady concluded, “So many of us stand here tonight because of their sacrifice, and longing and steadfast love, because time and again, they swallowed their fears and doubts and did what was hard. So today, when the challenges we face start to seem overwhelming or even impossible, let us never forget that doing the impossible is the history of this nation.

Debate over the relevance of traditional family values will likely rage on as family structures in America continue to change. Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC asks us to seriously consider what our values are today, how we inherited them, and whether and how we will pass them along to future generations.