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Blankenhorn: A family guy with a cause

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This story was on the front page of the today's USA Today Style Section:

Link to the book:


By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

David Blankenhorn may be best known as an advocate for the importance of fathers, but the 51-year-old think-tank founder and author is about to step onto the firing line with a much more controversial issue: gay marriage.

The Harvard-educated Mississippi native is a former VISTA volunteer and community organizer who has made a career of thinking about big issues and telling others what he believes. He's written scores of op-ed pieces and essays, co-edited eight books and written two: the 1995 Fatherless America, which attributes many of society's ills to the lack of involvement of fathers in children's lives, and now, The Future of Marriage. In it, he argues kids need both a mother and a father, and because same-sex marriage can't provide that, it's bad for society and kids.


"We're either going to go in the direction of viewing marriage as a purely private relationship between two people that's defined by those people, or we're going to try to strengthen and maintain marriage as our society's most pro-child institution," he says.

He may sound like a conservative Christian, but Blankenhorn says he's a liberal Democrat.


"I'm not condemning homosexuality. I'm not condemning committed gay relationships," he says. But "the best institutional friend that children have is marriage, and if grownups make a mess of it, the children are going to suffer."


Blankenhorn's attempts to raise consciousness about the importance of fathers led him to help inspire the creation of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-partisan group promoting responsible fatherhood. For 20 years, he has focused attention on the fallout of what he sees as a breakdown in the family.


He bristles when people call his think tank conservative; he wants to look deeply at America's core values, and he sees the Manhattan-based Institute for American Values, founded in 1987, as a catalyst for analysis and debate among those with differing views.


The institute's budget of some $1.5 million largely comes from foundations, corporations and individual donations, which support studies, conferences, books and other publications.


"People who say we're a conservative organization are just trying to call us names because they think it'll stigmatize us," he says, clearly rankled that his motives are so often misunderstood.


But as much as his passion for families impresses those who know his work, his blunt outspokenness can be off-putting to people on both sides of the political spectrum. He even criticizes the marriage movement, of which he is considered one of the founders, saying it has "stagnated."


"It's one of the reasons I wrote the book," he says. "I want to stir the pot as much as I can."


Colleagues praise him


"My impression of this guy is he's really devoted his life to family issues and would probably do that if no one paid him at all," says Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer at National Journal magazine and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution who has been on opposite sides of the podium with Blankenhorn.


"David has a lot of respect for ideas," says Maggie Gallagher, a former affiliate scholar with the institute and a strong opponent of same-sex marriage. He "created a new niche. He pulled together top scholars from a variety of disciplines concerned about family fragmentation who were not part of the Religious Right, and he gave them a home."


Sociology professor Judith Stacey of New York University says some in the family field view Blankenhorn as a "right-wing political advocate." But "I see him as more complicated than that."


So does William Galston, a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration and a senior fellow at Brookings.


"My impression is on matters of civil rights and economics and social justice, he's the same warm-hearted Southern liberal he was when he started," Galston says. "It might be more accurate to say a strand of thinking about the family and the culture that in contemporary circumstances is regarded as conservative is something that's become a stronger part of his thinking."


Some academics, including Stacey, suggest the institute lacks objectivity because its work is not subject to scholarly peer review.


Blankenhorn rebuffs such claims.


"Almost all our work is done in teams of people. We review each other's work constantly," he says. "So it is utter hogwash for somebody to say something like that."


Says Stacey: "I'm one of his favorite targets. We have opposing views on the relationship between social science research about families and public policy about families. Not only do we disagree about the policies, but we disagree about what the research says."


Theodora Ooms, a consultant on family policy who has known Blankenhorn since the mid-1980s, calls him "relentless....He says he is open-minded, but I find him rather rigid and close-minded."


Blankenhorn admits he has a "pushy" side. "I've had fallings-out over differing opinions about what was best to do about what we were working on at the time - not too many of them, though," he says.


"If he really disagrees with something, you'll know it," says Galston. "I've never had a problem with it, but I suspect others may."


Blankenhorn wasn't always such a polarizing figure.


His sixth-grade teacher chastised him for talking out of turn and told him he was a "leader child."


"She said, 'If you do things, the others will follow you,' " he recalls. "That was such a dramatic moment for me....I've wanted to play that role and have tried my best to play that role since I was a kid."


He originally planned a think tank for community organizers, but he became increasingly frustrated in bringing about social change and decided civil society and the family were areas where he could have an impact. Now, two decades later, the institute has broadened its scope to include projects on Islam's relationships with the West and an examination of thrift as an American core value.


Growing up in the South


Blankenhorn says he avoided the gay marriage issue for years and didn't get into civil unions in his book because it's not directly linked to his concern over marriage as "society's most pro-child institution." He has been clear about other family issues: Marriage is good for kids. Voluntary single-motherhood isn't. Neither is divorce.


He says he couldn't skirt same-sex marriage any longer because allowing gays to marry and form families conflicts with children's right to know and be raised by their two biological parents.


His book also cites a new analysis he did on 35 nations from the 2002 International Social Survey Programme, which shows marriage is weakest in nations where support for gay marriage is strongest.


"I'm not saying one causes the other. I'm just saying they go together," he says. "If you do support marriage and want it to be this robust social institution, then you ought to think twice about saying you're for gay marriage."


Blankenhorn's childhood in Jackson, Miss., where his parents still live, emphasized family and church. His father worked in insurance, and Blankenhorn says he was a role model; his mother ran the church Sunday school. Both were Presbyterian deacons and elders. Blankenhorn played sports, was president of his freshman class and of his church youth group.


The family's church was the first in his area to allow black worshipers. Racial prejudice and public school desegregation had a profound impact on him, causing him at age 15 to try to bridge racial rifts. He founded the Mississippi Community Service Corps, which recruited black and white high school students to join together to tutor elementary school kids.


When his father's job transferred him to Salem, Va., in Blankenhorn's junior year of high school, he re-created the service corps by contacting all the church youth groups in the Roanoke/Salem area.


Blankenhorn hadn't planned to go out of state for college, but he ran into a former student from his old high school who urged him to apply to Harvard. That student, Carey Ramos, now a New York attorney who has represented the recording industry in online copyright cases, says Blankenhorn impressed him.


"He was clearly very bright and articulate," Ramos says. "What struck me was how determined he was and how he had the qualities of a leader. I thought he would wind up doing interesting things."



Career: David Blankenhorn, 51, is founder and president of the Institute for American Values in New York.

Education: Bachelor's degree in social studies, Harvard University, 1977. Earned a fellowship to study in England; focused on British labor unions. Received master's in comparative social history from University of Warwick in Coventry.


Wife Raina, 52, is director of special projects at the institute. Son Raymond, 17, is a high school senior going to Oxford University in the fall; twin daughters Sophia and Alexandra are 10.

For fun: Blankenhorn makes a point of bringing a child along on business trips to see what he does for a living. A few months ago, the family rented a car (they don't own one), went to the tip of Manhattan, drove up Broadway and spent the day winding along one of the country's longest streets and stopping to take pictures and talk about the sights.

See the article on the web.

Dear Producer:


David Blankenhorn's new book on same-sex marriage, THE FUTURE OF MARRIAGE(Encounter Books, March 15, 2005, $25.95, Hardcover), is sure to generate a lot of discussion around the office water-cooler this spring, and I wanted to be sure you were in on the action.In 1995, Blankenhorn's celebrated book, Fatherless America, put the issue of fatherlessness on the national agenda and led to the founding of a grassroots fatherhood movement in our innercities.  Now, in THE FUTURE OF MARRIAGE, he shows that the same-sex marriage issue is about real goods in conflict: the equal dignity of all persons versus a child's birthright to be raised by their mother and father.


In THE FUTURE OF MARRIAGE, Blankenhorn reveals that:


  • From the patriarchal societies in Mesopotamia and Egypt (where marriage first emerged 5,000 years ago), to the sexually permissive female-oriented Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific, to the militaristic Nayars of southwest India, the main purpose of marriage is to provide every child with a father and mother.


  • Shows how marriage has a biological foundation in humans, who are much more highly sexual than other animals. The purpose of this ongoing sexual interest is to bind together the man and the woman who make and raise the child. 


  • When we change marriage, we change parenthood, not just for children of same-sex couples, but for everyone. 


  • Since almost all children of same-sex couples will be raised without either a father or mother, a society that embraces same-sex marriage can no longer embrace the norm that children need both a mother and a father.  The main likely consequence would be more children growing up without their fathers. 


  • Since many same-sex couples obtain children through the use of donor eggs or sperm or the use of a surrogate mother, same-sex marriage conflicts with the right of children to be raised by their two natural parents, expect when it is contrary to the child's best interests, as declared the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.


  • While Blankehorn strongly supports the equal dignity of gays, he concludes "with some anguish" that their right to marry and form families conflicts with the right of children to be raised by their own mother and father.  Forced to choose between two goods, he believes sustaining the right of the child to a mother and father is ultimately more important because first and foremost we should seek to protect the interests of those who are less able to protect themselves, which in this case, means children.


  • Same-sex marriage would erase three of marriage's core features: 1) the idea that marriage about bridging the gender divide between men and women, 2) the idea that marriage involves sexual intercourse, and 3) the idea that marriage is about the union of two people.


  • Provides never before released research showing that support for marriage is weakest in countries in which support for same-sex marriage is strongest - a direct rebuttal to the main argument in Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse? What We've Learned From the Evidence (May 2006).




ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  David Blankenhorn's 1995 book, Fatherless America, inspired a cover story in U.S. News and World Report, was excerpted for a cover story in USA Weekend, and was the subject of major stories in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.  Broadcast coverage included segments on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, The CBS Evening News, Charlie Rose, Firing Line, C-Span's Booknotes with Brian Lamb, and National Public Radio. 


Blankenhorn is founder and president of the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan organization devoted to strengthening families and civil society in the U.S. and the world. A 1998 profile in the New York Times describes Blankenhorn as a "consensus builder for a moral base in society." USA Today describes Blankenhorn as "leading a grass-roots movement" to strengthen marriage. A profile in the Los Angeles Times called him "the de facto navigator" of a new fatherhood movement and the Idaho Statesman describes Blankenhorn's Fatherless America, as "the bible of the fatherhood movement." Blankenhorn was born in 1955. He lives in New York City with his wife, Raina, their son, Raymond, and their two daughters, Sophia and Alexandra.



Sincerely yours,


Mary Schwarz

Mary Schwarz Communications

(917) 526-3115