The Heritage Foundation’s headquarters sits two blocks from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., a symbolic representation of its intimate access to Congress and public policymakers. Heritage’s rise to prominence has paralleled the rise to power of conservative political thought. Having survived seven administrations, the think tank’s goals have remained the same since its inception: “to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” The research center’s reputation as the Right’s wealthiest and, arguably most influential, think tank is based on its ability to influence an entire administration’s policy output, proven with its first major study, the 1980 Mandate for Leadership. That 1,000-page report was welcomed by Counselor to the President Ed Meese and provided a blueprint for the goals of the Reagan administration. Early suggestions included strengthening national security procedures, dismantling the progressive income tax in favor of a flat tax, and the expanding exports.1 While less well known for its work on cultural issues, in June of 2006 Heritage launched a new website, familyfacts.org, with the aim of trussing up support for traditional families and the social value of religion. Photos of smiling parents enjoying their children appeared on the banner, replacing the staid blue and white Liberty Bell logo that has represented Heritage for nearly 35 years. Enlisting graduate students as researchers, the organization now reviews social science research pertaining to family life and religion, with findings that support a traditional view of the nuclear, religious, heterosexual family as the optimal social unit. Is this a new direction for Heritage?
The Foundation of Heritage
The Heritage Foundation is not really a foundation at all. It accepts no grant proposals and disperses no funds. Instead, many people recognize it for what it is: a major Washington conservative idea broker, although some would call it a well-oiled propaganda machine. With an annual budget of $40 million and an endowment of over $100 million, Heritage is overseen by its president, Edwin J. Feulner Jr., who presides over 200 staff people with offices not only in Washington but in places like Moscow and Hong Kong. In 1972 Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich, then 30-something Congressional staffers for conservatives on Capitol Hill, formed the Republican Study Committee in an attempt to provide an ideological alternative to what they saw as Republican slippage toward the center on social issues like welfare. Weyrich, long recognized as a central architect of the New Right, brought his far ranging conservative interests, beliefs about taxation and government regulation, as well as his concern about the degradation of traditional values, to the task of organizing a research group for conservative lawmakers.2 Feulner, who later became the head of the Study Committee and, eventually, president of Heritage, shared Weyrich’s disdain for Republican pragmatists who would compromise principles in order to pass legislation. His interests focused on international trade and monetary policy as well as a commitment to a neoliberal, domestic agenda, most prominently a commitment to a free-market economy. After about a year, they recognized that an internal organization held less sway over Congress than an outside group with timely delivery of research material, and they founded the Heritage Foundation as an “independent, nonpartisan” think tank with initial financial support from Joseph Coors, followed by the usual suspects of conservative funding, including philanthropies created by Richard Mellon Scaife and John Olin. The Heritage Foundation has from its inception occupied a particular niche in the D.C. think tank community, delivering “facts and figures” on any number of topics in accessible formats to government decision-makers and the media. Feulner tells the story of how he came to realize what Heritage could accomplish. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), one of the earliest conservative think tanks (founded in 1943), maintained a reputation as a research center with academic-quality materials. When its impressive report on the value of the supersonic transport plane appeared days after Congress had voted not to fund it, he realized someone needed to create an organization that would deliver easy-to-absorb, persuasive material in a timely manner.3 Today, under Feulner’s 30-plus years of leadership, Heritage’s organization, finances, and output are in their prime. Name recognition is consistently high. Heritage maintains a few dozen books in print, summary position papers called “Backgrounders” on over 2000 topics, extensive customized databases of policy-related information, and stables of researchers are grounded in conservative approaches to domestic issues from agriculture, the federal budget, health care to education, labor, social security, and welfare, and a full range of foreign policy issues as well. Heritage supports a set of research fellows that cycle in and out of high-level federal government posts, such as former members of Congress Ernest Istook and James Talent, and Cabinet members William Bennett, Edwin Meese, and Elaine Chao. It maintains a well-developed year-round internship program and hosts hundreds of public events, often held in Heritage’s own auditoriums, and trains journalists in how to use Heritage’s own computer research models. Heritage maintains as many PR departments as it does research centers. Over 50 staff work in external and government relations, communications and marketing, media services, or on the extensive website that makes Heritage authors’ research and commentary available for free in a variety of formats. Although they do on occasion produce book-length work, Heritage authors maintain, in Feulner’s words, a “quick response capability.” He established “the briefcase test” for a piece of research: it should be short enough to be read in the time it takes a cab to travel from National Airport to the Capitol. “Backgrounders” are just a few pages long, sometimes condensing a larger work and make use of pithy Executive Summaries. Often material is reduced to tables and charts or to Power-Point presentations.4 Heritage’s reputation for being influential reflects the facts that its materials get hand delivered to Congressional offices and that it garners more media citations than any other conservative policy center.5 The formula clearly works, but what Heritage gains in access and influence may be at the expense of accuracy.
Something Borrowed, Something True
The new website www.familyfacts.org is a secular cousin to faith-based sites like Focus on the Family’s www.family.org that overtly promote the Christian value of family life. Unlike these sites, it highlights peer-reviewed social science research suggesting connections among intact heterosexual families, religious practice, and psychological and physical well-being of family members. From Heritage’s point of view, citing academic research that supports its agenda is key to establishing the legitimacy of its claims. The research is paraphrased in single sentence statements, or “findings,” written by a stable of doctoral students hired as Fellows. In keeping with “quick response capability,” these findings are placed in a searchable database for easy retrieval. They are organized into nine categories: Children & Teens, Crime & Violence, Education, Family, Health & Sexuality, Marriage & Divorce, Parenting, Pregnancy, and Religion & Culture. Each statement is accompanied by a summary of its citation in a peer-reviewed journal such as Social Science Research or the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. The page also features selected Heritage papers by such in-house researchers as Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector from the think tank’s Domestic Policy and Family and Cultural Issues program, and it advertises upcoming special events like a Heritage-sponsored conference examining research on the connections between religious practice and civic life. Journalists and decision-makers can sign up for email updates from the database that correlate with timely topics being discussed in Congress or in the media. The respectability of the sociological and psychological research cited and an easy-to-use website are two major assets of the project. Heritage had maintained a Family and Society database for a few years, but according to Evan Feinberg, a research assistant working with familyfacts.org, while the earlier database was popular with academics, it was not as well used by the general public as Heritage would have hoped. Still the new project receives considerable financial support. The website alone is supported with a $834,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and it is based at the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, which was funded in 2004 with a $1.8 million grant. With the establishment of this site, Heritage is seeking to cement its reputation as an expert in the field of family and religious values and an influential lobbying voice for public policies that support a conservative family agenda. In supporting its launch, Patrick Fagan had high hopes for the value of using social science research to support Heritage’s pro-family work. Part of the reality is that academia is one of the most hostile arenas to these findings…. Social science data is bringing people of different political ideologies together, particularly the policy wonks. The research is drawing the cooperation, reducing the animosity. A common pro-social discourse will be possible.6 Painting family values as a solution to economic problems links this project to Heritage’s traditional strengths. Family-facts.org touts marriage and work as solutions to poverty, and personal responsibility as the solution to social problems. The format lends itself to the “briefcase test,” making this new project similar in set-up to other Heritage products. As James Smith says in his study of think tanks and their influence:
Many people in policy positions readily concede that they have no time to read books and reports; memos and action papers demand immediate attention….Typically, the public official relies on the expertise of others.7
Each month, the site highlights ten “findings” summarized as single sentences. Examples from September 2007 with a back to school theme: “Adolescents with paternal role models tend to have higher academic achievement.” “Children in one-parent families are more likely to have lower math and reading scores than peers in two-parent families.” “Religious adolescents tend to spend more time on homework and are less likely to be truant.” Although perhaps surprising in their conclusions, the findings do come from Heritage staffers’ examination of actual research. To a reader who already accepts a conservative perspective on the family, these statements reinforce the superiority of traditional family values and serve as “convenient truths” to an audience who will find them helpful in convincing others. The critical reader, however, may find such statements puzzling and even suspect. A closer examination of the relationship between the original articles and Heritage’s wording of the “findings” reveals an ideological, and not always academically responsible, methodology. While undoubtedly there are social scientists who have ideological biases both towards and against a pro-family agenda, the work cited in this database is presented in a way that reinforces a conservative perspective, no matter what the authors’ points of view may be. Findings are sometimes reported out of context from the original study, a technique known as “cherry-picking.” For instance, sociologist Estelle Disch and social worker Nancy Avery documented the effects of further sexual abuse on survivors by the psychologists, psychiatrists or clergy treating them.8 Their research focused on effects: the levels of shame, loss, and depression reported by survivors whose abusers came from several professional roles and the subsequent implications for further medical, psychological, or spiritual treatment. Yet the Heritage finding that was pulled from their results focused on the type of abuse:
Sexual abuse committed by clergymen was more likely to be homosexual in nature than abuse committed by other professionals.
This “finding” that did not emerge from the study’s design. The sample was non-representative and therefore not legitimate for much quantitative analysis, nor did it consider homosexuality and sexual abuse by clergy. Another example of distortion in familyfacts.org is the common assumption that a correlation between two events implies that one event causes the other. This practice of assigning a questionable cause to a social problem is widespread at Heritage and other conservative organizations and is common on the website. Take, for example, this finding:
Greater educational attainment is achieved to the degree that religion is practiced and the traditional Christian doctrines are adhered to.
While carefully worded, this statement encourages the reader to infer that Christians who go to church and follow traditional teachings do better in school than others. Yet the sociologists who conducted the cited research – based on a sample of Dutch students in the 1980s – were cautious about drawing causal relationships from their data.9 They acknowledge that they have found an association between a Christian worldview and students’ educational positions, but they cannot say that adherence to religion causes higher educational outcomes. “The mechanisms causing these effects are unclear…To explore the extent to which religious doctrines and religious-directed attitudes and behavior might enhance or constrain educational conditions, a causal model must be developed.”10 The format of familyfacts.org does not allow for the inclusion of such statements alongside the listing of findings. Another example of drawing more conclusions than the studies’ authors intended is this finding from a paper on Religion and Child Development:
According to parents’ reports, children whose parents had more frequent discussions about religion with them exhibited higher levels of cognitive development.
Such a statement implies that frequent discussions of religion result in superior intellectual development. An examination of the actual study reveals that the data set used by researchers Bartkowski, Xu, and Levin, sociologists at Mississippi State, focused only on young learners, kindergarteners and first graders, and depended on parent and teacher reports about behavior, not grades. The quantitative analysis chose several subjective scales that measured different child developmental aspects. Most were behavioral and emotional, and the “cognitive” development scale measured “approaches to learning,” such as the child’s eagerness to learn, interest in a variety of things, creativity, persistence, and responsibility, not specific demonstrated cognitive skills which would be difficult to measure among such early learners. Most relevant of all, though, is the fact that the data come from parents’ own reports, substantially limiting the objectivity of the results. An additional limitation in familyfacts.org’s approach is the tendency to cite ideologically driven research, such as making reference to a report by Alabama Policy Institute, a state-based conservative think tank that supports marriage promotion. Familyfacts.org states a finding in “Effects of Cohabitation Length on Personal and Relational Well Being” as:
The longer couples cohabited before marrying, the more likely they were to resort to heated arguments, hitting, and throwing objects when conflicts arose in their subsequent marriage.
Perhaps recognizing the possibility for misuse, the website offers a disclaimer:
Findings are paraphrased summaries of published research results and are intended to serve as “pointers” to the primary source. When presenting information from familyfacts.org, the primary source should be referenced.
Heritage has been criticized before for shoddy scholarship.11 In blasting a 2001 Center for Budget Policy and Priorities tax policy report, Heritage criticized the use of unreliable data from the U.S. Census Bureau, when the CBPP report had deliberately used IRS data to avoid such methodological problems. Burton Pines, a former vice president at Heritage, once described its mission: “We’re not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time. Our role is to provide conservative public-policy makers with arguments to bolster our side.”12
Heritage and Family Values: How Long Has This Been Going On?
Why has an organization so linked to neoliberal economic policies and a secular approach to conservatism begun spending such energy on topics that have generally been associated with the Christian Right? Although Heritage is best known for its strong stands on economic issues, it has also advocated conservative positions on social issues. While the founders of Heritage, Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich, established a secular think tank, they each are serious about their faiths. Feulner is a Roman Catholic, and Weyrich a deacon in the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church. Weyrich in particular has influenced Heritage’s commitment to traditional cultural values, if only from his seat at other organizations. He co-founded the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell in 1979, which, among other things, served to split Roman Catholics off from their traditionally Democratic affiliation over the issue of abortion. Weyrich was also actively involved in organizing annual Family Forums to help Christian Right leaders meet with the Reagan administration,13 and he coined the phrase “culture war,” referring to the clash between traditional and counter-culture attitudes and behaviors that arose in the 1960s. When Weyrich founded his Free Congress Foundation in 1977, he was banking on the notion that cultural issues could unite conservatives more effectively than economic ones, and he published the organization’s first book, Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda, which outlined this argument. Meanwhile Heritage was considering the value of traditional values as an organizing focus. Lee Edwards, the author of a Heritage 25th anniversary report, The Power of Ideas, revealed to reporter James Ridgeway, “There has always been a healthy debate about emphasis. Heritage did stay away from cultural issues and so-called traditional-value policy deliberately for almost twenty years.”14 Eventually they invited William Bennett, former Reagan Education Secretary and G.H.W. Bush Drug Czar to became a Distinguished Fellow in Cultural Policy Studies in the early 1990s, and he published the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators and The Book of Virtues. Bennett was enlisted to sign a direct mail solicitation for Heritage in which he asserts, “The real crisis of our time is one of moral values.”15 In 1996 Patrick Fagan authored a Heritage report, “Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability.” An update appeared in 2006. And in 2004 Richard DeVos, the successful founder of Amway Corporation and a leading conservative funder, donated almost $2 million to Heritage for a new Center on Religion and Civil Society. Familyfacts.org followed not long after, going “live” in 2006. Heritage has come to embrace cultural issues as an organizing focus, reminiscent of its historical underpinnings. Weyrich’s old dictum that traditional values can provide a unifying focus for a mass movement has certainly borne fruit in the Christian Right’s political successes. How well it will do for Heritage remains to be seen. With four researchers working on domestic, family, and cultural issues, Heritage’s traditional values output is small compared to some other of its areas, but its authors are widely promoted, their work referenced at Congressional committee hearings or delivered directly when they appear as witnesses. Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan joined forces to support marriage promotion and to respond to critics of domestic violence in a 2004 paper, “Marriage: Still the Safest Place for Women and Children, a revision of a 2002 article.16 Heritage’s website frequently features videoclips of Rector and Fagan commenting on their own research or on familyfacts.org. The largest question mark comes from Fagan jumping ship for the premier Christian Right advocacy group, the Family Research Council, where he is now a Senior Fellow heading up their new Center for Family and Religion. Fagan is upbeat in describing Heritage’s continued commitment to family issues and to the programs he developed there over his 13 year tenure. “Heritage represents the Reagan coalition, and it knows how to maintain that coalition politically with a three-pronged focus on foreign policy, the economy, and cultural and family issues. All the family-related programs will remain.” But he added, “The family needs a strong, permanent single-issue voice in Washington,” referring to the FRC. “This new position is a natural extension of my lifelong work and dedication. Heritage has given us their full blessing.”17 A 2008 Republican presidential victory will require a coalition of ideologues and pragmatists, economic and cultural conservatives, and voters motivated by both religious and secular concerns. Existing attitudes towards homosexuality, extramarital sex, divorce, and abortion have fueled the Christian Right’s agenda, but they are not the exclusive intellectual property of frequent churchgoers. Campaign strategists undoubtedly realize that allowing the Christian Right a corner on “values voters” does little to guarantee that they will vote for the Republican nominee, especially if there is a third party spinoff. A strategy that blends economic and cultural concerns may provide some insurance, playing to the multiple resentments of dissatisfied voters. If familyfacts.org takes off, its conservative findings may trickle-down to affect not only policy-makers but the voting public. With plenty of cash to invest in experiments, Heritage may be betting that at the least, its newest website can’t hurt the cause.
Research from familyfacts.org