Rubio, a Republican from Florida, addressed the relationship between societal values and the welfare of the United States in a speech Wednesday (July 23) at Catholic University of America in the nation's capital. The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) cosponsored the event with Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.
"We will never improve our people's economic well-being without also improving their moral and social well-being," Rubio told a packed room of about 150 people.
"A strong America is not possible without strong Americans -- a people formed by the values necessary for success, the values of education and hard work, strong marriages and empowered parents," Rubio said at the close of his speech. "These are the values that made us the greatest nation ever, and these are the values that will lead us to a future even better than our past."
Political leaders have an important role in providing answers on education, economics and the family but "we alone can't do this," Rubio said. "There is no magic five-point plan for restoring marriage. There's no innovative program that will instill the value of education and hard work. There's no law we can pass to make men better fathers and husbands."
The ultimate responsibility for the nation's social well-being "rests on us as a people," Rubio said. "What we do as parents and neighbors and members of a church, a charity or community will often have a greater impact on our nation's future than what we do as voters or even as a senator."
During his nearly 30-minute speech, Rubio, 43, addressed not only the importance of education, a good job and marriage, but also how the country should deal with such divisive moral issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Rubio explained his support for marriage as a union only of a man and a woman while calling for respect from both sides in the same-sex marriage debate.
"Those who support same-sex marriage have a right to lobby their state legislatures to change their state laws," he said. "But Americans, like myself, who support keeping the traditional definition of marriage also have a right to work to keep traditional definitions of marriage in our laws without seeing them overturned by a judge."
Rubio spoke of the "growing intolerance on this issue -- intolerance towards those who continue to support traditional marriage."
"This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy," he said.
"Supporting the definition of marriage as one man and one woman is not anti-gay; it is pro-traditional marriage. And if support for traditional marriage is bigotry, then Barack Obama was a bigot until just before the 2012 election."
Regarding abortion, the pro-life senator described it as a difficult issue but said, "An unborn child should be welcomed in life and protected in law. And it seems to me a decent, humane society will take tangible steps to help women with unwanted pregnancies even as that society defends an unborn child's right to live."
He pointed to what he described as a "success sequence" that is now deteriorating in the United States.
"In America, if you get an education, find a good job and wait until marriage to have children, your chances of achieving economic security and professional fulfillment are incredibly high," Rubio said. "In fact, if everyone in America lived lives that went in this order, in the order I've just outlined, some estimates are that the poverty rate would be cut by an estimated 70 percent."
The economic cost of "this erosion in the success sequence is staggering," he said, citing data that demonstrate the negative economic impact of a lack of a two-parent home and of education.
While healthy families "are the primary and most effective teachers" of the values that are critical to success, neighbors, volunteers and members of religious groups also play an important role in social and moral health, the father of four said.
Government leaders cannot ignore the breakdown of social values, and they should adopt reforms that "remove impediments to education, to work, marriage and two-parent homes," said Rubio, who cited policies he has proposed to alleviate such problems. One of those is doubling the tax threshold for joint filers to remedy the penalty for married couples.
In a panel discussion after Rubio's address, ERLC President Russell D. Moore pointed to the significance of churches in society.
"I think we need strong civil society, and part of strong civil society means strong churches," Moore said. While he agrees "the nuclear family is pivotal," he said it alone "is not the answer to any of our problems."
In addition to the input of extended families, "we also need strong churches in which a child grows up recognizing, 'I am part of this family. I also am part of this larger community, and it is a community that is outward focused toward the rest of the world,'" he said.
Asked whether government has a role in societal values, panelist Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said, "Absolutely, there is a government role, but the farther away we get from individuals and families the less productive it is."
Richard Reeves, policy director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, said the increasing divide in American society by economic status challenges Rubio's hopes. Though racial segregation has decreased slightly, "economic segregation in the U.S. has gone up quite sharply," he said. "So we are now more likely to live in homogenous communities," thereby limiting the ability of economically stable people to help the poor.
He appreciated Rubio's "tone as much as his content," especially on controversial issues such as same-sex marriage, said Reeves, who supports homosexual marriage. He said the trend toward same-sex marriage is so strong he believes "whoever is running for the GOP nomination in 2020 will be in favor of same-sex marriage."
Moore said the momentary opinion of the popular and political culture is not a trustworthy judge on the future of marriage and the family. "I think we need to look at this with the longer view in mind," he said in response to Reeves. "And the question comes down to: 'What is marriage and what is family? And is there anything to marriage and family that's beyond simply the will of the persons involved or the culture in which it is appearing at the moment?' And I think there is."
Other panelists with Moore, Nance and Reeves were Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and Ann Patrick Conrad, associate professor of social work at Catholic University of America.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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