Families: source of despotism or bulwark of liberty?

In this highly readable book, Allan Carlson, founder of the US-based Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, and Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, seek to explain what has caused the disruption of the family as an institution over the past half century. They highlight the substantial body of empirical evidence in support of the natural family, show that societies that reject the concept of the family as their basic social unit are not viable and outline various reforms that could help restore a sound family culture.

The key concept of this book is drawn from Article 16 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state”. The authors define the “natural family” as “the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered around the voluntary action of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage for the purposes of satisfying the longings of the human heart to give and receive love, welcoming and ensuring the full physical and emotional development of children.” Such a definition, they emphasize, far from being a uniquely religious or Western concept, cuts across all cultures. There is no discord in what the Bible and science say about the family. The findings of modern anthropology sustain the notion of marriage as “an unchanging institution, universal in its basic elements and common to all humanity”. Cultural variations relating to marriage are but details around “a constant human model”.

The findings of modern anthropology sustain the notion of marriage as “an unchanging institution, universal in its basic elements and common to all humanity”. Cultural variations relating to marriage are but details around “a constant human model”.

This view of the family is also consistent with an important, albeit dissenting, school of sociology, inaugurated by the 19th century French academic Frederic Le Play and developed by 20th century American sociologists such as Carle Zimmerman, Pitirim Sorokin and Robert Nisbet. The latter in particular understood the family as “the real molecule of society, the key link of the social chain of being”. In his own words, it is “inconceivable… that either intellectual growth or social order or the roots of liberty can possibly be maintained among a people unless the kinship tie is strong and has both functional significance and symbolic authority”. Thus, by keeping in check the growth of the State, the natural family acts as a “bulwark of liberty”.

In explaining the current crisis in family life, Carlson and Mero try to go beyond the usual explanations based on serial divorce, gay marriage or the refusal to procreate, and emphasize instead what they call “the loss of a generally shared vision… of what the family is”. The loss of vision resulted largely from the emergence of a liberal worldview where the family is seen as “an agent of repression, fear, and adherence to a stifling past”. At its root, this worldview rests on the self conceived as an atomized individual. From the 17th century onwards, philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and, more recently, Arthur Calhoun and John Rawls, have disparaged the family, portraying it essentially as “a struggle between one individual and another for advantage”. Philosophers advocating a collectivist view of man, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Frederick Engels and Karl Marx, also viewed the family as oppressive and sought to have its responsibilities transferred to the State. The success of this increasingly common view is due in part to the rigorous demands that family life imposes. Unless one is brought up in a familial culture, the temptation to flee the burdens of home and family can become almost irresistible.

Industrialization has also played a role in the weakening of the family. The family household was the center of productive labor prior to the industrial revolution, but it has now ceased to be so, its economic activity having been gradually taken over by centralized factories, warehouses and offices. This process “destroyed the ancient unity of home and work, the natural ecology of the family, which had prevailed for hundreds of generations”.

Yet, throughout the first half of the 20th century, attempts were made to defend the natural family from the negative pressures of modernization. Both in Europe and North America, governments developed family policies aimed at protecting marriage and supporting families with children. In European countries and in Canada, the favored approach was “family allowances”. The US for its part adopted a policy of “child welfare” inspired by so-called “maternalist” reformers such as Josephine Baker and Florence Kelly. In post-war years, these initiatives led to a significant rise in marriage and fertility rates, as well as to a drop in divorce rates. However, the “family model” that informed government policies throughout this period – the breadwinner-homemaker-child-rich family sustained by a “family wage” – was soon challenged by a new model advocated by the likes of Swedish feminist theorist Alva Myrdal, who described “traditional family” as an “abnormal situation for a child” and sought “a new parenthood” more fitting to “the evolution toward a rationalization of human life” (her words). Such views quickly led to a broad intellectual assault against marriage and the family that culminated in “no-fault” divorce laws, decriminalization of abortion, day care subsidies, replacement of pro-family tax regimes by individualized taxation and, more recently, legalization of same-sex marriage.

The consequences of this evolution are now well documented. In all Western countries, marriage rates are in decline, cohabitation rates keep rising and fertility rates do not allow for the renewal of existing generations. As a result, the average age is climbing rapidly and the ratio of working-age population to total population is decreasing to the point where the future of social security systems appears to be in jeopardy. The book provides a wealth of data indicating that these trends have serious consequences for the happiness and welfare of men, women and children. For example, the notion that women are safest physically when married and living with their husbands is firmly supported by empirical research. There is similar evidence concerning the health and intellectual and emotional development of children. In short, the idea that the natural family provides the optimal environment for the healthy development of both children and adults is widely confirmed by social science research. Put another way, nothing contradicts the policy prescriptions of feminists, gay activists and advocates of easy divorce more than the findings of social scientists. In this regard, it should be noted that the review of the social science literature on the family offered here is alone enough to make the purchase of the book worthwhile.

To help understand why the natural family is the fundamental unit of society and produces the most desirable outcomes, Carlson and Mero devote an entire chapter to a study of alternative social models. More specifically, they sketch what a society would be like if, instead of the natural family, its fundamental unit were the individual, the church, the corporation or the state. Perhaps the most interesting part of that chapter is the one devoted to a society based on individual interest, ie, the libertarian model. What it describes is, of course, something much akin to the world we currently live in, a world where people are “socially isolated”, “culturally narcissistic” and “politically utilitarian”.

As might be expected, the last chapter of the book sets out various policies designed to strengthen the natural family. The authors recommend measures aimed at encouraging home-based work and businesses, home schooling and home-based care for the elderly. They also recommend a reintroduction of “fault” in divorce laws and generous exemptions or credits for children and “stay-home mums” in income tax laws.

This book represents a major contribution to the debate on the family in that it provides a sound analytical framework for the development of family policies. Perhaps its strongest point is that, unlike many studies that emphasize a purely sociological or empirical approach, it attempts to come to grips with some of the more metaphysical issues underlying relations between the individual, the family and the State. Given the culture wars currently raging in all Western countries, we can perhaps do, relatively speaking, with a little less sociology and a little more philosophy. More specifically, we must try to understand more clearly why the natural family model is consonant with human nature and why the idea of human nature from which it derives is so strenuously challenged by the two most powerful contemporary cultural forces - the media and academia. The latter consistently assume that natural differences between men and women are mere “cultural constructs”. More generally, they deny the very legitimacy of the concept of human nature and affirm that “everything is culture”. This is a key factor that cannot be ignored: if people are constantly urged to deny that men and women are different by nature, any attempt to present feminine and masculine family roles as naturally complementary is bound to be perceived as a patriarchal plot to subjugate women.

As Carlson and Mero would readily admit, Western societies will not be returned to the concept of the natural family by a mere set of policy reforms, as good as these might be. Only something akin to a paradigm shift – a transformation of souls – can render such a model acceptable. Given that, largely as a result of the sexual revolution, Christianity no longer carries much moral authority, one wonders how such a transformation might be achieved. This is perhaps the one question that the authors might have engaged more forcefully.

Richard Bastien is a writer and regular contributor to Égards, a French-language Canadian quarterly journal.


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