Depressed by an apparently never-ending parade of Hollywood stars and other similar experts calling for same-sex marriage to be made the equal of normal family life? Be of good cheer. Leading family demographer Alan Carlson explains why the intact nuclear family is our best hope for the future of the human race.
Historically low birth rates, the rapid spread of cohabitation, the legal dismantling of the institution of marriage, and climbing divorce are signs of a fundamental turning point in the social development of the West.
Certain powerful voices among the once Christian nations actually welcome these changes, as signs of liberation. They celebrate the disappearance of marriage as a meaningful cultural and legal structure with claims of its own on society and individuals. They relish the elimination of autonomous homes, once rich in function and loyalties, to be replaced by governmental structures and the bond of the individual to the state. In pursuing this ideology, they have willingly sacrificed the natural order, building an unnatural world in its place.
Those of us who defend the authentic family must now face a daunting truth. To create a Culture of the Family for the 21st Christian Century, I believe that we need a new vocabulary that looks forward rather than backwards, focusing on the phrase, “the natural family.” I want to highlight recognition of the natural family in five ways: as part of the created order; as imprinted on our natures; as the source of bountiful joy; as the fountain of new life; and as the bulwark of liberty.
The natural created order
Modern debates about marriage and family frequently pit the partisans of Biblical revelation against the advocates of science and evolution. In fact, the story of Scripture and science’s evolutionary narrative actually wind up in surprising agreement over the origin and nature of the human creature.
People of biblical faith â Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike â find the origins of the family chronicled in Genesis 1 and 2. Here, God establishes marriage as an unchanging aspect of His creation, essential to the very foundation of the divine order.
Genesis affirms marriage as both sexual (“Be fruitful and multiply”) and economic (“fill the earth and subdue it” and “have dominion” over its creatures). In addition, it views marriage as innately monogamous, rather than polygamous.
What does science teach? The founders of modern anthropology also held that marriage is an unchanging institution, universal in its basic elements and common to all humanity. As Edward Westermarck explained a century ago: “Among the lowest savages, as well as the most civilised races of men, we find the family consisting of parents and children, and the father as its protector.” Marriage bound this family system together, uniting “a regulated sexual relation” with “economic obligations.”
Certainly there were differences in the marriage systems of distinct human cultures. However, the fundamental marriage bond did not change. As a later anthropologist, George Murdock, wrote in his great 1949 survey of human cultures:
“Marriage exists only when the economic and the sexual are united into one relationship, and this combination only occurs in marriage. Marriage, thus defined, is found in every known human society.”
In short, his work pointed to marriage as natural, necessary, and unchanging.
Contemporary evolutionary scientists actually agree. Writing in the journal Science, for example, paleoâanthropologist C.Owen Lovejoy argues that “the unique sexual and reproductive behaviour of man â not growth of the cortex or brain â may be the sine qua non of human origin.” The evolutionary narrative indicates that the pairingâoff of male and female “hominids” into something very much like traditional marriage reaches back between three and four million years ago
In short, the invention of “marriage” and social “fatherhood” were the vital steps in human evolution.
True, it would be going too far to say that modern evolutionary theory has converged with the Book of Genesis, but it would be fair to conclude that research guided by evolutionary theory does agree with the author of Genesis that from our very origin as unique creatures on earth, we humans have been defined by heterosexual monogamy involving “marriage” and “fatherhood” and by the special linkage of the reproductive and the economic, a linkage in which two become one flesh. According to the scientists, the evolution of marriage occurred only once, at the beginning, when “to be human” came to mean “to be marital.” Other cultural variations surrounding marriage are simply details.
Imprinted on our nature
While the main current of Western philosophy and social science rushed toward Marxist forms of understanding in the late 19th and 20th centuries, a dissenting school of sociology offered an alternate analysis. The first of these dissenters was the French academic, Frederic Le Play, active in the 1870’s and 1880’s.
Le Play argued that human behaviour did not follow the theoretical schemes of his liberal and socialist contemporaries. Rather, he identified and sought to explain the close relation between what he called the stem family and historical examples of stable, creative prosperity. This stem family held the nuclear dyad of husband and wife at its core, yet also embraced extended kin. He argued that this family form, “by a remarkable favour of Providence has within its very structure the beneficent qualities of the individual and those of association.”
It could be found in all creative periods of human history: among the Old Testament Jews, the ancient Greeks, the preâImperial Romans, and â until recentlyâmost of the three great 20th Century sociologists based their efforts on the legacy of Le Play: Carle Zimmerman; Pitirim Sorokin; and Robert Nisbet.
Carle Zimmerman, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, wrote Family and Civilization in 1947. It traced the course of family structures throughout the globe and across the millenniums. In describing the prospects for family reconstruction, Zimmerman embraced Le Play’s concept of the stem family, relabelling it the domestic family.
Importantly, Zimmerman insisted that this domestic family model was not an expression of a dying or transitional past. It develops, Zimmerman said, “among all people who combine the benefits of agriculture, industry, and settled life with the commonsense idea of defending their private life from the domination of legislators, from the invasion of bureaucrats, and from the exaggerations of the manufacturing regime.”
Born and educated in Russia, but expelled by the Bolsheviks in 1921, Sorokin in his book, The Crisis of Our Age, emphasised the tie of mounting social turmoil to the shrinkage of family size and the atrophy of family functions, most notably education. In turn, this resulted in social decay, mounting crime, declining fertility, and growing state coercion merely to hold the crumbling social edifice together. The only feasible course was to replace “the withered [and sterile] root of sensate culture” by a new cultural order based on family relationships.
The third great sociologist in this tradition was Robert Nisbet, whom I counted as a friend and mentor, best known as the author of The Quest for Community and The Twilight of Authority. In the latter volume, published in 1975, Nisbet offered a passage of profound importance:
“It should be obvious,” he says, “that family, not the individual, is the real molecule of society, the key link of the social chain of being. It is inconceivable to me 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.”
Nisbet is altogether correct. The family, when functioning as the cell of society, is the source of new biological life, children springing up within the matrix of responsible love and care, as part of a kinship community, and able to grow into stable and productive participants in community life.
The natural family as the source of joy
The most remarkable, and perhaps the most desired, human emotion is joy. While happiness can in certain circumstances be something of a steady state and where ecstasy is the nearly painful passion of a moment, joy delivers an intense and exultant experience that can last for hours, or days, before it settles into an inner peace.
The English author C.S. Lewis offers deep insight into the nature of joy in The Screwtape Letters, a fictional set of letters from an experienced devil to his nephew, an apprentice tempter named Wormwood. In letter No.11, Screwtape divides the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. Turning to Joy, Screwtape confesses that analysts in Hell have not yet determined its nature or cause, and adds:
“Something like Joy is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven â a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon [of Joy] is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.”
Understood as an “acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience,” Joy is indeed the way in which living humans can experience the feel, the taste, and the glow of Heaven.
In this world, joy cannot be perpetual. However, it is possible for joy to return, over and again. Thus, an essential human project becomes the creation of a culture and social structures that encourage such bountiful renewal.
Social science has long affirmed that the bonds of family, the interconnectedness of marriage and children, serve as the surest predictors of life, health, and happiness. In his classic 1897 study Le Suicide, sociologist Emile Durkheim tied the “social integration” promoted by marriage and the presence of children to low suicide rates. The relationship remains strong, to this day. Recent study of “the very happiest people” shows them to be “enmeshed” with others as members of strong social groups. More notably, “Marriage is robustly related to happiness” as is the presence of children.”
The possibility of happiness and joy rests, of course, within a larger matrix of sacrifices, sorrows, foregone opportunities, and trials that also mark family life. Living together in families requires that persons confront and overcome their own selfishness. It is only through this task that the possibility of joy opens on the far side.
The fountain of new life
Here, on this statement’s obverse side, we meet the essential family crisis. In terms of population, Europe may be dying. The same goes with the once dynamic “Asian Tigers.” America and Australia are not far behind.
In Germany and Italy, for example, more persons are buried each year than are born: populations are shrinking; and those left are getting older, much older.
Indeed, in all parts of the world, human fertility is declining sharply. I would offer three ways to understand this change:
The first is that of successful conspiracy. Historian Donald Critchlow’s fine 1999 book for Oxford University Press, Intended Consequences, shows how “a small group of men and women, numbering only a few hundred,” caused a revolution in American policy toward fertility, with repercussions around the globe. This group of wealthy Americans â with names including Gamble, Pillsbury, and Rockefeller â believed that war and poverty were the result of unrestrained population growth. And they looked with horror on the “baby booms” of the 1950’s in the USA, Australia, and parts of Europe, where the new suburbs filled up with threeâ and fourâchild families.
Critchlow shows how the money and influence of this group twisted popular views of population growth and large families from being “blessings” into being “dangers.” They funded the research that developed the “birth control” pill. This wealthy cabal turned US foreign aid into a global population control project.
Their pressure and money spawned domestic US birth control programs, and the shift in public attitudes toward abortion. Hugh Moore Fund, Rockefeller Foundation, and Ford Foundation grants also proved instrumental in launching the new feminist movement in the 1960’s and the homosexual rights campaign of the 1970’s; both carried out in the name of reducing fertility.
Second, Australian demographer John Caldwell emphasises the role of mass state education in generating fertility decline. Based on research in Africa and in this country, he argues that state mandated schooling serves as a driving force behind the turn in preference from a large to a small family and the reâengineering of the family into an entity limited in its claims. Briefly explained, state education authorities actively subvert parental rights and authority, substituting a state morality. Children learn that their futures lie with the modern State rather than the preâmodern family. As Caldwell summarises, “it …has yet to be [shown]…that any society can sustain stable high fertility beyond two generations of mass [state] schooling.”
A third way to view depopulation is through the valueârevolution which swept the Western world after 1965, marked by a retreat from religious faith. As Belgian demographer Ron Lesthaghe has shown, recent negative changes in family formation and fertility reflect a “longâterm shift in the Western ideational system” away from the values affirmed by Christian teaching (specifically “responsibility, sacrifice, altruism, and sanctity of longâterm commitments”) and toward a militant “secular individualism” focused on the desires of the self. Put another way, secularisation or the retreat from religion emerges as a cause of contemporary fertility decline.
These observations highlight the developments needed to reverse fertility decline, namely: (1) building an intellectual and organizational infrastructure that is forthrightly proânatalist; (2) developing public policies that would support the mothers of young children in their homes; (3) restoring effective parental control over the education of their children; and (4) launching a counterârevolution in values under the natural family banner.
The bulwark of liberty
The terrible campaigns against marriage mounted by the Nazis and the Communists, just as the assaults on marriage launched by left liberals and socialists, reveal a common truth: The first targets of any oppressive, totalitarian regime are marriage and family. Why? The great Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton explains the reason in his powerful 1920 pamphlet The Superstition of Divorce:
“The ideal for which [the family] stands in the state is liberty. It stands for liberty for the very simple reason…[that] it is the only…institution that is at once necessary and voluntary. It is the only check on the state that is bound to renew itself as eternally as the state, and more naturally than the state….This is the only way in which truth can ever find refuge from public persecution, and the good man survive the bad government.”
Or, as Chesterton argued in What’s Wrong with the World:
“It may be said that this institution of the home is the one anarchist institution. That is to say, it is older than law, and stands outside the State.”
Even under the worst of governments, however, families have found ways to survive. During Nazi rule in Germany, for instance, the regime’s propagandists made much of the fact that the nation’s marriage rate was rising. In fact, there is good evidence suggesting that marriage had actually become an antiâNazi act. As historian Claudia Koontz explains: “Germans who drove the marriage rates upward may well have sought an escape from participation in the Nazified public square.”
Moreover, Dutch scholars have documented that the imposition of Communism on Poland after 1945 did not weaken the family system there. Instead, the oppressive Communist system actually increased family solidarity:
“The importance of the family increased [under Communist rule], and …the family increased its role as the cornerstone of society. Political and social suppression can have unexpected positive effects, like the strengthening of the family.”
As Chesterton had predicted, the natural family â “the one anarchist institution” â survived, and even triumphed over totalitarian Communism, one of its great 20th Century foes.
More broadly, persecution, disaster, even the fall of nations and civilisations cannot destroy the familial character of humankind. “In the breakâup of the modern world,” Chesterton observed, “the family will stand out stark and strong as it did before the beginning of history; the only thing that can really remain a loyalty, because it is also a liberty.”
The future of our Western civilisation lies in the hands of the young, those born over the last four decades. Particularly in Europe, America, Australia, and New Zealand, they have been the children of a troubled age, a time of moral and social disorder. They were born into a culture dominated by selfâindulgence, abortion, and cynicism. To reâmake the world, they need to be inspired by a positive vision of the true natural order.
Perhaps Christians can draw some courage from the fact that we, in a way, have been at this point before. One thousand, seven hundred years ago, during the last two centuries of the old Roman Empire in the West, Christians witnessed the terrible practices of the pagan Romans, who were abandoning marriage and family for the pursuit of individual pleasures. As Saint Ambrose observed at that time:
“[The] women [of Rome] are in a hurry to wean their children;
If they be rich, they scorn to suckle them;
Poor women expose their children to die;
And if found, refuse to take them back;
The rich, rather than see their fortune divided,
Use murderous juices to kill the fetus within the womb;
Men have not the affection of crows for their little ones.”
Those early Christians did not despair. Instead, they went out to build a culture around the natural family. They became an example of another, and better way to live. St Augustine and the other Church Fathers defined the true marriage as binding together three purposes, fides, proles, and sacramentum: fidelity, the procreation of children, and indissoluble unity.
In the midst of a pagan culture of death, the Christians offered through their own lives a culture of life, one that protected the preborn and the infants and one that welcomed the large family as a treasure and a gift from God. Some of the pagans among them converted; others died away. Christendom emerged.
In this, the year of Our Lord 2008, the pagans are back, with their same old culture of selfishness and death. Christians â and allies â are summoned again to build a culture of life resting on the natural family.
In his message for the World Day of Peace, given this past January 1, Pope Benedict XVI summonses us to this purpose. He writes:
“The natural family, as an intimate communion of life and love, based on marriage between a man and a woman, constitutes ‘the primary place of “humanisation” for the person and society’ and a ‘cradle of life and love.’ The family is therefore rightly defined as the first natural society, ‘a divine institution that stands at the foundation of life of the human person as the prototype of every social order.’”
There is great strength and new opportunity in the “natural family” ideal. Let us use them to build once again a better social order, a true culture of the family, a model for those lost and searching, one in harmony with our human nature, and one that will welcome and protect the children.
This is an edited version of the talk given by Dr Carlson at the recent Australian Family Association national conference in Perth over the weekend of October 18-19