happy_familyIn responding to a post of mine criticizing our liberal culture for its hostility toward the traditional family, a commenter wrote: “I do not know a single liberal who…does not value (and participate in) both traditional and non-traditional families.” I think it is important to examine this liberal response to conservative criticism, not because the issue can be “settled,” but because it can tell us why liberals and conservatives so often seem to be talking past one another when it comes to social issues.

Conservatives (like me) often are accused of being unfairly censorious in accusing liberals of undermining primary institutions like the family.  After all, the argument goes, we talk about “attacks” on relationships liberals genuinely value.  And there is a way in which this is true—a way that shows why the “culture wars” are not likely to end any time soon. 

When someone tells you that he and his liberals friends “value (and participate in) both traditional and non-traditional families” that person expects a fight about just what a “non-traditional family” might be. Most liberals, in my experience, are loaded for bear on this question. “What, you mean just because both parents are not present, or both happen to be male, or female, or the family is a mixed one, having been through one or more divorces, or there is no marriage certificate, that it somehow is not ‘real’?  Well how intolerant and narrow-minded is that?”

If true, this charge would be a serious one. But it is not. Tragedies occur, as they always have. Children are left to be raised by a single parent—neither death nor abandonment is new. Children are raised by maiden aunts, struggling uncles, and other relatives or adoptive parents. Broken families seek to reform in the wake of one or more tragedies.  And common law marriage grew up to recognize the rights of children and spouses in situations where marriages are difficult to obtain or one spouse (or both) persists in refusing to solemnize the relationship.

The real issue is not what exact form of family we value, but what it means to “value” this fundamental institution of social life.  The difference between the traditional and liberal position, here, is summed up in the term “broken family.”  The term is considered rude, today, because it is seen as indicating that there is something wrong with single parent and other “non-traditional” families. In reality, it is a recognition that something tragic has occurred when spouses die, abuse, walk away, or never marry, leaving children to be raised by fewer or more distant relations.  Countless children have overcome the struggles caused by such a tragedy, and we have a duty to help them in that endeavor.  But pretending that nothing bad has happened is something we do for our own benefit (so that we will not “feel guilty”) not for theirs.

The issue, then, is not the particular shape of a particular family, but rather the understanding of what purpose a family is by nature intended to serve.  Perhaps it is best, here, to go a bit deeper into the charge against conservatives:  not only are we narrow-minded for denying the status of “family” to “non-traditional” relationships, we are, in effect, denying the validity of the feelings of those who live in intimate relationships that do not fit our definition of “family.”  That is, we are accused of somehow claiming that the feelings of homosexual couples, or non-married co-habitants, or persons in other relationships, are false.

The source of this charge is the belief that those feelings are what really matters in any family.  As I have been told more than once, the real issue in the same-sex marriage debate is love. By denying the full status of married people to various groups, conservatives, on this view, are standing against love.

No one should deny the reality of love (after all, God Himself is love). Nor should we deny that love is an important good (after all, again, God Himself is love). The question, however, is not one of love, or even of commitment to and support for a particular person, but of what purpose a family serves. For example, the fundamental issue in the same-sex marriage debate is not whether homosexual couples should be allowed to love and support one another, but whether that love should be recognized as familial.

Americans increasingly fail to recognize the importance of this distinction because they increasing fail to recognize the natural purpose of the family, which is to raise children. Marriage, in the proper (non-“broken”) sense means giving oneself wholly to another person and the natural outgrowth of that relationship. So now I have “narrowed” the definition of family still further?  Only a couple with their own biological children is a “real” family?  Again, tragedies, including the inability to have children and the death of a child, occur. But the millions of couples struggling to have or adopt children are evidence that such facts are, in fact, tragic, because they obstruct us from achieving the full good of family life.

Not to come off as too harsh, but love does not make a family. I am reminded of the ending to that old Robin Williams movie, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”  Having been divorced by his wife, mostly for not paying attention to her or his children, Williams’ character gets decked out in drag to play nanny to the kids so that he can spend time with them.  It cannot last, of course.  But in the end, back in drag, the title character tells us that “some families” are not like in story books, spending all their time together; some may not even see one another very often, but they still are families, so long as there is “love.”

My question at the time remains my question now:  “how does the occasional ‘I love you’ delivered over the phone or on a weekend visit make a family?”  Such expressions are natural and good, but constitute, at best, recognition of meaningful ties and yearning for familial connections that are no longer fully there.

The family is by nature a lifelong joining of two people, and their families, for the purpose of bringing new life into the world and raising children to be virtuous members of that family and, through it, of society. This is a demanding vision. And it does, in fact, entail the view that a whole slew of behaviors that are common today are in an important sense wrong—because they prevent the formation and flourishing of real, full families and, through them, of full lives.  What really upsets people, of course, is the notion that they sin when they engage in these behaviors.  But then adultery, abortion, non-marital sexual intercourse, contraception, and abandonment of one’s family (not to mention spousal or child abuse) do not cease to be sins just because we fail to recognize them as such. And “sin” is not a word coined so that Church Ladies can feel superior to people who live on the edge.  Sin is a fact of life, something in which we all share in many, many ways. Pride, sloth, gluttony, greed—sins are everywhere and we all engage in some of them. The point is not to pretend that we are better than one another, but to recognize and work on our failings so that we all can be better people.  And families provide the natural and by far the best institution in which to do that.

Families are not relationships, they are institutions that are rooted in relationships. If we only value our families because of the good feelings we get from them, they will become disposable extensions of ourselves, and they will die. Obviously, this does not mean that all natural families fulfill their purpose of nurturing children and raising them to be virtuous adults.  Many children, sadly, grow up in “traditional” families that inculcate violence, hatred, or simple indifference.  But that is a commentary on the failure by one or more members of that family to live up to their duties, not of the family itself.

The family is the basis of any decent society because only in it do children learn how to be decent adults. They are taught virtue in families, or nowhere, because it is only in the home that the kind of intensive, round-the-clock nurturing and acculturation necessary for character formation can occur. And, while it may be nice to talk about how common emotions and dedication to abstract ideals like justice or tolerance or love are what really matter, those emotions and ideals only become real when they are shaped by traditions handed down from parent to child over generations and reinforced through broader institutions of family, church, and local association.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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9 replies to this post
  1. I am going to go out on a limb here and be a bit more pointed:

    1) The idea that the Christian view of the family is “traditional” while the liberal view is “non-traditional” is not accurate. Traditionally, “families” were polygomous and bigamist. When questioning Jesus about divorce, the Jews specifically refered to cases where men would divorce their wives because of bad breath. The Christian view of family is not “traditional” – it is radical, which we should literally take to mean “rooted” in human Nature as a reflection o the “image of God” in which we were created.

    2) The best part of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape letters is the part wherein Screwtape defines the “stench” eminating from the Christian family to which the “patient” had attached himself through his newly found girlfriend. There is a good reason why the Devil is sickened by the Christian family: the reason is because the Christian family is ordered according the highest principles of Love amongst human beings. Please note that by “Christian family” I mean a family wherein faith and the works that are the result of faith find a home. To the extent that this faith (and the congruent works) weaken – the family becomes less Christian.

    3) The greatest tragedy of the modern Western world is the destruction of the ideal of family life as taught and refined throughout the ages in our Christian tradition. It is a tragedy because a broken family makes all of the other social, political and economic relations of men broken as well. Unable to find recognition in loving parents, people seek it in careers or collectivism, unable to bind love and friendship in life long marriage, people divide their love from the friendship – thus fulfilling neither. Unable to find sexual joy in marriage, people’s sex lives become brutalized and they suffer emotional discord since they are not animals only, nor spirits only. The body and the spirit must both be present in love. The list could go on and on.

    4) People who feel attacked by those who talk of broken families should feel attacked because what is being attacked in them is their low self-esteem. Anyone who would interpret the Christian calling for wholesome family life as an attack on them for having a bad father or a bad family situation is manifesting their psychological traumatization, which is usually the fault of the bad parents they had. Christians ought to press the ideal of the good family especially in the faces of those who have not experienced it because it is often the ONLY way for people to learn of the path towards happiness. People who themselves do not have good parents or good marriages ought to be shown other good families as beacons of hope that a better life is possible. These good marriages and families ought to be popularized in the culture as well.

    There ought to be zero tolerance for a discussion of the “merits and demerits” of single parent households, homosexual marriage and so forth and so on because there are no merits to them, only demerits. It would be lik talking about the merits and demerits of a marriage in which the husband drinks habitually. In such a situation, the husband is doing harm to himself and his family and should stop. Discussing the thing in any other way is an invitation for the harm to continue.

    • Peter: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I certainly don’t feel “attacked” by talk of broken families–why should I? There is no one in this world–aside from my ex-wives and our children–who can make me feel any worse than I already have and do about my failures as a husband and as a father.

      I agree with your notion that Christians should model the kind of families in which they believe and should thereby serve as role models to others. And certainly, for those who hold opinions like yours on this matter, “There ought to be zero tolerance for a discussion of the “merits and demerits” of single parent households, homosexual marriage and so forth and so on because there are no merits to them, only demerits.” But for those of us who see it otherwise, tolerance (and forgiveness, and compassion) will continue to be the order of the day.

      My only point in all of this has been not to argue the merits of one kind of family or another but to emphasize that I simply don’t believe that liberals are opposed to traditional families–heck, I personally know and admire lots of such families (beginning with my older daughter, her husband and their two great kids).

  2. Professor Frohnen: As the “commenter” in question, I appreciate your thoughtful elaboration of your beliefs about families. I hasten to add that I was not in the least looking for a fight or “loaded for bear”; I was simply noting that I’ve never met anyone who regards traditional families as an enemy (which was your claim about liberals). I still don’t find anything in this latest post to substantiate that claim; what I find instead is an articulate explanation of why you, and other traditional conservatives, consider “non-traditional” families (and the social mainstreaming of such) your enemy.

    I suspect that what liberals are at odds with is not “traditional families” but with the insistence that nothing else should qualify as family at all. “The family is by nature a lifelong joining of two people, and their families, for the purpose of bringing new life into the world and raising children to be virtuous members of that family and, through it, of society”: that’s a lovely vision–though I’d question “by nature”–and an ideal worth striving for, and I note that your phrasing (“two people”) doesn’t exclude anyone in particular. “Brokenness,” as conservatives know better than anyone, is the human condition; and as someone who has, sadly, helped break a family or two of my own–I don’t disavow or disparage the “family” ideal, but I’m grateful that people are charitable enough to allow that even “broken families” are families in their own broken way.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

    • It was not so long ago that liberals considered marriage and the family to be a vestige of the patriarchical society that they were so eager to be rid of.

      For example: “The simplistic formula that claims ‘you’re either pro-marriage or against equality’ makes us forget that all forms of marriage perpetuate gender, racial and economic inequality…We reject a gay agenda that pours millions of dollars into campaigns for access to oppressive institutions for a few that stand to benefit”. http://makezine.enoughenough.org/prop8.html

      Megan McArdle, writing in the Daily Beast, has made the case that gay marriage results in the death of the sexual revolution, because it results in homosexual relations being subsumed into bourgeois sexual morality. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/03/26/why-gay-marriage-will-win-and-sexual-freedom-will-lose.html

      It is, indeed, a rather striking reversal that now, rather than decrying it as an inherently oppressive and bourgeois institution, the left has now venerated “marriage” as a good so basic that it must be considered a “right”.

  3. Pressing on:

    1) The notion of a “broken family” implies two things – a) that there is, in contrast, a whole family – which is distinguishable from a broken one and b) that “broken” by definition means worse, because if “broken” families are equal to whole families – then why call them “broken” in the first place?

    2) I disagree with this notion that on the one hand you have the ideal family and on the other you have “tolerance, compassion and forgiveness”. Dr. Frohnen’s whole point – which is a true one – is that these and other virtues are extremely hard to learn outside of the family. It is the family unit that teaches people tolerance because it puts different, unique human beings under one roof and in one community, with responsibilities that are NOT the result of “choice” (parents don’t choose their kids, kids don’t choose parents and siblings). You MUST love eachother, which seems radically at odds with the notion of chosen love, and thus you learn that tolerance, forgiveness and compassion are the rocks upon which you build this love. This is wholly opposite to the “chosen” “alternative” families where everyone is “free” to “float” around and organize their responsibilities as they see fit, as their whim – and not Nature (let alone God) dictates. Of course, this “freedom” is a complete illusion – for we are only truly free when we pursue the true, the good and he beautiful. Any HABITUAL deviation (for non-habitual deviation is a function of our imperfect, fallen nature) and we become slaves to our own passions and appetites. Once we choose to fulfill who we are, or bend our will to God’s will – that is when we make the happy discovery that since God above all else wills our eternal happiness -then we have in fact not given ourselves up, but found ourselves. Absent God, the same argument applies from a purely Natural Law basis.

    3) I think the problem here is that there is some fear hanging in the air that a full embrace of the ideal family is akin to dehumanizing everyone who does not fit this ideal. This is paranoia. Part of the ideal of the good family is tolerance, forgiveness and compassion. However, tolerance implies there is some ill we must tolerate, forgiveness implies some guilt we must forgive and compassion implies some problem we must empathize with. All of these virtue – tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion – should be the energy with which people go about repairing what was broken. If someone has had the misfortune of a spouse who did not live up to their vows – find someone who will instead of giving up and saying “this ideal makes no sense”. If there are children from a previous marriage, then they need to be taught so as not to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Repair, recovery, redemption – these should be the goals.

    Sadly, in our culture, the goal is equality, by which I mean that there is a passive kind of acceptance of a multiplicity of “family” forms, and a sort of helplessness that if you call someone out for not living up to their responsibilities – then you will be painted as intolerant. Finally, from a political point of view – there is little recognition that the drastic rise in divorce and single parent homes is a crisis, not the result of “spontaneous order” or “free choices” made by individuals seeking happiness. It is not normal. It should not be happening. It is a corruption no different from bribery or abuse of power on the part of government officials. Citizens who are married have an obligation towards their fellow citizens and when families fall apart, society suffers. There may well be many ways out of this crisis – but pretending that what is happening is some “process of social change” or that we are witnessing the emergence of a more “open” society (and thus better society) is just Neroism with a big violin.

    • Peter:

      (1) As to brokenness and what it implies: no argument from me on that score. A lot of people probably wouldn’t use the phrase “broken families”–but I’ve lived through it, and I know what it for what it was. My ex-wife, our children and I have continued to constitute a family, but not the family we should have been. I don’t pretend that’s anything but a failure (primarily mine), but we’ve done the best we can towards “repair, recovery, and redemption” (words well chosen on your part).

      (2) I don’t know who you’re quoting when you talk about people “giving up and saying ‘this ideal makes no sense'”, but certainly that’s not what I said. I praised the ideal and praised people who live up to it. As for “Citizens who are married have an obligation towards their fellow citizens and when families fall apart, society suffers,” again–you’re entirely correct, and you’ve made an important point. Of course, these days it’s hard enough to get two people to acknowledge a lasting obligation toward each other, much less towards “society”…but the effort must be made.

      (3) I didn’t mean to oppose “the ideal family” to “tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness”. Of course those aren’t exclusive, and of course the former is often the place where the latter is learned. I only meant to say that, while I acknowledge, value, and admire “the ideal family,” my understanding of “ideal” is that it’s a goal to strive for but not usually obtained; and that when folks don’t reach the ideal, they ought not to be castigated.

      (4) Think of St. Paul’s advice in First Corinthians. For him, the ideal was to be unmarried–“It is good for man not to marry…Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am…I wish that all men were as I am.” But he recognized that not everyone would or could live up to the ideal–“it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” That’s the attitude that I take regarding gay marriage: it’s not “ideal” or even “traditional,” but it’s better than the alternatives, just as “broken families” are better than no families at all (and can, sometimes, be repaired, recovered, and even redeemed). Paul recognized human weakness (sinfulness, if you prefer) and grudgingly allowed for it, while making his preferences clear. That’s always been my approach to marriage and family issues: I want encouragement of, and support for, the ideal; but also the tolerance, compassion and forgiveness of which I spoke for those who fail to achieve it.

      Thanks for the dialogue.

  4. Regarding Corintheans: yes, that is an oft quoted fragment of St. Paul’s thought. However, the context is everything, and I think that Ephisians 5:28 is more relevant to everyday human life. Certainly my Priest thought so – since this was the basis of his sermon during my wedding. I don’t think St. Paul considered marriage a weakness – rather:

    “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

    As for castigating -I agree with you: no one ought to be castigated for falling short of any ideal. But those who simply turn their back on it, or actively wish to destroy it – those ought to be castigated.

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