Is the Family Really Endangered?

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Perhaps
it is the weather in much of the world. When the outside world is
chilly we find warmth in the home and the bosom of the family, and
think a little more fondly of the importance of the family. Even
those who doubt the validity of the Good News that this season proclaims,
or treat it with indifference, view Christmas time as family time.
Even elements of popular culture that are fascinated with the dysfunctional
family as something to deplore or laugh at cannot escape the central
importance of the family as the fundamental building block of civilization.

Even
as we look forward to time spent with family and friends, however,
there’s an apparent paradox. For many who celebrate the central
importance of the family, the most important fact of modern life
is less the constructive role of families in society than the apparently
endangered status of the family.

Whether
the antagonists are remnant Marxists, feminists, easy divorce, purveyors
of pornography, the entertainment industry, homosexuals seeking
their own version of family life or the temptations of materialism
in a late-capitalist society, the family as an institution is viewed
by many as under siege and vulnerable to destruction. A large cottage
industry has arisen in this country to decry the assaults on the
family and demand more government help and protection to keep families
intact.

I
understand that some of this is a simple function of one of the
cardinal rules of political and organizational fund-raising. People
are more likely to give money to stave off a perceived crisis or
calamity than simply to promote something constructive. Thus the
Family Research Council, headed for much of its existence by former
presidential candidate Gary Bauer, declares "May Day for the
Family" and laments "The War on Values" on a Web
site that also features a good deal of thoughtful and constructive
discussion of the importance of families and how to keep them intact
in a sometimes hostile environment.

What
emanates from much of the propaganda from pro-family organizations,
however, is a sense that families are extremely vulnerable and fragile,
constantly in danger of being undermined and destroyed, thus bringing
civilization itself down around our ears. There’s some truth in
this, of course. But it might also be helpful to remember, during
this season of rejoicing, that families really are the building
blocks of civilization, that every culture and civilization known
to anthropologists has featured some version of the nuclear family
as its centerpiece, and that the family as an institution has survived
the downfall of countless cultures and civilizations.

This
is not to deny that the family as an institution has been under
attack, sometimes explicit and purposeful attack (as compared to
changing cultural and economic conditions that create strains) for
well over a century, especially in "enlightened" circles
in Western Europe and the United States. Marxists and socialists
and trendy types influenced by them without following them all the
way viewed families as retrograde, primitive groupings that vitiated
one’s commitment to society at large.

The
two great totalitarian enterprises of the 20th century, Nazism and
communism, rewarded children who informed on their parents and generally
sought (sometimes brutally) to break up families as barriers to
total loyalty to the State. Self-styled progressives and advocates
of sexual "liberation" of various sorts have gone out
of their way to denigrate and undermine families.

Yet
today communism, Nazism and to some extent socialism are on the
ash heap of history and families – if a little tattered, battered
and uncertain – are still around.

To
some extent it’s because the social science studies collected and
compiled by pro-family advocates seem to have gotten it right. There’s
pretty solid evidence (I haven’t read all the studies but have perused
a few) that children in intact families (compared to single-parent
and divorced families) have lower incidences of illegitimate children,
lower use of welfare, fewer psychiatric problems, better overall
health, much less child abuse, fewer learning and school problems,
less propensity toward drug abuse and a much lower chance of engaging
in criminal behavior.

These
advantages are even more marked when the family is religious – just
about any traditional religion – insofar as being religious is defined
not as having an opinion on the afterlife when a pollster calls,
but regularly attending religious services.

Marriage
is also good for the health and longevity of the partners. Just
last week a team of Harvard researchers found that marriage is good
for men’s health – that single men were at greater risk of dying
early than smokers.

This
is not to say that there aren’t single moms, divorced dads and gay
couples out there who are doing a splendid job of raising children.
Nor is it to deny that there are "intact" families that
are dysfunctional and bad for children in ways far more tragic than
amusing. But the odds say a traditional family, on balance, does
a better job with children than any of the alternatives.

What
kinds of shocks can families endure? During the Maoist "Great
Leap Forward" in China, families, traditionally the fundamental
focus of loyalty in Chinese culture, were purposely broken apart
in an effort to punish and eliminate reactionary attitudes and instill
more loyalty to the state. Previously, China endured invasion and
rule by Mongols and Manchus. Yet the concept of the family, and
loyalty more to family than to the state endured, and Chinese civilization
is still recognizably Chinese. Eventually, under Deng Xiaoping,
the family was used as the building block for China’s new economic
resurgence – which in turn is putting a strain of a different
kind on the family.

In
short, the family as an institution, whether built on ties of kinship
and blood or (as in adoption and alternative forms) on the experience
of persevering and sometimes sacrificial love, is likely to survive
its current trials and become the basis for whatever hope of truly
civilized societies we have for our children and grandchildren.

One
caveat. Politicized pro-family organizations, in addition to characterizing
the family as more endangered than it probably is, sometimes give
in to the temptation to use their political clout to gain government
support for families.

Now
I’m all for recognizing that high taxes have been one of the reasons
both parents think they have to work these days, and finding any
way to lower taxes on families – or anyone. But positive help from
the government – marriage education in government schools, therapy
for troubled couples, government help for faith-based counseling – is a two-edged sword. Government programs are bound to have a
utilitarian, secular approach to marriage and family. And the state
is not necessarily a friend of the family.

The
state as an institution is a competitor for the loyalty of citizens,
not only with the family but with the church, with civic organizations,
with philosophical ideals, with civil society in general. The state,
remember, believes it has the right to force people to kill or die
for the greater glory of the state – which is not the same thing
as society, though many people speak or write as if this were so – a fate most families don’t cherish for their members. Its "help"
for the family is more likely to reinforce state values than family
values.

The
family as an institution is likely to survive even these depredations.
But there’s little sense in inviting the wolf into the sheepfold.
And let’s let up a little on the gloom and doom.

Merry
Christmas.

December
21, 2004

Alan
Bock [send him mail] is Senior Essayist at the Orange County
Register. He is the author of Ambush
at Ruby Ridge
and Waiting
to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana
.

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