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Is the Family Really Endangered?

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.