Whither the American Family?
Timothy S. Goeglein
Tim Goeglein is vice president of External Relations for Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to "Helping Families Thrive." Its web site is at www.focusonthefamily.com.
This triangle of truisms of father, mother, and child cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it - G.K. Chesterton.
A generation ago, a cultural consensus said that the traditional family was worthy of our support. There was widespread understanding and agreement that the nuclear family - a husband and wife committed to each other and devoted to the raising and nurturing of their children - was a powerful force for the common good.
Of course families have always experienced divorce, brokenness, and other trials just as they do today, and just as they have throughout recorded history. Nevertheless, in earlier times the traditional family was considered of paramount importance to the well-being of both individuals and society as a whole.
But that is not the case today. The word family has all but lost its original meaning in our modern landscape. You don't have to look far to see the fallout. Divorce is the norm. An increasing number of children are growing up in homes where at least one parent is absent. Broken families are the root cause of so many of our social problems, from abuse and addiction to poverty and crime.
Our attempts to redefine and reimagine the family only make these problems worse, not better. Somehow, we've lost our way. We live in a media-saturated culture that thrives on sound bites but rarely takes the time to dig deeper into the issues. When it comes to the institution of the family, though, we can't afford to skim the surface. We need to have a deep, well-rounded understanding of the family in order to truly grasp its importance.
Each and every one of us came into this world as part of some family. Most of us go on to start families of our own. Like the air we breathe, family is something we can't live without. But family is so natural, so omnipresent, and so fundamental to life that we tend to take it for granted. We assume it will always be there. That assumption could turn out to be one of the greatest threats facing the world today. For the family, like the earth's natural resources, can be polluted, damaged, or impaired if we don't try to understand what it is, why it is important, and how it can be preserved.
The first thing to understand is that the family is not just some modern, Western, or exclusively Christian idea. It is God's idea. The family is the natural and inevitable outcome of marriage and parenting, which were the first very assignments God gave to mankind in the Garden of Eden, to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." Hence it's no surprise that wherever we go in the world, at any time in human history we find socially approved, encouraged, and protected groupings of people that most of us would recognize as families. Marriage has always existed, and predates the earliest historical records.
Edward Westermarck, one of the most systematic and thorough of anthropologists, who has dedicated his life to the study of marriage throughout many of the world's cultures at various ages, has written:
Marriage . . . is the husband's duty . . . to support his wife and children. . . . That the functions of the husband and father in the family are not merely of the sexual and procreative kind, but involve the duty of protecting the wife and children is testified by an array of facts relating to peoples in all quarters of the world and in all stages of civilization. . . . As for the origin of the institution of marriage, I consider it probable that it has developed out of a primeval habit.
Marriage is the way all societies tie men to their children and to the mothers of their children. What this tells us is that marriage and parenting are both natural - that is, rooted in creation - and learned. In other words, the family is something we need to foster, nurture, and encourage with great care. Even though our physical environment is natural, it still needs to be cared for and protected. The same is true for the human ecology of family.
All cultures at all times must make a purposeful and intentional decision that family matters. Why is this? Because the well-being of the family and the welfare of society go hand in hand. If we ignore this connection, there's a high price to be paid for our negligence - a price we can measure in dollars and cents.
A major university study on the fiscal aspects of the problem has revealed that family decline and fragmentation costs U.S. taxpayers more than $112 billion every year, or more than $1 trillion a decade. These figures likely understate the actual costs that arise from an increased need for anti-poverty and welfare programs, criminal justice, school nutrition programs, special education, etc.
Beyond economics, unhealthy families result in a tragic loss of benefits to adults, children, and society. Clearly, where the family declines, individuals and communities suffer in significant ways. This has been well-documented in a diversity of reputable research for the last five decades.
Society is composed of individuals whose character is shaped and fostered in the home. That's why the commitment to the nurturing and defending of the family is such a central and urgent mission. Humanity itself cannot survive without it. Family is utterly basic to the very meaning of humanity; Christians and Jews believe that God created us in His very image - a visible, tangible, understandable representation of who He is and what He is like. And that's not all.
Genesis teaches us plainly that mankind fulfills this role by being both male and female. The first humans were created as a couple, and it's precisely as man and woman together that they mirror God's very nature. It's primarily as lover and beloved in a relationship of mutual give and take that Adam and Eve reveal the nature of God. Adam and Eve, in other words, reflect this beautiful and mysterious relational nature even more perfectly when, through becoming "one flesh" they participate with God in creating a third and distinct person when they beget and bear children.
It is through the family - this new human community of husband, wife, and child -that mankind most clearly shows forth the nature of God and the laws of nature. There is, of course, an infinite difference between the eternal mystery of love and creativity of God, and the physical manner in which male and female generate new life in the human family. After all, God is spirit, not flesh. Nevertheless, in the biblical vision, human sexuality reflects something - or is intended to reflect something - of the eternal exchange of life-giving love found in God.
Theologian Michael Downey made this observation, which is prescient:
The human person is not an individual, not a self-contained being who at some stage in life chooses or elects to be in relationship with another and others. . . . From our origin we are related to others. We are from others, by others, toward others, for others, just as it is in God to exist in the relations of interpersonal love.
This is not just sentimental imagery. It speaks deeply and beautifully of the nature of God, our destiny, and just how important marriage, parenting, and family are within the scheme of Providence's grand and overarching plan. Family, then, is integral not only to human nature, but also to the very nature of God. This side of heaven, marriage and family is the best and most accurate representation we have of the intimate, relational, and loving character of Providence Himself.
Yet there are no perfect families. To be human is flawed. The writer Midge Decter once averred that God puts us into families not to be happy but to be human. There is much truth to that indeed, reflecting and echoing Tolstoy's famous observation: "All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Does this mean that the family is in a hopeless situation? Thankfully not. Redemption is real, and so is renewal.
Excellent research suggests some qualities that seem to characterize successful families. The first is that members of successful families realize that the meaning of family is bigger than themselves. This helps us to see our families and those around us in the proper, larger perspective. Living this kind of "big picture" is healthy and realistic.
Secondly, thriving families are committed to the long haul in marriage and parenting. They make family a top priority, putting it above their personal want and desires. They know that love is more than just an emotion.
Third, a healthy family demonstrates mutual respect, honor, care, and concern for all family members. It emphasizes affirmation and encouragement and downplays criticism.
Fourth, no family can survive if its members are not willing to bend and flex with one another. Grace, forgiveness, and a sense of safety are absolutely essential to smoothly functioning family relationships.
Fifth, balanced parents expect obedience from their children, but they also encourage individuality. They realize that love, and not rigid adherence to rules, is the key to healthy human development.
Sixth, thriving families intentionally create an atmosphere of joy. They laugh together, play together, and delight in one another. But they avoid making jokes at someone's expense.
Finally, balanced families care about the world around them. They take seriously the idea that the world will be a poorer place if they don't do their part to serve others.
We are living in and through an incredibly difficult time for families, marriages, and parenting. The pace of modern life, the practical implications of technological advancement, changes in social attitudes due to major cultural shifts - these and many other factors have combined in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to undermine the quality of family relationships today.
The cultural, public policy, and legal arcs are sometimes discouraging and often against us. Yet amidst this sometimes bleak landscape of familial breakdown, I believe there is genuine reason for hope. That home comes from God's sacred and remarkable model for the family. His design works.
Why focus on families amid all the other areas of life where we could be concentrating? Because the solution to so many of our society's problems can be found in a wholehearted investment in stable, healthy families. Glimmers of eternal truth flash out to us from the heart of everyday family life. Healthy families, marriages, and parenting are both fundamental and foundational.
The business done in the home is nothing less than the shaping of the bodies and souls of humanity. The family is the factory that manufactures mankind.
Good marriages and families are beneficial for everyone. They're good for individuals, both inside and outside the family structure. They're also good for society as a whole.
We must see these immutable, eternal principles more clearly; we owe it to our country, our culture, our civilization. Healthy, thriving families are something the world desperately needs. *