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After The Nuclear Family

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David Brooks has a big piece in The Atlantic today about how the nuclear family has collapsed, and how people are trying new ways of building family-like structures from the rubble. Excerpts:

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

This article is about that process, and the devastation it has wrought—and about how Americans are now groping to build new kinds of family and find better ways to live.

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When you put everything together, we’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once. People who grow up in a nuclear family tend to have a more individualistic mind-set than people who grow up in a multigenerational extended clan. People with an individualistic mind-set tend to be less willing to sacrifice self for the sake of the family, and the result is more family disruption. People who grow up in disrupted families have more trouble getting the education they need to have prosperous careers. People who don’t have prosperous careers have trouble building stable families, because of financial challenges and other stressors. The children in those families become more isolated and more traumatized.

Many people growing up in this era have no secure base from which to launch themselves and no well-defined pathway to adulthood. For those who have the human capital to explore, fall down, and have their fall cushioned, that means great freedom and opportunity—and for those who lack those resources, it tends to mean great confusion, drift, and pain.

Read it all. Seriously, read it all. It’s superb, despite its flaws. Sociologists Wendy Wang and Brad Wilcox say the data on the “extended family” model that Brooks proposes are not encouraging. From my point of view, the essay’s major flaw is in its ignoring the role of religion. I wrote about this in a short essay posted at the Institute For Family Studies, and reproduced here. I agree that the nuclear family was unstable, for all the reasons Brooks cites. But I have a much more pessimistic view of where things go from here:

In The Atlantic today, David Brooks says the nuclear family has actually been falling apart for a hundred years. Carle C. Zimmerman would have agreed with him. In his unjustly forgotten 1947 book Family And Civilization, the Harvard sociologist said that Americans had built a culture that conspired against family formation—the very thing that makes our civilization possible. Zimmerman wrote:

There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. Whatever may be our Pollyanna inclination, this fact cannot be avoided. Under any assumptions, the implications will be far-reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is social. It is no longer familistic; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.

Zimmerman did not foresee the Baby Boom, which was just beginning as he published, but otherwise, he was on target. Though not a religious believer, Zimmerman observed that the Christian churches of the 1940s collectively represented the only force resisting the disintegration of the family.

It must have seemed that way once, but it has not been the case for a very long time. As Mary Eberstadt argued in her 2013 book, How The West Really Lost God, the very continuation of the church also seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.

In talking with my own Christian friends struggling in their marriages, it is clear that in almost all cases—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—the institutional church is not a meaningful part of shoring up their commitment to marriage, except in an abstract sense. For most, congregational life is the thinnest of communities. Catholics, for example, lament that their parishes are impersonal “sacrament factories.” Evangelicals tell me that their congregations may be somewhat thicker, but like all other American Christian churches, are so saturated by individualism that they can’t persuasively frame marriage as much more than a lightly sacralized contract between willing parties. There is no escaping modernity.

We will not have a revival of the family without a revival of religion—and not just sentimental, therapeutic Christianity, but a rigorous, disciplined, countercultural form of the faith that can impart to people the hope they need to embrace suffering and choose life amid the dissipation and decadence of the world.

Why are the churches so absent, or at least so impotent, in the task of forming and defending families? Brooks writes:

Eli Finkel, a psychologist and marriage scholar at Northwestern University, has argued that since the 1960s, the dominant family culture has been the “self-expressive marriage.” “Americans,” he has written, “now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.” Marriage, according to the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, “is no longer primarily about childbearing and childrearing. Now marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment.” 

So is religion! And it became so at the same time that marriage and family were changing, under the same atomizing pressures. As early as the mid-1960s, the sociologist Philip Rieff identified the profound therapeutic shift in American culture, and the self-deceptive eagerness of the clergy to pretend it wasn’t happening.

Brooks explains that people today are experimenting with new forms of family-like communal living—“forged families” as he puts it—who are trying to find something to replace what we have lost. One can only hope for their success, but no reader of Zimmerman can be optimistic that family systems can recover absent real religious commitment. The same experimentation is beginning to happen here and there in Christian life. The renunciation of the contemporary concept of marriage and religion as about self-fulfillment, and the rediscovery of both as self-sacrificial, firmly grounded in the divine, is the only way out of this dark wood.

This is, obviously, a narrow and unappealing path, and not many will take it— until they learn, as the pilgrim Dante did at the start of his arduous journey, that all other ways forward are closed.

Family And Civilization is a work of historical sociology in which the author explains how the rise and fall of Greek, Roman, and medieval European civilizations depended on changing family forms. Zimmerman makes a case that the “atomistic” family—what we call the nuclear family—is always the final form before civilization collapses, having lost to hedonism and radical individualism what is needed to hold society together.

Zimmerman concluded his great book by reiterating that we know why civilization is falling apart—“the lack of a basic belief in the forces which make it work”— and we know that eventually, “the necessary remedy” will be applied.

Zimmerman’s tragedy is that he, as a man of social science and not of faith, could not admit the conclusion to which his premises lead: that civilization will not recover until it collectively rediscovers religion—one that, like early and medieval Christianity, puts family and fertility close to the center of both its authoritative belief system and lived experience.

We will not have a revival of the family without a revival of religion—and not just sentimental, therapeutic Christianity, but a rigorous, disciplined, countercultural form of the faith that can impart to people the hope they need to embrace suffering and choose life amid the dissipation and decadence of the world. It has been said before, and it remains true: we really are waiting for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

I believe that we will see a much stronger desire for socialism in the Millennial and post-Millennial generations, in part to make up for the loss of family, and the natural solidarity produced by familistic culture. I like this part of Brooks’s piece:

In other words, while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant [because the social and economic conditions that support the nuclear family no longer exist — RD], progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental. The sexual revolution has come and gone, and it’s left us with no governing norms of family life, no guiding values, no articulated ideals. On this most central issue, our shared culture often has nothing relevant to say—and so for decades things have been falling apart.

He’s right about that. You won’t see progressives saying or proposing anything that would violate the sacred precepts of the Sexual Revolution. And, as we know, conservatives have been loath to propose anything that curtails economic liberty. But I think that is changing, and certainly conservatives have more room to maneuver on the right than progressives do on the left. On the Right, majorities are more willing to let go of free-market dogmas. In fact, after Trump, there will be no return to free-market neoliberalism. The candidates who will rise to lead the party are those who find some way to articulate Trumpist solidarity in an appealing, coherent, and policy-rich way. Progressives, though, are rigidly locked into their Sexual Revolution dogmas, because they have made an identity of sexual desire. To rethink sexual freedom is anathema.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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