Why do we marry? Why should we value families? Americans seem unclear on the answers to these fundamental questions. We debate whether the government should tolerate people who refuse to help celebrate same-sex unions and we argue over how to address violence, depression, and welfare dependency among young people raised without fathers. But we shy away from asking whether we have made life better or worse for young people—and ourselves—by viewing the family through the lenses of public recognition and public policy, rather than our understanding of who we are and what makes life worth living.
Conflict over the family stems from the persistence of two fundamentally conflicting visions of its nature and purpose. Law and popular culture currently favor a view of the family as a loosely defined social grouping, sometimes but not always biological, that provides mutual support and primary care for children. Marriage, on this reading, is a public affirmation of the commitment of two people to one another, which commitment may or may not be long lasting, but which both parties at the time wish to have solemnized and celebrated. The other, older vision of the family is both more organic and more spiritual. It sees marriage and family as intrinsically tied together and rooted in the natural drive to procreate and to raise one’s children in common to carry on the family, the society, and the civilization of which one is a part. This latter vision, of the family as both natural association and primary institution—as the community we naturally form and the fundamental unit of society—is held in increasing disfavor. It has been obscured by decades of misguided public policy and by an ideology of atomistic individualism. Clearing this vision and reclaiming the traditional understanding of the family is essential to re-establishing the basic norms necessary for a peaceful, self-governing people.
It is simplest to begin with the currently popular vision of the family. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy summed it up in 2015‘s Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Decreeing that all states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, he stated that marriage is a means by which individuals “define and express their identity.” Other “ideals” also may be embodied in the legally-constituted family but, Kennedy held, the “fundamental right” to marry is rooted in individuals’ natural drive for self-expression.
For decades, the Supreme Court has been handing down decisions putting into action Justice Kennedy’s belief that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” America, on this view, is dedicated to the proposition that the fundamental unit of society—the proper object of rights, of protection, and of concern—is the individual. That individual achieves fulfillment in defining and expressing itself. As to the individual’s social drives, they are aimed at the individual’s own flourishing through forming, shaping, and ending a variety of relationships designed to enrich the lives of their members.
The contemporary family is one, but only one, of these relationships. It is an ever-shifting, dissolving, and potentially re-forming opportunity for self-expression. It may give rise to deep feelings and even a sense of duty but is itself subordinate to the adult members’ individual needs, which are understood as the defining moral needs. Society, being dedicated to the flourishing of the individual, must support and approve that individual’s choices. And so, to many it seems natural to punish florists, photographers, and bakers who cannot in good conscience celebrate same-sex unions. It seems only fair to do away with “patriarchal” daddy-daughter dances. And it seems a matter of justice to take children away from parents who refuse to provide access to sex-altering treatments. The government has a special obligation to protect individuals from beliefs and commitments that limit their full creative expression of identity. To be genuinely free the government must force us to be free.
Why, then, do some Americans, potentially at the cost of their jobs, reputations, and businesses, refuse to celebrate this contemporary family? The mainstream answer is that they are either hateful bigots or (to many people the same thing) religious zealots. The real reason has to do with that older, generally but not exclusively religion-based, vision of the family.
Since long before America was founded, families in our civilization—in all civilizations—have consisted of mothers, fathers, and their offspring, generally supplemented and reinforced by more distant blood relations. Though cultures give to families different and conventional forms by circumstance and need, the institution is natural, responding to defining human needs and helping to fulfill human wants. Through families, men and women become part of a greater whole, as suited to our nature as both social and cultural animals. Through this primary institution children learn who they are and how to be virtuous members of their society. When the sex drive is restrained, or rather directed by its natural consequence—children to be loved, cherished, and nurtured—social bonds develop, community flourishes, and a society of decent, caring people becomes possible: the ever visible dream discovered in the highest aspirations born of our nature.
This family is not some abstract ideal. Family members inevitably disagree with one another and, as with any human institution, there may be tragedy and even abuse. But neither is it a collection of individuals sharing certain needs, beliefs, and experiences as they pursue their own flourishing. Any functioning family is greater than the sum of its parts. Husbands sacrifice for their wives, wives for their husbands, and both for their children out of love, but also out of duty and habit more than grandiose ideological or emotional leaps. The natural family does not merely fulfill our need for self-expression. It makes us more fully human by taking us out of ourselves and into something larger and more constitutive of character and virtue than our desires for recognition and emotional support.
Natural as it is, then, the family is demanding. It also is essential to the formation and maintenance of a self-governing, virtuous society. By rearing children to be virtuous adults, the natural family makes possible a civil social order. Both parents must take part, over time, in the raising of children. And they cannot do this fully unless they are fully committed to playing a developing but consistent role in this lifelong community.
It is the example of a strong, responsible father who instills the habits of hard work and responsibility that leads young men to become protectors rather than abusers. It is the example of a strong, responsible mother who instills the habits of caring and restraint that leads young women to become nurturers rather than users or the abused. It is the example and experience of a strong family in which each does his or her part to serve the common good that teaches all young people to place the interests of others (especially their children) above their own.
No people can govern itself—can maintain a decent, civil order—if its members have not learned to govern themselves as persons, which means as members of families. If the vast majority of the people fail to obey the law the vast majority of the time, chaos will reign because no society can long afford enough police to prevent crime on their own. To the extent people come to see restraint on their personal inclinations as evil, government will resort to spying and other intrusive devices (e.g. video surveillance on the street, in the shops, and increasingly on the phone and video device) to keep the people under watch. America’s recent experience with FBI and other secret surveillance shows that democracies are not immune to the creep of political oversight. The alternative to authoritarianism is trust rooted in virtue. Only if we can trust most everyone to obey the law even when no one is looking can the law do its job. And only when we can trust most everyone to behave decently even if there is no effective law (say, requiring a man to support his children) can we have a decent society.
But if the natural family is so natural, and if its benefits are so essential, then how did so many Americans come to see it as spiritually stultifying and even oppressive? How is it that today it so often fails, fails to form, or is rejected altogether? Families always have had problems, and people always have had problems with their families. This is natural in a fallen world. The difference today is that so many people have rejected or rather forgotten what a family is supposed to be because they have lost contact with human nature.
It is possible to lose sight of an association’s nature and importance if we focus only our own short-term interests and rights. For decades now, we have enforced policies that undermine it and propagated an ideology that portrays it as unnatural and even sinister. It began with the best intentions, of supporting widows and abandoned mothers. Over time, however, policy mistakes, rooted in the idea that the federal government can fill in for suffering families, have taken their toll. Welfare benefits intended to help single mothers have kept fathers away from their children. No-fault divorce laws intended to free members of already-broken families have encouraged both spouses to treat marriage as a mere contract either party can break without penalty. And a sexual revolution has undermined cooperation in child rearing and the very idea of sex as a biological category.
Too many Americans fear to defend or even define the natural family for fear of being labelled sexist or homophobic. But there is nothing in the understanding of natural sex roles that denies the equality of all persons in the sight of God. Nothing, here, dictates or even excuses intolerance toward others. An understanding of the limited but real natural differences between men and women is the basis of proper toleration because it is true, and because it is necessary if we are to raise children capable of respecting one another and themselves.
One need not disapprove, let alone suppress, other relationships merely because one recognizes that they are not familial. Many important relationships, be they social, religious, or political, are not familial. And families themselves may encounter tragedy through the death or abandonment of a spouse, the inability to have children, or other causes. Relatives, friends, and the community may have to step in to provide succor and support in such circumstances. That said, something crucial is lost if we strip from the family our understanding of its essential, natural purpose. And that loss effects more than family members themselves. Even as it leaves children without appropriate role models, it also leaves society without properly formed young people. Because families are not only a natural but, for self-governing people, a primary institution in the cultivation of requisite civic virtues, the undermining of this institution must necessarily lead to the collapse of a free and self-governing society.
It is wrong to see the family as merely the source of social goods like education, emotional stability, and training for responsible adulthood. That kind of utilitarian calculus runs up against the claim that states, communities, or other organizations can “do the job” of raising kids without family ties. Sometimes, in limited numbers and with great dedication, communities (though rarely large bureaucratic systems) can help already strong children thrive. Moreover, the family that is valued solely or even principally for its side-benefits will not last long in the face of the promptings and temptations of our individualistic, sex-drenched culture.
And yet it remains a primary fact of our human nature that no society can flourish unless the vast majority of its children are raised as parts of permanent, natural families. A society like ours, in which children are so often raised without a single, steady, committed father, will suffer from massive cultural dislocation. All too many young people will fail to form families of their own. Too many young men will turn to violence as young women fall victim to various forms of destructive behavior, and the cycle of alienation worsens year by year. The more we undermine our natural institutions the harder it is to belong to a civilized order; the more we will become tech-savvy barbarians. The answer is not “better policy,” but a determination to refresh our collective memory of the family as our most natural as well as our most intimate association and as the fundamental basis of an ordered, free society.
Bruce Frohnen, the Ella and Ernest Fischer Professor of Law, Ohio Northern University College of Law, is currently working on a book reclaiming the history and principles of American Conservatism with Ted McAllister as part of the American Project.