A Bridge or an Abyss?
The Debate over the Family in the American Political “Village”
by Vigen Guroian
In his acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination, President Bill Clinton said he wanted to build bridges to the future. And he promised that he would commit the federal government to a strong role in supplying the building materials so that Americans might successfully cross over into the perennially promised new era that American politicians like to reimagine every presidential election year.
During the 1996 presidential campaign Clinton and the Republican nominee Bob Dole linked almost every domestic issue to one theme—family values. Each nominee insisted he was the most committed to the American family and that he also knew best how to rescue the core family values that were needed for a healthy society and a strong nation. Dole maintained that the difference between Clinton and himself was that he did not believe the values and virtues, the ethical material for the bridge, ought to come from the state. In his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination Dole said:
But Dole also added that, while he could not “magic[ally] restore to every child who lacks a father or a mother that father or that mother, . . . I would never turn my back on them, and shall, as president, promote measures that keep families together.” So Dole too would turn to the powers of the national government to bridge the gap in values and fill the sinkhole of moral decline and social disintegration.
I happen to believe Dole spoke the truth when he stated repeatedly that he was more inclined than his opponent to embrace federalism and localism and the resources of voluntary associations to remedy the decline of the American family—though the difference was a matter of degree. And I take it that when Clinton stated repeatedly that his solutions differed significantly from Dole’s and the Republicans’ that he understood that his program would rely much more on the power of government.
Yet both of the candidates identified a multitude of ways that the federal government, even the President himself, might lend support to the family and strengthen so-called family values. Tax breaks for the family and married couples, alternatives for educating children, liberal leave policies for new mothers, child-care support for single working mothers, a war against drugs, and so on were outlined by both candidates.
The Tensions of Family & State
What one did not hear from either candidate is the recognition that throughout recorded history the family and the state have lived in sharp tension with one another. Dole, however, was being respectful—even if not deliberately mindful—of this fact when he insisted that the family ought to be trusted more than the state in matters of morality. Clinton did not admit this tension exists, but through his openly stated belief in the wisdom of government and enthusiasm for using its powers to prevent and root out the social pathologies generated by and within the modern family, he paid respect to this fact as well.
Thus the positions of the two candidates shadowed, even if they did not outrightly acknowledge, the historic reality that the sociologist Robert Nisbet identifies in The Quest for Community. In that book, Nisbet explains the nature and significance of the historic tension between these two forms of human organization and activity when he writes:
Family & the Village
The tone of the 1996 presidential debate over the family was set well before the campaign began both by the Christian Right with its banner of pro-family politics and by Hillary Rodham Clinton in her best-selling volume, It Takes a Village. Clearly, Mrs. Clinton wrote her book to answer the Christian Right’s campaign for “family values” and to steal back some of the thunder for liberals. In It Takes a Village she attempts to set a moderate tone and convey the impression of a balanced analysis.
As one might expect, Dole and other Republicans at the Republican National Convention thought otherwise of her endeavor and took straight aim at the views Mrs. Clinton expressed. In his acceptance speech, Dole delivered the Republican punch line: “With all due respect,” he stated, “ I am here to tell you: it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family.”
The predictable response from Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats was that it also takes a village to raise children. True enough. But what Dole seems to have meant by his cryptic statement was that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s village is not a village at all, certainly not by any of the familiar descriptions and definitions of social anthropology or political science. It is instead a deus ex machina comprised of all the powers of the central state and all of the resources and networks in the greater society where parents might go to get assistance and help from the specialists. Just beneath her praise of the family lay the suspicion, or maybe even the persuasion, that parents today, though it may be no fault of their own, are ill-equipped to raise their own children and that it is the public duty of persons like Mrs. Clinton to put in place all of the governmental resources possible and to encourage them to seek the advice of the legion of family specialists that so often are the surrogate arms of government.
How Are Families in the Village?
Is there a crisis of the family and if there is what is the nature of it? There are notable voices in the public debate who insist that the family is not in decline. They insist that it is only in transition from old forms to new embodiments. These persons often describe themselves as realists. They readily admit that the familiar bourgeois nuclear family, which they describe as a legacy of the modern industrial revolution and Victorian conceptions of hearth and home, is diminishing in strength and significance. But they maintain that new forms of marriage and family are evolving and that we must be open to them and cultivate stability in these new forms.
This is the core message of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book. But by far, the most engaging and memorable moments in Mrs. Clinton’s book are her reminiscences of the kind of traditional family and community that she was raised in. And my guess is that she longs for that kind of experience again in her life. For the first 25 pages, Mrs. Clinton draws her readers into this fond remembrance of her childhood. “By upbringing and conviction my father was a devout Methodist, who prayed kneeling by the side of his bed every night,” she writes.
After these reminiscences, however, Mrs. Clinton proceeds to describe everything that she has related as “nostalgia” about the past that gets in the way of clear thinking about the present and future. By implication, she makes this real or imagined past the brunt of a sardonic admonition:
Now, I suspect that if one were to ask some of these African-Americans and sons and daughters of immigrants whether family life in the 1950s was more secure than it is today, even under conditions of economic distress and racial prejudice, many might say, “Yes.” The statistics and the studies on the history and course of the black family, for example, point to a devastating disintegration of marriage and kinship relations that has had catastrophic effects upon African-American youth, especially young males. These judgments are not the products of nostalgic minds.
New Forms of “Family”
Mrs. Clinton lists today’s social maladies: “broken homes, discrimination, economic downturn, urbanization, consumerism, and technology.” These, she argues, need not be our destiny. But she strongly implies that they have already rendered certain forms of human association less tenable, including that form of the family that belonged to her own past. Despite all of the disclaimers, social determinism lies just beneath Mrs. Clinton’s analysis and recommendations, as she adopts an argument often heard these days to justify abandoning the norm of a two-parent household made up of mother, father and children. She proclaims: “The human family assumes many forms and always has.”
Early in her book, Mrs. Clinton discusses how her husband Bill Clinton grew up with a stepfather who was a heavy drinker and physically abused his wife. She contrasts this upbringing with her own more “normal” family and childhood. But when she raises her argument about the variety of human families, she changes her mind: “It would be presumptuous of anyone,” she writes, “to say it [Bill Clinton’s family] was not a legitimate family or that it lacked ‘family values’.” If by legitimate Hillary Clinton means her husband had a family, I have no quarrel. But how does one get from this objective description to the equalization of all forms of family and rejection of norms by which we might judge one form of the family to be healthier than another?
In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s arguments slip back and forth between a pseudo-scientific message of cultural relativism that dismisses the possibility of a normative definition of marriage and family and preaching her own gospel of family and “family values.” There is no question that family is in crisis in America. Hillary Rodham Clinton is not able to disguise this fact very well.
The New Puritanism
At the heart of her book is the new cultural puritanism. This puritanism is strongly committed to making use of the state to set things right. The fervency and absolutism of its campaign to prohibit smoking is not unlike the Prohibition campaign at the turn of the century, and the tobacco companies fortuitously make an easy target for utopian moralism and abolitionist rhetoric.
The puritanism of the ideological left is in part a reaction to the real threat of social disintegration that we face and is also a reaction to its mirror opposite in the Christian and secular right. For there are also populist and authoritarian voices on the right who with equal fervor and self-righteousness seek to impose their own special kind of cultural purity. For instance, we need to ask ourselves seriously what the connection is between advocacy of right-to-life and violence committed against physicians and others who work in abortion clinics. I do not think the connection is accidental. Persons with ideological commitments of such intensity will indeed turn to and justify violence in order to force moral purity upon others. History is replete with examples of this.
Nevertheless, we should heed the admonition of the late Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey, who pronounced some two decades ago in his frighteningly prescient book entitled Fabricated Man, that “in our time the progressives ride in the saddle.” And progressives in America have historically turned to the state and its bureaucracy to impose their brand of puritanism and moral purity. Mrs. Clinton’s book is a harbinger of things to come. I expect there will be mounting rules and regulations issued by state and federal bureaucracies that hammer the wedge of the state further between husband and wife and parents and children.
In Place of the Parents
Twenty years ago, in his book Haven in a Heartless World, aptly subtitled “The Family Under Siege,” the sociologist Christopher Lasch identified the beginnings of this new social movement and its differences from earlier movements. There was a time, Lasch explains, when the progressive mind still believed that the “traditional” bourgeois family was fit to become a seat of civic virtue in a society filled with “crime and violence, and the cutthroat competition . . . [of] the marketplace. . . . This glorification of domestic life, simultaneously condemned the social order of the which the family allegedly served as the foundation.” But things have changed. We enter a therapeutic culture in which the family is the patient and is viewed to be as much of a problem as the society of which it was once a sure foundation.
Legions of experts take to the airwaves and find a home in government agencies whose charge it is to reform the family. “Thus the family struggles to conform to an ideal of the family imposed from without,” ultimately by the state. Mrs. Clinton provides the rationale for this intervention. “The instability of American households poses great risks to the healthy development of children,” she pleads. “The divorce rate has been falling slowly, but for a high proportion of marriages, ‘till death do us part’ means ‘until the going gets rough.’ And there has been an explosion of children born out of wedlock, from one in twenty in 1960 to one in four today.” And so Mrs. Clinton draws her reader steadily toward the conclusion she states some pages later:
Why the Debate Fails
The arguments Christians make in the debate over the family fail precisely because they have been persuaded to join that debate on the terms of the secular culture. They strap themselves willingly into a straitjacket by casting their public arguments in the secular language of individual rights—even when that language does not do justice to their covenantal understanding of marriage. Too often they too look to the government to do something, when more needs to be done from within churches themselves. Meanwhile, adroit politicians articulate the issue strictly in secular terms, for to do otherwise would be to step over the boundary of separation of church and state. They adopt the instrumentalist argument that we need strong families in order to build a healthy, democratic society. And then the vision of what constitutes a healthy democratic society begins to determine what is envisioned for the family. Often what is sanctioned and supported runs against the deepest convictions of Christians about the religious nature of marriage and the family.
The history of the debate over abortion is illustrative of how the religious nature of an argument can get submerged and lost. From the start of the abortion debate in the 1960s Christians took up the strategy of understating the religious nature of the argument and adopting the argument for individual rights. But their strategy backfired when those who are expert at sophistic uses of the language of individual rights refused to define the fetus as a person.
The same thing will happen if Christians now play by the rules of this shell game in the debate over the family and family values. Dare we now mute our religious convictions, cut off our religious tongues so to speak, in order to avoid the risk of offending the canons of secular pluralism and the ideology of so-called religious neutrality that is ensconced in the modern American bureaucratic state?
It is crucial that we as Christians recapture the language of our faith in order to rescue marriage and family from what C. S. Lewis once called “verbicide”—the murder of words and their meaning and thus, ultimately, the destruction of the real objects to which those words unambiguously once referred. Already the employment of family in the dreadfully overused phrase “family values” has begun to hollow out the sacramental meaning and deep theological significance that historic biblical faith bestows upon marriage and the family. Already the phrase “family values” is being bent to mean or represent almost anything that suits the speaker. For example, the underlying question of whose family and whose values hardly ever is answered. The trick in the rhetoric is to let the listener fill in the blanks and attribute his own personal beliefs to what the speaker says. Worse, sometimes the phrase “family values” is submitted to the ultimate degradation of being used as a club on opponents who are depicted as hostile to the family.
Character & Conversion
I do not say that the public policy debate is unimportant. However, the potential victories will be modest and the losses potentially great, and we will begin to lose our own convictions unless the Church addresses the American character straight on. Unless the Church brings the witness of faith and judgment into the public square, its voice, weak as it already is becoming, will not be distinguishable from a vast host of parties engaged in the culture wars.
I do not discount the possibility that the policy strategies of the Washington think tanks might succeed in persuading our public servants to modify, for example, the no-fault divorce laws that presently make it so easy for irresponsible spouses to bail out of marriages when the going gets tough. No-fault divorce has contributed mightily to the creation of a new class of poor single mothers, and needs to be addressed. Even Mrs. Clinton jumps on the bandwagon, however so gingerly, when she admits that she is ambivalent “about no-fault divorce with no waiting period” and suggests that “we should consider returning to mandatory ‘cooling off ’ periods, with education and counseling for partners.”
Such a change would be helpful, but it would hardly reverse our society’s course. Something more is needed. The hearts and minds of people need to be changed and religious witness has the power to accomplish that. The churches might take Mrs. Clinton’s cue too and assume more responsibility for that process of education and counseling she advocates and not be ashamed to speak forthrightly out of their faith.
I am talking about the renewal of mission. We need a conversion ethics. The churches need to make themselves a mission again and that is something inhibited, if not prohibited, by the rules of the public policy game. No-fault divorce laws exist because vast numbers of Americans do not believe in the permanence of marriage and because individuals cannot find persuasive reasons why fidelity and constancy should stand in the way of their personal happiness. Do not expect the bully pulpit of the presidency to be used to change these persuasions and the hedonistic character of American life. Nor will the minds of people be changed by the new class of therapists who are constantly repeating their message on talk shows and whose slick volumes fill the shelves of bookstores.
The Weakening of Marriage
I want to close out my remarks with a discussion of the state of two of the goods of marriage and family that the Church has affirmed and held high since earliest times. These are fidelity and the honor given to parents by their children. For it seems that these two goods are at the heart of what makes a Christian family. As might be expected, these two goods were hardly mentioned in the public debate over the fate of the family, and yet they may well be the most threatened of all the so-called family values.
Fidelity is the cornerstone of marriage in biblical faith and reflects the image of the steadfast love with which God secures the life of each one of us and the lives of our children. Yet it is being severely weakened in a divorce culture where the shopping ethos of consumerism overwhelms the value of permanence in the choice of a mate as well as in the disposition to remain with a mate over the long haul.
Look in your bookstores. There is a whole industry devoted to rationalizing away what is left of traditional Jewish and Christian convictions about the permanence of marriage in the minds and hearts of people. Daphne Rose Kingma’s best-seller, Coming Apart: Why Relationships End and How to Live Through the End of Yours, is an example of this new gospel of marriage. According to this new therapeutic gospel the primary goods of marriage are self-happiness and self-fulfillment.
The Good of Fidelity
We need only contrast this description of marriage and its goods with a central prayer of the Byzantine rite of holy matrimony in order to comprehend the gulf, really the abyss, that widens every day between our Christian understanding of marriage and the expectations of marriage among increasing numbers of modern folk. That prayer beseeches God to “Unite them [man and woman] in one mind; wed them in one flesh.” The whole purpose of marriage is to make as one through God’s blessing those who were separate and divided.
The Christian understanding of marriage as a covenant of unitive love has always stood in contrast to secular contractual understandings of marriage in which the two parties agree to come together as a couple under conditions each lays down and agrees to abide by, and when one or the other party fails to live up to the terms of the contract, the contract may be terminated. But now we are witnessing a further weakening within our culture of marriage’s unitive purpose. In popular counseling marriage is treated as a therapeutic arrangement which when it has done all that it can to help one or the other of the consenting parties to become a whole and fulfilled individual may be shed like a snake sheds old skin.
The good of fidelity begins to make less and less sense in such a milieu. Covenantal fidelity in marriage models God’s covenant with Israel and with the Church. Covenantal fidelity is based in a promise that God makes that he will always be with his people—God’s love is long suffering, a steadfast love, a love without limit, a love that promises a future in his kingdom.
Fidelity in the strong biblical sense is the character of a relationship, not merely a rule of sexual conduct. Sexual love binds two together and helps to ensure a growing family of God through their offspring. Husband and wife who reserve their sex for each other help assure for themselves and their children a future that joins them all in the company of blessed couples and families who have come before and will come after them. They all travel together under the assurance of God’s fidelity, with the promise that he will go with them into the future and be with them on their journey and greet them all in his kingdom.
The Christian understanding of marriage teaches a lesson contrary to the lesson taught by the new therapists of marriage and family living. It teaches us that marriage is not primarily about earthly happiness, but about the gift God gives us of a future together in his kingdom.
The late twentieth-century American writer Raymond Carver has given us a haunting tale about the breakup of a modern marriage in his short story “Blackbird Pie.” The protagonist of this story discovers an analog of this spiritual truth about the meaning of marriage in his own thoroughly secular life. One night during a summer vacation in a country house, his wife slips a letter under his door in which she writes that she is leaving him. They have been husband and wife many years: they raised two children and together watched them leave home as adults. But she tells him that things have simply gone from bad to worse over the years. “We’ve come to the end of the line,” she writes. They don’t talk to each other any more, even though now there ought to be more time to talk. Instead, they have only grown more and more apart. There is no reason to go on. It’s time “to beg off,” she writes him.
The husband does not know how to object. He is immobilized. He does not have, it seems, the energy or the will to respond or try to persuade his wife to stay. There is some mystery about the handwriting in the letter. It does not appear to be his wife’s hand. But that mystery “is not what is paramount.” There is something more that has “to do with subtle things,” he thinks. “It could be said, for instance, that to take a wife is to take a history. And if that’s so, then I understand that I’m outside history now—like horses and fog. Or you could say that my history has left me. Or that I’m having to go on without history. Or that history will now have to do without me.” This is the death of fidelity. This is the death of marriage in our culture.
Our Children, Our History
When children cease to honor and obey their parents, something similar also happens. The future is jeopardized, our history is interrupted. From within the standpoint of biblical religion this future and this history are trans-temporal and belong to the very life of God. It is good to recall the entire text of the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” I repeat the last part: “that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” When children cease to honor and obey their parents, the faith cannot be passed on and we and they are cut off from our history and our inheritance; parents and their children are cut off from their future in God. This is the force and admonition of all the commandments.
The religious command that children honor and obey their parents, filial love as it was once called, is being thinned and weakened by a solvent of social, political and economic forces. The modern information industry seems to be doing its best to persuade parents to give over responsibility for raising their children to others and to plant the notion in children’s heads that parental authority is something that needs to be questioned routinely. The latter is fueled by an epidemic of neglect and abuse of children that supplies reasons and justifications to advocates of children’s rights to pressure the courts to make decisions that effectively set children against their parents. Now the courts are creating the right of children to divorce their parents!
When the state makes it possible for children to divorce their own parents, then it steps into a sphere of human community it has no business stepping into, not even on the basis of morally charged claims that it is protecting the lives and securing the well-being of children. For such extreme state intervention jeopardizes the transmission of tradition, the nurture of faith, and the disciplining for salvation that are the special responsibilities of parents.
The state’s claim to protect or raise children is the artifact of its own fiat, valid to a limit. But God has built the calling and responsibility of parenthood into the very physiology and biological makeup of man and woman. Likewise God enables their union to become a relationship of three—father, mother, and child— imaging the reciprocal love and communion of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I say these things about parental authority and the honor due parents from their children not without cognizance of the offenses, even the violence, against children that parents are capable of perpetrating. The Scripture is cognizant of these possibilities (Matt. 15:4); the holy fathers have spoken of these sad realities; the Church has identified these sins in its canon law. But as Christians we must insist that there are limits to how far the reach of the state may extend into the family, even to protect children. Otherwise the family will be made the servant of the state. This is the tension and danger Robert Nisbet has discussed so insightfully in his writing on family and community.
I offer one more example. When the courts rule, as they have, that a woman may abort a child without the consent of her spouse, this is an act of trespass into a sphere of human life that is protected by the sacrament of holy matrimony. For as the blessed union of two makes one flesh, their conception of a child makes three of one flesh. So teach the church fathers. So speak our liturgies.
When we assert such a power of death over innocents we strike a mortal blow at the spirit of parenthood but equally against the honor that we are due as parents. Fetuses too are our children. When we abort them we act against God’s command that we raise them into the covenant he has graciously offered to us. We refuse to practice toward them the same sort of steadfast love with which God loves us into his kingdom. We deny our calling as parents and subvert that legitimate authority that makes natural the honor our children give to us.
These shifts in morality and law ought to raise profound and disquieting questions about the Christian’s relationship to state and society. When we have gone in America from instant so-called no-fault divorce, to abortion on demand, to the normalization of non-binding commitments of cohabitation in which children are raised, to legal divorce of parents by children, to serious public discussion of the legalization of single-sex “marriages” with the right to retain custody of children or to adopt—how do we dare to pretend that the relationship of Christianity to this culture in any sense resembles any historic model of Christendom, either in its ideal or practical, pragmatic forms?
Then, of course, there are the cases of notable sons and daughters of the Church who hold public office and are legislating and overseeing these radical shifts in law and public morality, while church leaders do not dare to criticize these individuals for their complicity in the deconstruction of the Christian family.
Things do not bode well for marriage and family in America, certainly not marriage as the Church has meant it and blessed it for centuries. Strong forces are distorting not only long honored biblically inspired norms of the marital relationship but also the relationship of parents and children. Not only the health and perpetuity of our culture is at stake. The Church’s very self-understanding of what it means to be a Church of husbands and wives and sons and daughters, all in Christ, is in jeopardy.
This article was adapted from a paper delivered at the symposium: “Church and State Issues from an Orthodox Perspective,” sponsored by Orthodox Christian Synergy at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Des Plaines, Illinois, in October 1996.
Vigen Guroian is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. Among his books are the second, expanded edition of Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics (University of Notre Dame, 2002) and Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life (ISI Books, 2005). "Family Offices" was given at Touchstone's conference, "Praying and Staying Together," in October 2004.
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“A Bridge or an Abyss?” first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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