The Death of the Family

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Devon, PA.  In my previous essay, a sort of preface, I mentioned a two-part essay I published in the wake of the 2008 presidential election, called “Sarah Palin, Spectacular Politics, and the Death of the Family.”  The second part addresses several concerns of direct relevance to the arguments about the nature of the family that have frequently cropped up on this site in response to my and others’ writings.  I print below, for the first time, the unabridged version of that second part, which attempts to answer in as comprehensive a manner as I then could the questions that modern society provokes about the nature and function of the family.   The interested reader may find the first part here.  (One small note: when this essay first appeared, I referred to Palin’s “cameo” on the national stage; despite my personal admiration for her, I wish that my early assumption now bore closer resemblance to the truth).

Human life is sufficiently limited by its nature, purpose, and surrounding conditions that only a relatively narrow variety of moral and political beliefs appear plausible to us for very long. The dizzying number of historical variations on common errors conceals this somewhat, but even so the same errors crop up time and again; from ancient Athenian demagoguery to modern mass politics, from Plato’s utopia to Stalin’s gulags there is very little difference. But details matter. When diagnosing the latest perversion of thought, policy, or law, the reflective person wisely does so according to its antecedents in error. Conversely, when one hears something with which one roughly agrees—something that one thinks is mostly right—one is particularly disturbed to find some other person believing the right thing for the wrong reason. We might say that, because of human nature and the very small number of conditions that allow human life to flourish, most people in most times will believe roughly the right thing, but we may be shaken to discover the confused even contradictory rationales they have “filled in” beneath the line of somewhat sound principles. In brief, we diagnose errors by taxonomy, and we improve true claims by straitening the usually unreflective logic behind them. Grouping untruths together suffices, but a similar lumping of basic truths is actually dangerous.

Let us examine Sarah Palin’s words during the one Vice-Presidential Debate in order to see where the vague consumer conservatism to which she should appeal departs from a principled conservatism. Asked about the extension of marital benefits to homosexual couples, as the Alaskan state government currently grants them, Palin replied:

Well, not if it goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. And unfortunately that’s sometimes where those steps lead. But I also want to clarify, if there’s any kind of suggestion at all from my answer that I would be anything but tolerant of adults in America choosing their partners, choosing relationships that they deem best for themselves, you know, I am tolerant and I have a very diverse family and group of friends and even within that group you would see some who may not agree with me on this issue, some very dear friends who don’t agree with me on this issue. But in that tolerance also, no one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties. But I will tell Americans straight up that I don’t support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman, and I think through nuances we can go round and round about what that actually means.

How could the millions of watchers of The View not assent to such buffet-style suburban logic? “Granted,” she seems to tell us, “with whom one has sex and how one structures one’s family and other social units is an entirely private choice, up to each autonomous rights-bearing body to decide for itself, but don’t redefine a particular term that confers an unspecifiable privilege upon the nuclear family by extending it to other perfectly legitimate, because legally private, social units.” One imagines a nod of agreement from all the people out there who sense something wrong with homosexuality, but appreciate their homosexual hairdresser for his grace with scissors and snappy conversational skills. Just as some of our ancestors “surgically” manufactured eunuchs in earlier stages of western civilization to keep their wives company and to sing in their operas, our society has found a softer, cultural means of creating a cast of libidinous and “campy” characters whose claim to acceptance and “tolerance” in society is bound up with their occupying a strange and sadly grotesque position at its margins. Most of us are fine with that, so long as we don’t have to think about it. We accept as a good for some what we feel would be unhappy, even awful, for us and ours, because, in a world whose one commandment seems to be the imperative to consumer choice, we cannot articulate why homosexuals should act differently than they do. Are not their sexual choices as free, legitimate, and inconsequential as every other choice . . . so long, of course, as they don’t break my leg or cause my real estate values to depreciate any further? (Unlikely scenarios indeed!). A vision of most of life as consumer choice, and a dulled but persistent sense that some things ought not to be choice, stir together in a panacea cocktail whose name is the political equivalent of the “fuzzy navel”: tolerance.

Is Palin’s an outrageous statement? Not entirely. Her divagations seem rather to spring from a dimly contemplated prejudice, and, like most prejudices, they cling to an image of social forms and behaviors that actually work, and greet with skepticism proposals to endanger or even interpolate that image. Prejudices are intrinsically pragmatic and usually salutary, but we are, as a “culture,” now locked in a debate about the nature of marriage, family, and society that could only occur after two centuries and more of the decay of those institutions. We cannot, for the moment, rely on contemporary prejudices to sustain us, because the practices that gave birth to them were already on the down-slide.

What principles would one have to hold in order to defend Palin’s statement as more than the clumsy impromptu of a perfunctory debate? Among them: the union of husband and wife is a justly privileged one. It constitutes the cornerstone of the family. But it also delimits the extent of the family, so that by family we mean the nuclear family, composed of husband, wife, and progeny, as opposed to the extended family, or clan, which extends both lineally across generations and horizontally beyond siblings to their respective nuclear families. The privileging of the nuclear family is ceremonial and affects only a very small number of civil and legal norms. The family is juridically defined, and so the State actually can define marriage as “between one man and one woman.” Sexual acts and elective filiations are entirely private (non-juridical), whereas the ceremonial title of marriage is public, and so, to define the latter impinges not at all on the former. Sexual acts and elective filiations are two consumer choices among others, and to deny that certain such acts cannot be recognized as marriage in no way denies their freedom and legitimacy, first, as actions that can be “tolerated” socially, and, second, as behaviors that can justify certain civil privileges under the rubric of “contract law.”

I have little doubt most Americans would agree with all these principles. My object is not to demonstrate how unpalatable an apparently benign claim becomes as soon as we sift the principles that subtend it. Rather, I propose that the agreeable patina of Palin’s statement expresses principles that most people have not articulated but already accept. And that, therefore, in the heart of American society, the family is already—has long been—effectively dead. If we accept this death, then it is a matter of indifference whether we retain the ceremonial privilege of the nuclear family or whether we continue to debase, devalue, and decentralize the idea of family until the trends long since underway finally erase that institution from the face of the West. If, on the other hand, we suspect that the prejudice in favor of the family that Palin’s comments reveal might have some legitimate and living foundation, we ought to engage upon a sustained and radical reevaluation of the principles according to which modern society operates. We have no choice but to do so, for the family as a present institution may be dead—or at least suffer from clogged arteries—but the prejudice in its favor is inextricable from the heart of man. The death of the family and the bankruptcy of modern marriage will, in the long run, be tossed into the heap of historical errors, and society will right itself—but only if our society is willing to rediscover the logic and necessity in which the family is rooted.

I would offer five points toward that reevaluation.

1) The family pre-exists any state or church, any civil or religious code. It may not precede the state chronologically (who knows?), but it does in order of principle. It certainly does not precede Christian truth in principle, since the person is ordered to that truth from the moment of creation by his very nature. But it does precede Christian truth chronologically (human beings were already families long before marriage became in some places sacramental, or monogamous, much less romantic). Moreover, the family precedes civil and religious truths in the order of knowledge: one experiences it and experiences it richly before one knows anything else. St. Augustine wrote of having imbibed the name of Christ from his mother as if he drank it in with her milk; but he actually did drink his mother’s milk from the very commencement of his life. As such, the family is the building-block, the basic unit of all human societies, temporal or otherwise, and is prior to any laws or statements we may make about it. So foundational is it that how one feels about and understands the nature of the family will determine almost everything else about one’s character.

The Catholic Church acknowledges these foundational and determinate qualities by having bride and groom perform their own sacrament of marriage, while the priest witnesses on behalf of the Church. This witnessing fortifies and sanctions certain marriages because those particular marriages reinforce and continue the family. This does not give the Church some “right” to create marriages, but only to shepherd unions that it believes God has brought into being, and which only God can dissolve. The Church appeals, therefore, not to its own authority but to the authority of human nature and human destiny, when it offers guidance upon the components of a true marriage.

Civil law may also fortify and sanction marriages in order to strengthen the family, as befits the state’s role as the common-good extension of a society constructed of families. What is the purpose of the State? To ordain laws for the common-good. Whose common good? The family’s. Not my individual good or yours. The family’s. Thus, the State cannot define marriage, save perhaps in a provisional way, as it lends support to the marital practices that have long since demonstrated that they make possible the continuation of families. Marriage defines itself, requiring not human invention or authority but only human participation.

When a state arrogates sovereign power to define marriage in the face of threats to its sanctity, the patient is probably already dead. And “dead” it may be, since states and entire societies naively believe that creating divorce laws makes divorce a legitimate, or even possible, choice. We can no more legislate-into-being divorce than we can legislate a new nature for marriage itself; such tinkering is in fact a juridical fiction that helps estranged husbands and wives to persist under the delusion that by their sovereign choices they have cut their identity with a particular family and can independently create a new one. The main reason homosexual unions have become such a pressing and confusing question is that they are the reductio ad absurdum of modern divorce: they mark the point where the pleasing snow-globe of juridical fictions comes crashing down, and we sense at last the breach between human action and human nature bad laws make permissible.

2) Families are the basic unit of society because they embody and provide for the inherent and life-long dependence of each human person upon others, and the dependence of entire generations upon each other. Naturally, the husband and wife become the focal point of this dependency, when they are in the prime of life, and, so, children depend on them in all things while growing, and the elderly depend on them in some things as their own strength wanes. But when husband and wife become the constitutive properties of the family, so that only they and their children, properly speaking, “count,” then we no longer have an image of actual historical families, but only of the nuclear family. The ineluctable centrality of the family to human life is grounded on its extension across generations, a fact we might more easily identify with the word “clan.” Edmund Burke’s famous declaration of the contract between the unborn, living, and the dead put in slightly more grandiose (though no less accurate) historical terms the visible system of interdependence between the adult, the elderly, and the young upon which survival, flourishing, and happiness depend. And T.S. Eliot, concerned primarily with the transmission of culture and traditions, expressed well the understanding of family for which I am contending in terms of moral responsibility and ongoing dependency:

Now the family is an institution of which nearly everybody speaks well: but it is advisable to remember that this is a term that may vary in extension. In the present age it means little more than the living members. Even of living members, it is a rare exception when an advertisement depicts a large family or three generations: the usual family on the hoardings consists of two parents and one or two young children. What is held up for admiration is not devotion to a family, but personal affection between the members of it: and the smaller the family, the more easily can this personal affection be sentimentalised. But when I speak of the family, I have in mind a bond which embraces a longer period of time than this: a piety towards the dead, however obscure, and a solicitude for the unborn, however remote. Unless this reverence for past and future is cultivated in the home, it can never be more than a verbal convention in the community.

The modern state has tried to usurp this dependence and become the sole object of fidelity and source of security for the individual. While efforts at complete usurpation have always failed—despite the rather bullish recommendations of Plato, Marx, Engels, Hitler, and Rosy O’Donnell—a partial usurpation has been only too successful. That act of usurpation declares the nuclear family, and particularly the marital union, a sacrosanct bond founded on romantic love rather than interdependence; in the process, it excludes many of the relationships that constitute a natural family. Far from being the basic unit of society that must be defended, the nuclear family is the death knell of “familism,” as the anthropologists call it. Just as the invention of a “divine right of kings” once sacrificed the widely diffused French aristocratic order to preserve the autocratic king, the defense of the nuclear family takes more than it gives. To the extent the nuclear family has been reduced in our moral imagination to an exclusive remnant of the clan, it is as much the death of the family as its survival. Palin’s comments suggest the nuclear family as a source of stability, while it is in fact a decimated tribe, subsisting after upheaval and sojourning in exile.

As a last note on this point, we should acknowledge what a wonderful discovery romantic love was. It is a many-splendored-thing all right, but it is also a many-slandered-thing. Romantic love is by its nature unstable even when at its most lasting. Historically, it was neither the foundation of the family nor of marriage, but a posterior good made possible by those things and enriched infinitely by the wider understanding of eros as binding husbands and wives together in God. To the extent that we have reversed this ordering, we have ceased to understand love and romance, marriage and family, person and society.

3) The most intellectually outrageous of Palin’s statements in the debate was also the most explicit, and so I face no danger in extrapolating principles from otherwise vague talking points. She contends that her conservative defense of marriage does not touch upon the “right” of mature adults to choose whatever sexual relationships they wish, and that these choices may even be defined in contract law. We know, of course, that the judiciary’s striking down of long unenforced sodomy laws in Texas shows such a claim to be in keeping with current court precedent, but I would presume that, as a self-described conservative, Palin considers such activism from the bench hubristic and in violation of the spirit of the Constitution, and perhaps even in violation of natural law. Evidently, I stand corrected.

We confront in this statement of hers the weedy incoherence of garden-variety American conservatism (I prefer a tweedy coherence). It promises to preserve venerable social practices and traditions while its foundational principles are intrinsically anti-traditional and dissolvent of every established custom. Palin, like most Americans, presumes laws exist as a necessary evil to provide ground rules for the making and breaking of contracts between autonomous individuals. Laws should not, on this account, affect personal conduct but only interpersonal conduct between individuals in conflict. If such an anthropology is accurate, if human beings really can best be understood as autonomous individuals, then why are families an evident historical reality? And why would we even desire laws that address the family unit, rather than just the individual?

The natural law that governs the family is the font of a tradition repugnant to such libertarian notions. It suggests that there is no such thing as an autonomous individual, although there are human persons each of whom is at a different stage of dependence on others. This fluid and complex weave of dependences leads naturally to the formation of laws that help sustain it, and lead to the common but uneven flourishing of all within it. We all understand murder as a crime, because, in our libertarian imaginations, we see the knife pointed at the autonomous rights-bearing body. But, strictly from a natural law viewpoint, the knives that would tear the extended fabric of the family are as or more dangerous. Among these threats most certainly lie sexual relations that are inherently non-reproductive and disruptive of the normal development of men and women into responsible husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.

To defend the sanctity of marriage while advocating permissiveness in regard to intrinsically non-reproductive and non-unitive sexual relationships is incoherent. Human law, to be law at all, must conform to the patterns of natural law that help lead us to sustain human happiness across generations. While prudence may dictate that enforcing sodomy laws would be sufficiently difficult as not to be beneficial, if one believes in the central and essential role of the family in human life, one ought to favor at least the codification or preservation of such laws. The natural law perspective does not exhaust the truth about the nature of the human person and the family, but it does cover much of it. From a historical viewpoint, the clan is the fundamental social reality. Only such sexual unions as contribute to its preservation and continuation could be called marriage. Those unions that suggest the romantic pleasures and unusual predilections of two individuals can take precedence over the family unit therefore hurt the family. They confer a reality and importance on the individual as autonomous that is in conflict with the person’s true natural source of identity: his role in that primitive drama, the foundational community of the family.

4) In regard to the comparatively minor questions of hospital visitations, the inheritance of property, and other matters of “contracts between parties,” Palin has a point, but not, as in all things, for the reasons she thinks. She would argue that these arrangements are permissible because autonomous individuals have a “right” to enter into any legal contract relationships they like. Rather, I would argue that the privileging of the husband-wife relationship, important though that is, too often diminishes the other binding relationships and dependences diffused through extended families. The exclusive legal privileges normally granted husbands and wives are unjust not because all relationships are equally real so long as they are elected, but because such privileges sometimes discourage the forging of deeper and more nurturing bonds between diverse members of an extended family.

Republicans love to talk about ending the tax “marriage penalty.” The number of current prohibitive laws, cultural norms, and economic structures that militate against extended families remaining meaningful, intact units staggers the mind. Or rather, it staggers the mind of one who believes that families, again, amount to more than just parents and a child or two consuming goods in the same set of rooms. For those who misidentify the nuclear family’s role with that of the “clan,” well, tax breaks mean more ice cream and a better cell phone plan. Those who actually care about the attainment of human happiness—and, therefore, for the preservation of the extended family units that make such happiness possible for most persons—must see our present society as a phantasmagoria of ill-advised laws and practices. Such injustices might be just if the anthropology of man as autonomous individual were accurate, but it is not. We are political animals and so can only fully become ourselves by living out our natures in a stable and extensive community; for most human beings in history that community has been the clan.

5) In addition to the classical liberal vision of society consisting of autonomous individuals, a late-Victorian distinction of public and private life underpins Palin’s comments. According to this distinction, public life comprises that which pertains directly to the State or to the marketplace. Anything in which there are no direct legal or economic stakes is relegated to the extra-legal sphere of the private; such a distinction has been articulated in juridical terms since the right to privacy was invented by Louis Brandeis in 1890. In the 1960s, that purblind cliché, “the personal is political,” served to push the limits of autonomy even further, by contending that the individual’s personal desires may take precedence even over the public interest of society. This maxim implied that politics was identical with coercion, and so, to make laws that affected the person was an act of domination. As has been endlessly iterated, such distinction between public and private is not only historically novel but is philosophically inane, and our understanding of the family is the inevitable field where inanity becomes destructive.

Because of our physical, spiritual, and cultural dependences on others, there is no aspect of a person’s life that does not touch upon another’s. As such, there is no place in which an individual can be truly autonomous. We may sometimes allow our neighbor a certain discretion in matters that appear practically indifferent, but that is itself a question of prudence rather than justice or “rights.” We more routinely allow others to make choices that are evidently not “indifferent” because we presume a shared vision of the meaning of a good human life and so can trust others to pursue it in good faith along with us. This, in part, is what it means to live essentially as members of a community rather than as subjects of a State. Human beings possess diverse gifts and abilities, but their end (final cause) is uniformly happiness and their dependent nature necessitates the pursuit of that happiness in community.

Homosexual relationships confuse an unenviable sort of immediate gratification with our ordained final happiness, or rather, they exhibit a perversely envisioned form of the good of sexual life. They frustrate or dissolve the careful weaving of the extended family, first, by suggesting that it is a matter of indifference if sexual activity is severed from the propagation of a family across generations, and, second, by claiming that one’s amours are merely a matter of private “romantic” election rather than limited and necessary bonds embedded in the public warp and woof of dependences. This sows the appearance of division and independence where, in truth, there is only to be found the common good and interdependence.

Nothing at all is “private” in the sense of being cut off from this common good. The judgments most human beings in a flourishing society struggle to make are not between “private” and “public” goods, but between acts that contribute to the person’s final attainment of happiness beyond the horizon of any earthly community (in that truest of communities, the kingdom of divinely created and loved beings) and other acts that contribute to the preservation of our already achieved earthly community. This is itself merely a prudential decision between fortifying the conditions for happiness or attaining to happiness itself; such decisions, over time, reveal to us the form of natural law. In contrast, any act that is justified purely on grounds of “private choice” is almost certainly destructive of any community, and so undermines the prospects for long term happiness for each and every person.

The public/private distinction gives us a radically individualistic anthropology that finds sanction neither in the basic material realities or human life nor in the fully developed vision of a flourishing or happy life that all persons seek. Christians alone understand that final happiness to be fulfilled in an eternal life of light and love that—in what modern liberal theory has rendered a paradox—is the sole basis for putting any high value on the individual person in the first place. I have emphasized the natural law argument against homosexual unions, which is rooted in family and community and does not necessarily extend beyond the realm of this world. But it is only when this natural anthropology is completed with one that understands each human person as uniquely created and loved in grace that any argument for individual rights, autonomy, or even personal dignity becomes plausible. A contradiction lies, therefore, at the root of any account of human nature that claims to be secular and yet to invest an inextricable dignity and “right” in the individual human being. It would be needless to trace this contradiction here, however, since Palin, like her former opponent, Joe Biden, both claim to understand marriage essentially in terms of mankind’s religious rather than secular or even natural law properties.

I have not attempted to explain the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts, nor have I tried to demonstrate the flawed reasoning behind those arguments usually offered in favor of homosexual unions. These are many, and could fill many pages. But it has been my intention to show just the flawed reasons behind the right prejudices Sarah Palin exhibited during her cameo on the national political stage. While it is a necessary and timely task to convince the advocates of permissive divorce laws and “fictitious” homosexual unions of the harm they are doing to our society, it is perhaps more pressing to instruct those politicians who come to stand in defense of the sanctity of the family why and how they should do so. For prejudices may sustain a community that shares them, but they cannot by definition persuade anyone who does not already share them of anything. And no cause is so just that the incompetence of its advocates cannot engineer its defeat.

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