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Topic: Family

Is the Nuclear Family a Mistake?

March 9, 2020

Editor’s Note: The following editorial is from CBMW’s March newsletter. Readers can subscribe here to receive our monthly ministry updates in your inbox.

“There has never been a time when the family faced so severe a crisis as the time in which we are now living. Many are not satisfied with remodeling; they want to tear things down to the foundation.”

These sentences, which we will return to below, very well could have been written in response to an article that ran last month in The Atlantic called “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” In the article, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks writes a kind of epitaph for the “nuclear family.” With the term “nuclear family,” Brooks is referring to the dad-mom-children familial unit over against the extended family, which includes grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. This article is significant enough that the Institute for Family Studies hosted a symposium of several articles in response to Brooks. It should have our attention as well.

Brooks’s article on the nuclear family is in two parts: Part I is basically descriptive, a kind of rise-and-fall narrative of the nuclear family; Part II is prescriptive, a call-to-action of sorts in the wake of Brooks’s pronouncement that the nuclear family is all but dead.

In Part I Brooks narrates and laments the massive societal shift that has taken place away from extended family networks and toward the nuclear family. He concedes there is a degree of inevitability to this shift, which took place in response to our economy morphing from agrarian to industrial as the 19th century gave way to the 20th — and with such change the community-altering realities of hyper-mobility and urbanization.

By the 1950s, according to Brooks, “a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids.” This ideal replaced that of the extended family network. But in Brooks’s telling, this arrangement still provided a good deal of societal stability: “The postwar period was a high-water mark of church attendance, unionization, social trust, and mass prosperity—all things that correlate with family cohesion.” These are the same factors that give the 1950s their halcyon hue in some beholders’ eyes. While industrialization was inevitable, it turns out that the breakdown of the family was not, even though it certainly occurred in the decades to come, as Brooks so aptly illustrates. How was this societal stability in the mid-century won, and what led to its demise? According to Brooks,

“In short, the period from 1950 to 1965 demonstrated that a stable society can be built around nuclear families—so long as women are relegated to the household, nuclear families are so intertwined that they are basically extended families by another name, and every economic and sociological condition in society is working together to support the institution.”

Brooks’s use of the word “relegated” is telling and unfortunate — and it reveals a certain outlook on motherhood that comes out elsewhere in his article — but I think it is interesting to note that Brooks admits there is a scenario in a modern economy wherein the nuclear family is neither a drag on society nor itself in danger. And it is this scenario that led to a “high-water mark” of church attendance and societal cohesion, which in some ways filled the gap left by the diminishing role of the extended family as our agrarian-based economy faded into industrialization. In other words, industrialization was not the only or even primary factor that strained the nuclear family. So what happened in the 1960s?

Brooks masterfully illustrates how from the 1960s onward, the nuclear family weathered — or really failed to weather — the modernizing forces of hyper-individualism, self-fulfillment, and self-expression. (How second-wave feminism bought into and even contributed to these forces is left largely untouched by Brooks; instead he seems to give an unqualified “amen” to its outcomes.)

But these forces, coupled with rapid cultural, economic, and institutional changes, such as no-fault divorce, led to a massive increase in broken families, out-of-wedlock births, and declining marriage rates. This happened in spite of the overwhelming evidence that underscores marital stability as essential for individual and societal flourishing.

Consider these eye-opening quotes from Brooks’s article:

“If the U.S. returned to the marriage rates of 1970, child poverty would be 20 percent lower. . . . It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged. . . . [I]f you are born into poverty and raised by your married parents, you have an 80 percent chance of climbing out of it. If you are born into poverty and raised by an unmarried mother, you have a 50 percent chance of remaining stuck.”

These statistics illustrate just how crucial marriage is to a healthy society, and the story of the last 100 years has been an all out assault on marriage and, by implication, the nuclear family. The situation is indeed dire.

Part I of Brooks’s article is one of the most insightful analyses and diagnoses I’ve seen in secular print for some time; I commend it to you. His conclusion in Part I is close to the bullseye:

“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. The good news is that human beings adapt, even if politics are slow to do so. When one family form stops working, people cast about for something new—sometimes finding it in something very old.”

Up to this point, I am basically on board with Brooks, even and especially where he says what we are trying now isn’t working. We do need to cast about for something new, and he is right that it could be found in something “very old.”

But that which is “very old” that Brooks looks to in Part II misses the mark in my judgment — partly because I believe it to be misinformed, and partly because it is, well, not old enough.

In the beginning…

Brooks begins filling out a prescription in Part II for what he diagnosed in Part I with the words, “In the beginning was the band.” What he means by “the band” is a sort of tribal collection of individuals. This is almost certainly a reference to Brooks’s evolutionary understanding of human origins in a community of early hominids. And for Brooks, this primal arrangement should be normative today. Because our first ancestors got along in “bands” or “forged families” — these groups of people that were banded together not by blood, but by common cause — we should form similar “forged families” of non-related people that cooperate, even cohabit (!), to replace the extended family networks of yesteryear.

My colleague and the executive editor of CBMW’s journal Eikon, Andrew Walker, has written an insightful article in response to Brooks’s idea of “forged families.” Walker rightly points to how the church at its best actually already functions as a type of “forged family” of non-blood-related individuals and families who nevertheless care in community for one another. The church absolutely should be a significant part of people’s lives who have real relational needs in our hyper-individualistic, hyper-mobile, hostile, and broken world. Walker’s piece is a good and needed response to Brooks on this point.

But I want to respond here to Brooks’s idea that “in the beginning was the band” should somehow ground our vision of the good life. Brooks has intentionally structured this sentence, ironically, to echo Genesis 1:1 (cf. John 1:1). But is this what we find “in the beginning” in Genesis 1? No. Instead, we find God creating the world, and then making a man and a woman, whom he gives to one another in marriage, whom he then commands to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Sounds like a nuclear family to me!

This is my problem with Brooks’s article in Part II: his solution is to ditch the nuclear family, which he has dubbed a “mistake,” for a vision of community that isn’t even based in a true account of our beginnings. I see this problem, in fact, as extremely dangerous if conservatives listen to Brooks’s prescriptions, a self-styled conservative.

Brooks says the nuclear family was a mistake. But God instituted the nuclear family!

Brooks says we should give up on the nuclear family because it is no longer supported by the extended family, because our economy has changed, and so now we need a new family structure. But the nuclear family structure is not only programmed into the universe by our Creator — dad and mom in marriage raising their biological children is the most natural and fundamental human relationship there is — it is also woven into God’s revelation to us in the gospel of Christ. And God is not going to let marriage, the very picture of Christ and the church on earth, fail to picture that gospel (Eph 5:32). And as long as you have marriage, you have a de facto nuclear family that is God’s design for raising the next generation.

Returning to the quote from the beginning: “There has never been a time when the family faced so severe a crisis as the time in which we are now living. Many are not satisfied with remodeling; they want to tear things down to the foundation.”

These sentences weren’t written in response to David Brooks’s article. They were written more than 100 years ago by a theologian in the Netherlands named Herman Bavinck. He wrote a book called The Christian Family because in the early 20th century, he saw nearly identical trends to our day that were threatening marriage and the family. Socialism, Marxism, and the hyper-individualism of the French Revolution were making inroads into Dutch society, and the same industrializing economic forces that Brooks identifies in his article were forcing a reconsideration of familial structures. What is more, an oppressor-oppressed framework (sound familiar?) was being used in Bavinck’s day to suggest that the husband-wife relationship, which was considered oppressive, must be re-imagined and maybe should not even survive in modernity. Bavinck even references some of his contemporaries who were advocating building “barracks-like dwellings that house many families under one roof, with one central furnace and a communal kitchen for their meals.” In other words, there is nothing new under the sun, even in the pages of The Atlantic.

But Bavinck’s response to such trends is instructive. He doubled down on the family — yea, even the nuclear family — and encouraged Christians to embrace godly husbandry and wifery, godly motherhood and fatherhood — because as goes the family, so goes society.

Why? “For no other institution, whether through the efforts of particular individuals or societies, established through the church or through the state, can replace or compensate for the family.” It is in the family that “masculine and feminine qualities, physical and spiritual strengths, intellectual, volitional, and emotional gifts, age and youth, strength and weakness, authority and obedience, affection and love, unity and diversity of interests” come together. It is the family that is the school of nurture, and virtue. This is the indispensable feature of the natural family: it is above all a school of love. For even forged-families are chosen arrangements; but natural families are arrangements chosen by God to be honored, tolerated, embraced, loved.

It is clear that marriage must be prioritized by conservatives, even as one considers the statistics cited in Brooks article referenced above. And as long as marriage, biblically defined — heterosexual, monogamous, procreative, lifelong — is upheld, we will have nuclear families, which must be supported and encouraged. What’s the alternative? Bavinck doesn’t mince words: “Imagine there were no marriage and family, and humanity would . . . turn into a pigsty.”

I know David Brooks doesn’t mean to lead us into a pigsty. But with Bavinck we must say, “let a vigorous protest be sounded against all those who . . . violate the honor of marriage and undermine the foundations of the family.”

Consider this my protest.

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