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Topic: Eikon

Insular Thinking about the American Nuclear Family

May 23, 2022
By Kaspars Ozolins

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.

“The Nuclear Family was a Mistake.” So reads the provocative title of a relatively recent essay published by David Brooks in The Atlantic.[1] The attention-grabbing headline was perhaps overshadowed by other, more immediately pressing headlines at that time (ironically, Brooks’s essay was published in the same month that the whole Western world suddenly began to lock itself up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic). Yet while pandemics (and wars) come and go, the secular West’s continual spiritual decline has proceeded apace, ever more rapidly accelerating in the decades since the sexual revolution.

David Brooks is certainly not alone in his assessment of the “nuclear family,” a term which has now become an epithet of opprobrium in our culture. One thinks of certain sitcoms, such as Married with Children, which mock the dysfunctional nuclear families they depict with a kind of bemused apathy (or by turns even a concealed hatred). The academy as well has worked diligently to stereotype this family model as a historical novelty, deeply tied to social conservative ideals in North American society.

Yet what is most surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which the American church in many quarters has thrown in its lot with the culture in criticizing the emphasis that earlier generations of evangelicals placed on family. Note, as well, that this critique is by no means exclusive to left-leaning evangelicalism. Indeed, both the left and the right increasingly have framed their critiques of “purity culture,” and the preoccupation with marriage and procreation, as distractions — even a form of subtle idolatry — that too often sidetracks from the gospel.

There have been numerous recent re-examinations of the virtues of evangelical mainstays such as Focus on the Family and The Promise Keepers. There has also been a reconsideration, to some degree, of the traditional evangelical emphasis on young people avoiding secular dating practices, and instead marrying early and seeking to form a family unit as soon as possible. Significantly, some of the major players in a bygone era of evangelicalism have renounced their previously held views (such as Joshua Harris, author of the wildly popular 90s classic I Kissed Dating Goodbye), or else proven themselves to have been deeply morally compromised (such as Ravi Zacharias or Josh Duggar). These factors (as well as others) have, in one way or another, recently served to slam the brakes on the traditional evangelical emphasis on the family in the context of Christian discipleship. Just as the 1950s were for the broader American culture, the 1990s are increasingly viewed, in the popular imagination of much of contemporary evangelicalism, as a kind of idealistic, unrealistic, imbalanced high-water mark of the “nuclear family.”

Countervailing Arguments Against the Family

The trends described above have coincided with some new opposing emphases in American evangelicalism. In reaction to a perceived overemphasis on the family unit, there has been growth in recognizing singleness as a gift from God and as something to be aspired to. Especially significant here is the rise of “Side B” Christianity and the encouragement, even celebration of, celibacy for same-sex attracted Christians (in place of marriage, which is sometimes viewed as “inauthentic” for such persons). As such, one potent strategy in the effort to equalize the perceived unfairness between married Christians and other Christians struggling with homosexuality is to downplay the importance of marriage and procreation in the Christian life itself. Some have gone even further than this. The founder and president of the Revoicemovement, Nate Collins, asked openly in a 2018 conference address: “Is it possible that gay people today are being sent by God, like Jeremiah, to find God’s words for the church . . . [and] shed light on contemporary false teachings and even idolatries?” This he characterized as a “prophetic call to the church to abandon idolatrous attitudes toward the nuclear family.”

Rather surprisingly and counterintuitively, the nuclear family is now subtly associated with the modern American preoccupation with individualism and materialism. Advocacy for traditional families is even stigmatized (though usually not overtly) as a selfish undertaking that tends to cannibalize other equally legitimate extended and non-traditional familial bonds. The family, consisting of a husband, a wife, and their children, is thus effectively stereotyped as being the privilege of well-to-do white middle class families.

The argument in Brooks’s essay is illustrative of this. His piece does not necessarily read in the way one might expect (to judge by its attention-grabbing title). It is not a screed that directly assaults biblical marriage or ridicules procreation. Rather, his critique of the nuclear family is couched more in terms that present this family model as a somewhat utopian ideal which only flourished for around a decade or so in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to a constellation of chance historical circumstances (what Brooks terms “The Short, Happy Life of the Nuclear Family”).

For Brooks, the 1950s American nuclear family (as an autonomous unit) was a mistake because it set into motion the fragmentation and disintegration of old extended family structures that had existed prior to the industrial revolution. Citing numerous statistics about broken families in America today, he characterizes this system as fundamentally “brittle” and concludes:

Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family [emphasis added].

Brooks claims that the success or failure of nuclear family units is almost entirely determined by one’s social class and economic well-being. The nuclear family simultaneously “liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.” Why the disparity in outcomes? In essence, he argues that “babysitting, professional child care, tutoring, coaching, therapy, expensive after-school programs,” and various other “expensive tools and services” make up for the lack of extended family structures that used to exist in an earlier era. These supposedly account for the reduction in stress, divorce, and other societal ills enjoyed by the wealthy. Ultimately, then, it would seem that economic well-being is the main driver of positive social outcomes in American society.

An Ignorance of the Larger Context

Yet at the same time, Brooks unwittingly cites evidence in the same essay that cuts in the opposite direction (in terms of causal chains). Data produced by the Brookings Institution indicates the following, according to David Brooks: “[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.” It turns out that the “golden age” of the nuclear family in the 1950s was not the exclusive domain of wealthy white individuals, but indeed was common to the society as a whole. A much more plausible and reasonable assessment of the evidence therefore points to values as the driver of economic success, not the other way around.

At the end of the day, both kinds of societal construals — whether it is the 1950s American nuclear family or the trappings of evangelical culture from the 1990s — turn out to be rather myopic fixations from a global and historical perspective. It only makes sense that the specific categories mapped onto the American story do not necessarily translate to other contexts. As such, it is unreasonable for American Christians (or indeed the broader American society) to make ultimate judgments about the family and its virtues as a reaction to its recent, rather narrow context.

The challenges and extra-biblical distortions of the family take different shapes wherever one looks in the world. In Latin America, for example, centuries of Roman Catholicism have deeply shaped a culture in directions that are seemingly diametrically opposed to one another. On the one hand, society may be characterized as being largely matriarchal in many ways, yet on the other hand, a culture of “machismo” pervades many Latin American societies, emphasizing traits and actions that generally have little to do with biblical masculinity. Here again, one ought not make judgments about the roles of men and women purely as a reaction to a particular unique context.

In Asia, communist China is now beginning to bear the full consequences of its destructive one-child policy. This is something completely foreign to the American experience, yet Americans very wisely ought to be taking it into account if they wish to make societal pronouncements about the value or need of procreation (beyond condescending quips about “white picket fences and 2.5 kids”). All kinds of knock-on effects from this policy are now creating serious and lasting problems in China’s society. One of these effects is an extreme gender imbalance in the population, due to the horrific practice of aborting baby girls, in keeping with government restrictions on multiple children.

In fact, Communist political theory had long ago singled out the nuclear family as a fundamental threat to its power and ambitions. The bourgeoisie stereotype of the family, far from originating in an affluent post-war America, was indeed the subject of vitriolic scorn from leading nineteenth-century communists and other leftists. A central component in their political theory was the view that economics and the nuclear family are somehow inextricably linked, as seen, for example in Friedrich Engels’ monograph The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. The family was seen as tied to the development of private property, and the alleged “subjugation” of women and children — both of these hated by the communists. The end goal was therefore the elimination of all hierarchical relationships, including those of religion and the family.

No Alternative but the Family

For all his castigation of the nuclear family (complicit, according to Brooks, in the many modern American societal ills that he catalogs), he offers no real alternative means for achieving the goal he desires — complex and deep networks of individuals in extended families supporting each other. Though distorted in numerous ways by fallen mankind, the nuclear family has persisted through the ages as a mainstay of natural law. Far from being a parochial innovation of twentieth-century conservative America, the nuclear family is in fact the universal building block of every known society. The late American anthropologist George Peter Murdock began one of his major works, Social Structure, by defining the “nuclear family” (a term dating back to the early twentieth century, according to Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary):

The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No example, at least, has come to light in the 250 representative cultures surveyed for the present study.[2]

One wonders how the basic biblical unit of a man, a wife, and their children could ever have come to be viewed as problematic in the modern American evangelical consciousness. How indeed could Christian singleness and individual discipleship be pitted against the human relationships that God created from the dawn of time itself? Whence comes the idea that the church as the spiritual family of God somehow subsumes (or even eliminates) the natural family unit? Certainly not from Scripture. A superficial, flat reading of Paul’s view of singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, or Christ’s view of familial relationships in Matthew 12, is frankly inexcusable.

When early Christians placed a high value on marriage, abhorred infanticide, shunned devious sexual practices, and elevated the status of women in their societies, the unbelieving pagan Roman world took notice. The Christian concept of the family has always been the most noble and beautiful of all, because it aligns with what God intended and how he created mankind to be. Now, even more than ever, the evangelical church in America urgently needs to stop washing its hands of the “culture wars” and once again stand for a fully orbed biblical worldview. It must fearlessly call American society — a society locked in a death spiral — back to a gospel-shaped biblical vision of the family.

Kaspars Ozolins is Research Associate in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge, England.

[1] David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” The Atlantic (March 2020),

[2] George Peter Murdock, Social Structure (New York: MacMillan, 1965), 2.

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