The Destruction of the Family

modern familyThe past couple of months have witnessed two extraordinary events in the history of Western moral culture. First, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a five-four decision that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples under the United States Constitution. The states are now required by judicial fiat to license marriages between two people of the same sex. The second is really a series of events, namely the exposure of Planned Parenthood. The practice of abortion, and the most (in)famous company practising it, have been laid bare on YouTube. These two events represent major moral flashpoints for Western society. It may seem coincidental that these crisis points have been reached almost simultaneously. However, it is hardly surprising that these two events are unfolding at the same point in history, as they share a common root.

At the root of the Obergefell v Hodges decision and the very existence of Planned Parenthood is a neglect of, and reversal in, the Western understanding of the concept of family. While there are, undoubtedly, other factors at play in these crises, the neglect of the idea of family is an important one that must be brought into the discussion. The family is here taken to be the organic community developed through and around a marriage. It usually, though not always, involves a man and a woman in marital union and their offspring. Therefore, it includes not only a married couple, but also their children. This does not exclude infertile or childless marriages from using the label of “family”; it merely requires the natural possibility of children as an outworking of a marriage. It also does not exclude single-parent households. These are families, but they are incomplete in the natural and organic sense. Just as in the childless marriage, in a single-parent family there is a component missing in the structure family.

The concept of family has a long history in the Western tradition. It was traditionally considered to represent social, economic and spiritual stability. The family relation is the “seedbed of society”, as the Calvinist jurisprudential thinker Johannes Althusius put it, and is the foundation of nurture and duty to one’s neighbour. The family, grounded in the covenant of marriage, is an organic and natural institution that provides a secure and natural context for human flourishing. Even members of a family or household who are not blood relations with the other members are participants in the institution (adopted children are an obvious example of this). The idea of, and reverence for, the institution of family lies behind the West’s social, political and moral order.

And yet, gay marriage and abortion exist in part because of a radical shift in Western understandings of the idea of family. There have, indeed, been some changes in our understanding of family for the better. Some negative elements of what is commonly known as “patriarchy” have been removed. However, in the process some more negative shifts have occurred. Formerly, the family was considered an institution with embedded relationships, hierarchies, duties and obligations. It still is that, but Western society has forgotten, through sins of both omission and commission, that family is not to be shaped to our liking. Family is not a space for voluntarism, where autonomous individuals can simply mould duties and obligations to their own liking. And yet that is precisely how we treat it. Obergefell and Planned Parenthood are but symptoms of this fundamental problem. The Obergefell ruling represents a seismic shift in the understanding of one component of family: marriage. Planned Parenthood represents a radical misconception of the other component: procreation and children. Consider the two issues in question.

Marriage has morphed (if that were even possible) from the most natural and organic of social institutions into something unrecognisable. It was previously a covenantal union, inviolable except in the most extreme of circumstances such as abandonment or adultery. In the West, marriage was sacred. The commitments were made before both man and God, the one who created marriage. A natural and almost inevitable part of this sacred union was the procreation of children. These children were born into a covenantal family which, in theory at least, was a safe and stable environment. Marriage meant family almost by default.

Marriage is now a voluntaristic exercise in self-fulfilment. As Alastair Roberts wrote in a recent Theopolis Institute article, “The family is now often closer to a privatized and sentimental environment for independent careerists who share similar patterns of consumption.” Here Roberts illustrates how the norms of marriage are now free to be moulded and shaped according to the values and aspirations of the marriage partners. Consider the widespread practice of no-fault divorce as representative of this. To the extent that the marriage no longer fulfils the needs and wishes of either or both of the spouses, there is no reason to continue the marriage. If one party in the marriage has had enough of the other, experiences boredom, “falls out of love”, or can’t handle the perceived pressure any more, separation is close at hand. Divorce allows parties to relinquish most obligations inherent in a marriage, including the obligations of companionship, protection, provision and sexual fidelity. It also has implications for same-sex marriage. If the norms of marriage are free to be entirely shaped by the partners, why not let two men marry?

Reinforcing this latter point is the fact that children also become an optional extra under the new view of marriage. Sex within marriage is not expressly linked to the potential for procreation any more, in large part because of the widespread use of birth control. To be sure, the purpose of marriage is more than sex, and the purpose of sex extends much further than mere procreation. Still, it remains the case that marriage is now very often detached from procreation because sex within marriage is frequently not a potentially procreative act. This makes sex within marriage just one of a number of possible ways of getting erotic pleasure. It, too, has become a voluntaristic exercise in self-fulfilment. If children are no longer considered a logical and natural extension of marriage, why not let two women marry? Same-sex marriage is in part plausible because deliberately childless marriages are a legitimate and not uncommon decision. It is the concept of family that is at the centre of the issue.

If children are not at least a theoretically possible outcome, married sex is just that: sex and nothing more. Sex within and without marriage now seems essentially the same because of the divorcing of procreation from sex within marriage. As a result, marriage is merely one potential setting for sexual fulfilment. Non-marital sex has become another acceptable setting for sexual intercourse, and potentially includes sex with partners of the same gender. In that context, where sex is divorced from childbearing and childrearing, gay marriage is plausible.

The voluntary childlessness that is prevalent in contemporary marriages leads to the second issue in question. Planned Parenthood could only exist in a world that has rejected the necessary link between marriage, sex and procreation. Abortion on demand is only plausible when erotic love is unhinged from children. Both married and unmarried people seek abortions. The conception of a child is unwanted in a variety of circumstances, but one common theme ties them together: the desire for sex without children. However, abortion is living (and dying) proof of the link between sex and children. Every abortion is a rejection of this intrinsic link. It is as though the “patient” and “doctor” quickly dispose of the “specimen” before anyone notices the reality of family that lies before them.

As a society we no longer intend sex to be linked to family and to children. So when an unintended consequence makes an appearance in the form of a baby, we act as if something unnatural has happened. It is as though sex were only meant for our pleasure and not for anything else. However, sex is unavoidably linked to family, no matter how many times Planned Parenthood attempt to sever the tie on behalf of the rest of us. Planned Parenthood is only operating because we’ve bought the lie that sex and family are not natural bedfellows.

The link between Obergefell and the Planned Parenthood controversy is the family—in particular, the death of the traditional Western conception of family. Marriages no longer necessarily produce children. Children are no longer necessary products of sex, but only an optional by-product. The old idea of family is dead in the West. These two events are evidence of its termination. In order to make a plausible defence of the traditional conceptions of sanctity of life and marriage, the centrality of the family must be recaptured.

Family is not just a sociological construct, so we must stop treating it like one. It is how the world actually is; it is how people live and thrive. It is natural. It carries with it certain obligations and duties. It is not malleable, no matter how hard we try to make it so. Yet we see all round us symptoms of family being treated as a voluntaristic institution. It is no wonder that we kill the unborn and farm out their remains. It is no wonder that many Western nations now allow two men, or two women, to marry. It is no wonder, when it is patently obvious that we have forgotten what the family is and why it matters. This development is alarming and, in the light the de-facto dissolution of the family, the future of the West looks bleak indeed.

Simon P. Kennedy is a husband and father who lives in Brisbane. He contributes regularly to the Calvinist International, a forum for research, ressourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom. He is also pursuing a PhD in the history of political thought.


16 thoughts on “The Destruction of the Family

  • Sigwyvern says:

    How true..the glue that holds society together has been weakened and distorted further. Fine article.

  • says:

    The first thing that comes to mind is how absurdly ridiculous that there is such a very justifiable need for this article. People of a generation ago would have been puzzled and amused that such thoughts should have to be canvassed at all since they are so very obvious.

    The second thought concerns gay marriage and children. The desire of same-sex couples for parenthood is preposterous and extremely offensive. In addition to the deprivation of either a mother or father of children, the concept is in direct contradiction of their rejection of heterosexual sex. Adoption by same-sex couples is appalling enough, but the bizarre procedures they utilise in order to have children born specifically for them are most repulsive. Homosexuals demand acceptance and respect of their sexuality but refuse to extend the same courtesy to heterosexuals by not usurping aspects of the latter whenever their fancy so dictates.

    • Rob Brighton says:

      Why is it preposterous Bill?
      How does the desire to have children with the person you love constitute rejection of heterosexual sex?
      What is heterosexual sex Bill? I heard a old joke that using a feather was kinky but using the whole chicken is perverted….just where does one draw the line on the feather to chicken scale in your view?
      Tell me this Bill, would the same procedure be acceptable for infertile couples?
      If so why are people who find themselves fancying the same sex ought in some way be less suitable?

      Your right in one respect tho, a generation ago the question wouldn’t have been asked it was hidden, confirmed bachelors sharing a residence don’t you know (nudge nudge wink wink).

      • says:

        The questions you pose, Rob, would cause a sane and reasonable person to despair. May I suggest that you get the valid answer to your question “what is heterosexual sex” and perhaps then the rest of it might fall into place for you.

        • Rob Brighton says:

          The definition of sane is subjective Bill, personally I find it ludicrous to suggest that the book that guides these beleifs is can be considered remotely sane.
          As to what is valid heterosexual sex well, the gamut of behaviors and methods differs for us all.
          What is “normal” in this respect? Behaviors approved of in a bronze age book?
          That’s where the problem lay, driven by the idea that in some way one persons faith allows them to be others moral administrators.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    The fact of the matter is that no longer do the ‘moral guardians’ nor those who are now dedicated to pulling down western traditions will determine the destiny of marriage.

    As with all structures in any society it will be the individuals within the society, through their behaviours, who will shape the structures in their society.
    What is happening the the institution is not new.

    Sex, procreation and marriage came under pressure with the advent of the widespread use of contraception after WWI. See ‘Marriage and Morals’ Bertrand Russell. Individuals demands changed attitudes to marriage then.

    Similarily no fault divorce came about in the 60’s and 70’s through pressure from individuals.

    If one looks at the family structures since the time of the industrial revolution there has been continual change. All that is occurring now, is like all things in society, change is occurring faster.

    Whether marriage as we know it continues or not, changes in it will not bring about the destruction if western liberal democracy.

    It hasn’t before, individuals adapted. It won’t in future, individuals will adapt.

    What is occurring is the the old institutional power structures and beliefs, eg churches are being challenged … As they always have been.

  • Rob Brighton says:

    Yearning for the good old days hey? its the same dog of an argument offered when the poms put a end to the institutionalized ownership of woman way back in the 1800’s it’s just got a fancy hat and a where’s wally suit on.

    No the world wont end because women have control of their breeding cycle, what will happen is their education will improve and thru that so will their whole countries economy. Yes women and men are perfectly capable of choosing if they want kids or not, only in uneducated backwaters where religion and credulity run hand in hand is it otherwise.

    Who cares if two blokes want to shed their hard earned with a wedding planner…more fool them for mine but hey, its their money….what harm does it do to you? It neither picks your pockets or breaks your bones.

    • Jody says:

      Actually, I think you’ve missed the point entirely. It’s not about whether “two blokes want to shed their hard-earned with a wedding planner” – it’s about the erosion of values upon which the society has been more-or-less successfuly built in the narrow sense of the family unit. I agree that marriage has been compromised and weakened by The Pill, no-fault divorce, DNA testing for paternity etc., so that fewer and fewer people feel the need to ‘tie the knot’. I interpret this whole argument as being about whether or not as a culture or civilization we perceive certain values as fundamental and worth preserving because of the benefits this provides for the society as a whole. Frankly, I don’t see any evidence of a better society as a result of weakened marriage, serial partners, children who have different parents and those raised by single parents. What I do see is a more fractured, narcissistic, materialistic culture with a generation of unhappy children and teens, a rise in suicide, uncivil behaviour on the streets and in public and industrial-strength drug abuse and the need for government to assume the role of “nanny”. If you think all the changes which you airily dismiss as trivial and/or inevitable, tell us please exactly what are the material benefits achieved through all of this – and I don’t mean the exponential rise in social welfare ‘benefits’ where the taxpayer is having to take up the slack for single-parent families.

      • Rob Brighton says:

        I don’t know that I have missed the point at all, I just think that the point is being made from a frame work that is limited.
        It is being considered within the limited time frame of our living memories.
        Since the 1800’s movements in what has constituted marriage has raised the same arguments starting with the married women’s property act that at the time was bemoaned, it changed marriage entirely, but perhaps that isn’t far enough back.
        Might be worth looking a bit further back the most common structure was to have multiple wives, Greek and Romans did otherwise but they were the exception rather than the rule but hey it wasn’t that much of a issue, you could always have any number of slaves to have sex, how does that fit into what is currently termed “marriage”? I can hear the hu and cry now when that one was overturned.
        Consider larger time frames and it is apparent that marriage changes constantly and that change is decried by those who have their beaks into every one else’s business.
        I would also question the conflation between the rise in social security and the condition of marriage, mere correlation is not enough to be sure that one follows another.
        I worry that the “save the marriage”crowd are erecting a straw man out of distaste for the physical acts 2 chaps may get up to in the connubial bed, I share that distaste but to deny them what they seek by pointing at the slow motion social structure collapse that we are watching and sheeting it home to changes in marriage is drawing a very long bow indeed when the rest of the factors that you indicated are not included in the article.
        To answer your question in regard to material benefits I have to relate a story, my niece has two children generated not by sex but by the wonders of modern science, her partner is a lovely woman when one watches them together it is clear as day they love each other, they have been together for more than 18 years, their eldest is clearly hetro if the Justin Beiber posters all over her bedroom is anything to go by. They live in a modest home on the central coast where the kids go to school, my nieces partner works at the school canteen and takes their young bloke to soccer training afterwards. It is a normal family life.
        What more material benefit would one ask for? Sturdy relationship, good parenting, concern for their children who are being well educated, fed and loved.
        It would be nice if all hetro marriages were as successful, they are not and neither will homosexual marriages but that is not sufficient reason to deny my nieces a desire they have held for many years, that is they want to get married.
        Personally I don’t understand the point but what I think in this regard is not relevant, its their lives not mine.
        There is a lot of fear that looks pointless to me once you toss away the prohibitions written in stone age books.

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    I have just finished reading Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices. It lays out in devastating detail the venality, irrationality and political skullduggery involved in the decisions of the nine Supreme Court judges in constitutional cases, from the wartime Japanese Internment case to the unanimous desegregation decision in 1954. Those two, and many more, involved interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – the 1868 amendment which dealt with citizens’ rights and equal protection of the laws. The Supreme Court’s messing with that issue of “rights”, in the spirit of Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism, marked the beginning of judicial activism as we know it – a plague that soon spread to Australia.

    Unsurprisingly, the Fourteenth Amendment was the first thing quoted in the majority decision of the Court in Obergefell v Hodges, the case which (narrowly) ordered all states to respect same-sex marriages. Neither was I surprised that the argument in the majority decision reeked of the twisted logic and contorted interpretations of the Court’s past work – working backward from a pre-determined position, courtesy of the vague “rights” of the Fourteenth.

    Here are samples of that judgement:

    “The right of same-sex couples to marry is derived from the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.”

    ”It is demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation’s society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage.”

    “The intimate association protected by this right was central to Grisswold v Connecticut which held the Constitution protects the right of married couples to use contraceptives.”

    “It (same-sex marriage) safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation and education. Without the recognition, stability and predictability marriage offers, children suffer to the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”

    Of the four dissenting justices, Chief Justice Roberts best summed up the travesty of argumentation by the majority, as he addressed those in favour of expanding same-sex marriage:

    “Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

  • psstevo says:

    An excellent article that goes right to the historical heart of the issue. Unfortunately Rob Brighton misses the underlying worldview that Kennedy proposes. There cannot be a valid philosophical presupposition that is only based on someone’s individual worldview – there must be an basic philosophical/religious basis for a worldview to be valid. The lack of that valid worldview is the over-arching cause of much of today’s social ills.

    • Rob Brighton says:

      I don’t miss the world view proposed, I deny the religious component in its entirety.

      • says:

        Reading your posts, Rob, one can’t avoid the impression that your world view is to dismiss any and all principles, conventions, traditions; the attitude of “anything goes” according to everyone’s momentary fancy. That is an utterly unprincipled stance, guaranteeing continuous upheaval and instability.

        • Rob Brighton says:

          Your impression would be wrong Bill, I just make sure I question moral objections that are born by what I consider a delusion, especially when the delusion is driving actions that effect others.
          If those delusions where limited to those who shared them I can and do hold no objection, those that seem to believe that a celestial arbiter with an unhealthy preoccupation with our genitalia will in due course be handing out somewhat warm-and-flickery consequences to those whose biology compels them to use said genitalia in less-than-orthodox pursuits, I cannot for the life of me imagine why they won’t leave the judging to Him and learn to mind their own business. Because if that arbiter does exist, I very much doubt that he needs the help of cretinous busybodies to tell tales, and if he doesn’t then all their doing is being a completely repulsive toad to their fellow human beings.
          I have absolutely no problem with people of different sexualities and care not one single jot what others they get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms and accordingly can see no reason why gay couples should not be fully entitled to all the joys of marriage. Including the child support agency.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Bob Brighton

    Hear hear, but your abandoning of the religious
    ‘Values’ component should extend to all other areas as well … As our western philosophical history contends.

    I don’t know what possesses the religiously minded to think it impossible for non religious people to develop and maintain an ethical and moral structure in their own lives.

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