- Carl Zimmerman observed that the Christian churches of the 1940s collectively represented the only force resisting the disintegration of the family. Tweet This
- We will not have a revival of the family without a revival of religion—and not just sentimental, therapeutic Christianity, but a rigorous, disciplined, countercultural form of the faith. Tweet This
Editor’s Note: The following essay by Rod Dreher is the second response in the Institute for Family Studies' week-long symposium on David Brooks' new essay on the nuclear family. We will be publishing more responses to David Brooks throughout this week, so stay tuned.
In The Atlantic today, David Brooks says the nuclear family has actually been falling apart for a hundred years. Carle C. Zimmerman would have agreed with him. In his unjustly forgotten 1947 book Family And Civilization, the Harvard sociologist said that Americans had built a culture that conspired against family formation—the very thing that makes our civilization possible. Zimmerman wrote:
There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. Whatever may be our Pollyanna inclination, this fact cannot be avoided. Under any assumptions, the implications will be far-reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is social. It is no longer familistic; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.
Zimmerman did not foresee the Baby Boom, which was just beginning as he published, but otherwise, he was on target. Though not a religious believer, Zimmerman observed that the Christian churches of the 1940s collectively represented the only force resisting the disintegration of the family.
It must have seemed that way once, but it has not been the case for a very long time. As Mary Eberstadt argued in her 2013 book, How The West Really Lost God, the very continuation of the church also seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.
In talking with my own Christian friends struggling in their marriages, it is clear that in almost all cases—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—the institutional church is not a meaningful part of shoring up their commitment to marriage, except in an abstract sense. For most, congregational life is the thinnest of communities. Catholics, for example, lament that their parishes are impersonal “sacrament factories.” Evangelicals tell me that their congregations may be somewhat thicker, but like all other American Christian churches, are so saturated by individualism that they can’t persuasively frame marriage as much more than a lightly sacralized contract between willing parties. There is no escaping modernity.
We will not have a revival of the family without a revival of religion—and not just sentimental, therapeutic Christianity, but a rigorous, disciplined, countercultural form of the faith that can impart to people the hope they need to embrace suffering and choose life amid the dissipation and decadence of the world.
Why are the churches so absent, or at least so impotent, in the task of forming and defending families? Brooks writes:
Eli Finkel, a psychologist and marriage scholar at Northwestern University, has argued that since the 1960s, the dominant family culture has been the “self-expressive marriage.” “Americans,” he has written, “now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.” Marriage, according to the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, “is no longer primarily about childbearing and childrearing. Now marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment.”
So is religion! And it became so at the same time that marriage and family were changing, under the same atomizing pressures. As early as the mid-1960s, the sociologist Philip Rieff identified the profound therapeutic shift in American culture, and the self-deceptive eagerness of the clergy to pretend it wasn’t happening.
Brooks explains that people today are experimenting with new forms of family-like communal living—“forged families” as he puts it—who are trying to find something to replace what we have lost. One can only hope for their success, but no reader of Zimmerman can be optimistic that family systems can recover absent real religious commitment. The same experimentation is beginning to happen here and there in Christian life. The renunciation of the contemporary concept of marriage and religion as about self-fulfillment, and the rediscovery of both as self-sacrificial, firmly grounded in the divine, is the only way out of this dark wood.
This is, obviously, a narrow and unappealing path, and not many will take it— until they learn, as the pilgrim Dante did at the start of his arduous journey, that all other ways forward are closed.
Family And Civilization is a work of historical sociology in which the author explains how the rise and fall of Greek, Roman, and medieval European civilizations depended on changing family forms. Zimmerman makes a case that the “atomistic” family—what we call the nuclear family—is always the final form before civilization collapses, having lost to hedonism and radical individualism what is needed to hold society together.
Zimmerman concluded his great book by reiterating that we know why civilization is falling apart—“the lack of a basic belief in the forces which make it work”— and we know that eventually, “the necessary remedy” will be applied.
Zimmerman’s tragedy is that he, as a man of social science and not of faith, could not admit the conclusion to which his premises lead: that civilization will not recover until it collectively rediscovers religion—one that, like early and medieval Christianity, puts family and fertility close to the center of both its authoritative belief system and lived experience.
We will not have a revival of the family without a revival of religion—and not just sentimental, therapeutic Christianity, but a rigorous, disciplined, countercultural form of the faith that can impart to people the hope they need to embrace suffering and choose life amid the dissipation and decadence of the world. It has been said before, and it remains true: we really are waiting for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservative and author of The Benedict Option (Sentinel, 2017).