Insular Thinking About the American Nuclear 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 Nuclear Family was a Mistake.” So reads the provocative title of a relatively recent essay published by David Brooks in The Atlantic. 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”).