In a recent talk at the Wheaton Theology Conference, the Kenyan Anglican Archbishop David Gitari told of a Christian ministry that hired an ambulance to assist employees at a factory where injuries were being reported regularly. Eventually, someone had the bright idea of finding out why so many accidents were happening in the first place. Inside the building, investigators discovered a hall of hazards. What most needed fixing was the factory, not the workers.

Peter J. Leithart For the past half-century, cultural conservatives have been running an ambulance service. Alarmed by the collapse of sexual morals, rising rates of divorce and illegitimacy, and legalized abortion, we’ve devoted energy and resources to shoring up the “traditional family,” conceived of as father-breadwinner, mother-homemaker, and their common children. But the nuclear family is as much problem as solution. An exclusive focus on defending the nuclear family reinforces the social dislocations that created the crisis.

It’s a truism among social historians that the nuclear family is not the traditional family. Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner pointed out years ago that marriages used to be “firmly embedded in a matrix of wider community relationships.” Husbands and wives knew each other long before they were married, and their marriage “pulsed” with the same life as the wider community. Today, by contrast, “each family constitutes its own segregated subworld,” a subworld that married couples have to exert “much greater effort” to construct. For today’s couples, “success or failure hinges on the present idiosyncrasies of only two individuals.” Once, it took a village. Now two are enough to tango.

Not even the most traditional of traditionalists wants to return to a world where clan ambitions and dynastic politics trump the desires of individual men and women. At its best, though, that “matrix of wider relationships” provided models for lifelong marriages, encouragement and advice to weather marital storms, and dozens of sets of eyes to notice when marriages were going sour. Communities are meddlesome, but meddling can be a social good.

Traditionally, marriage and family in turn opened out to the community. As Wendell Berry says, “Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community.” Even today, married couples “say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is.”

Marriage stretches beyond the local community to embrace the cosmic: “The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven and earth.” Embedded in a network of relations, marriage and the nuclear family were public facts.

For Christians, the wider public is first of all the Church. During each of the dozens of wedding services I have performed, I have asked the congregation, “Do you as a church and family promise to do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage covenant?” I have been blessed to serve a church where the “Amen” to that question is never perfunctory.

Fragmented communities weaken marriages, and our society seems cunningly designed to fracture communities. The subtle threats are the most corrosive, and are deeply engraved on the physical arrangements and habitual patterns of our lives. What kind of scrutiny can a community have over marriages when neighbors see neighbors only when both are comfortably encased in a sound-proof, air-conditioned bubble of glass and steel? How much help will your friends be to your family if you squeeze out time for real conversation only a few times a year, on the handful of evenings you’re not working late at the office? How much community scrutiny is possible when “live and let live” is a cultural axiom?

Raising such questions, and invoking Berry, presents a spectrum of issues that many cultural conservatives prefer to dodge. The most penetrating conservative analysts of family life, such as Allan Carlson, have always recognized the cultural contradictions of capitalism and of technological society. They have always recognized the costs (as well as the gains) of separating work and home; of geographic, vocational, and social mobility; of the indisputable wealth-generating power of capitalism. On the ground, though, conservatives look the other way when told that our economic system or our technological progress might inhibit the formation of what Berry describes as an economy that “exists for the protection of gifts, beginning with the ‘giving in marriage.’”

Nuclear families as we know them today are the product of the same forces that undermined the communal support system on which nuclear families depend. Without that support system, the nuclear family is at best a thin reed, at worst a cause of yet more fragmentation. So long as cultural conservatives avoid addressing these wider forces, we will be able to mount nothing more than a rear-guard reaction. So long as we stay in our ambulances, we’ll continue to see an alarming number of industrial accidents. God willing, we’ll heal some, but it’s high time we take a look at the factory to find out what’s happening inside.

Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College . His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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