The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Carle Zimmerman Revisited


D. Eric Schansberg


 

 

Eminent sociologist Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization is widely considered to be a classic. It is a tour de force on family structure. And its largely accurate prophecies make its age (over 70 years) even more valuable.

It’s not clear whether Zimmerman’s succinct first sentence is motivated by his profession or his interest as a concerned citizen: “No problem is more interesting and vital ´to us than that of the family.” Family is at the heart of sociology, near the heart of economics and psychology, and a key to any social science. And the health of the family is clearly vital to the functioning of society.

But this simple opening is only a terse introduction to a complex topic. It will take an entire book for Zimmerman to describe three types of families, trace the history of family structure from the ancient Greeks to the modern West, argue for cause/effect in the evolution of family structure, briefly detail the debate in the field of sociology on these matters, and lay out his predictions for the future of the family in the West.

 

Debate Among Sociologists

Zimmerman finishes his introduction with an overview of the contemporary debate between the two basic schools of thought on family within the field of sociology.[1] Both chart the history and future of the family in evolutionary terms. The “Chicago School” saw the world through Progressive and Marxist lenses. Improved versions of marriage and family will naturally arise and thrive over time, in line with the proponents’ conception of Progress. And a Marxist focus on materialism implies that such changes are largely driven by the natural environment—most importantly, by economic factors (e.g., industrialization, higher wages).

Zimmerman and others (most notably, his friend and colleague Pitirim Sorokin) had an evolutionary perspective that is:

 

more contingent (progress is not always Progress);

more dependent on external factors (beyond a handful of economic factors—truer to the spirit of the complex social systems usually described by sociology);

more cyclical (as people respond to the deficiencies they see in the dominant family model of their time); and

more scientific (less reliant on ideology and more in line with historical data and causal theory).[2]

On this last point, Zimmerman had harsh words for those with the dominant view: “There is a greater disparity between the actual, documented, historical truth and the theories taught in the family sociology courses than exists in any other scientific field.”[3] He also criticized those who have strong views on family without understanding the institution at a very basic level: “Most of family sociology constructed in Western society, whether valid or not, is the work of amateurs. To them, familism is something they see, but whose inner meaning they seldom comprehend.”[4]

Some are limited because they don’t have children themselves. Understanding of the family “can come only through experience on an adult level . . . nonfamilistic persons cannot understand family behavior in any deep sense . . . The family gives more and takes more of the individual than do other social organizations.”[5] Many of Western Europe’s prominent leaders have few or no children; one wonders about the extent to which this is indicative of a broader cultural lack of understanding of family.

In his epilogue, Bryce Christensen surveys the last 50 years of this debate, starting with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 cry in the wilderness.[6] The Moynihan Report expressed deep concerns about out-of-wedlock birthrates for African-Americans, which hovered at 25% at that time. (Today, the rate is 40% for all children and 70% for African-Americans.) In opposition, Chicago School thinkers (and their descendants) have exaggerated the efficacy of single-parent households[7]; ignored or rationalized a range of social pathologies attached to trouble with family structure and stability; and looked (desperately) for scapegoats elsewhere.[8]

But this is an ancient topic. Palermo notes that “the family pre-existed both church and state” and it is “the first model of political societies.”[9] And the debate goes back almost as far. Zimmerman writes, “This disagreement over the family is not new . . . [it is] one of the oldest arguments in history.”[10] At least for Christians and Jews, it stems from the beginning of human history. One important framework for reading Genesis is what it says about marriage and family—most notably, what God wanted to accomplish through Abraham, his descendants, and eventually, the nation of Israel.

In his amazing commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass pursues this theme to great effect. Marriage ranges from its origins with Adam and Eve through polygamy and inter-marriage. Child-raising is a key part of the story, too, with a special focus on sibling rivalry—beginning with Cain/Abel and finally resolved by Judah/Joseph. As for family and society, it’s clearly “a man’s world” as we enter the Flood narrative. God “starts over” with Abraham, but he’s very much a work in progress, especially with respect to marriage and parenting. All of this is to set up the nation of Israel—and clearly, there’s a lot of work to do. From God’s perspective, apparently, if you don’t get family correct, you’re not going to have much of a nation.

Likewise, if you don’t have effective fathers, families are going to struggle. As Brad Wilcox notes

Christianity turns men’s hearts and minds toward the family. They are more emotionally engaged with their wives and children. They are more likely to read to their kids, to hug and praise their children. Feminists tend to be concerned about the traditionalistic character of religion but miss the familistic side that encourages men to put their families, marriages, and kids first.[11]

Zimmerman’s Three Family Types: Trustee, Domestic, and Atomistic

After his initial introduction and history, Zimmerman lays out his three basic types of family: trustee, domestic, and atomistic. To understand the “trustee” type, think about clans (e.g., the Hatfields and McCoys), tribes, the Mafia, and inner-city gangs as prominent examples. For the clan, “family” is extremely important and its leaders have an immense amount of control. They are “trustees” for the well-being of their group.

In a way, for the trustee type, “family” becomes an idol, taking on an exaggerated sense of importance. This form dominates when social and legal institutions are weaker.[12] Trustee leaders can be seen as exploiting an opportunity, but Zimmerman describes them as filling a necessary vacuum. When religion and government cannot provide order, a nuclear family unit is not likely to thrive or even survive. Such responsibilities then naturally devolve to the extended family or clan.

The Old Testament contains many examples of the trustee family structure—most notably, the inter-family marriages throughout Genesis (what we now define as “incest” in the developed world); the episode with Dinah, her brothers, and the Shechemites (Genesis 34); the clan aspects of “levirate marriage” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6; see also, Genesis 38); “eye for an eye” retribution (e.g., Deuteronomy 19:21); and “cities of refuge” to deal with “revenge killings” (Joshua 20).

Zimmerman doesn’t address these examples, but his categories are helpful in coming to a greater understanding of the Old Testament. It’s not that God is universally endorsing the trustee family as optimal. But in those days, that’s what you did. For the social and legal context, this was the best you could do—and often, it worked reasonably well.

Zimmerman’s next type is the “domestic.” For this, it might be helpful to remember the modern/New Testament biblical ideal. The norm for this type is marriage, fidelity, raising children with two parents, etc. Zimmerman sees the domestic family as optimal, given the three functions of family “as articulated by historical Christianity: fides, proles, and sacramentum—fidelity, child-bearing and indissoluable unity.”[13]

The implications of this type are important in both micro terms (the couple and their children), in semi-macro terms (for better community, more financial and non-financial resources for the next generation), and in macro/social terms (fewer social pathologies, greater economic growth).[14]

Also illuminating here is the work of Jennifer Morse, who writes:

The family performs a crucial and irreplaceable social function . . . helpless babies are transformed from self-centered bundles of impulses, desires, and emotions to fully socialized adults. The family teaches trust, cooperation, and self-restraint. The family is uniquely situated to teach these skills because people instill these qualities in their children as a side effect of loving them.[15]

As such, the family is important to children, adults, and society.

Finally we come to the “atomistic” family. For this type, either marriage or lack of marriage may be included, but the primary focus is the individual rather than the couple and the children. If married, divorce becomes more likely. Kids are less frequent and more disposable (in terms of both abortion and the mode of child-raising), more of a side issue to the couple, or really, to each parent separately.

Atomism can emerge from social influences (moral/ethical norms for individuals, couples, and children), legal incentives (getting into, staying in, or getting out of marriage), policy incentives (e.g., welfare policies that discourage marriage, or child tax credits that promote bearing children) or economic growth and empowerment (making marriage less important for financial security).

 

A History of Marriage and Family

In his introduction, Zimmerman provides a brief survey of world history: Greek and Roman conceptions of family, the fall of Rome, the Middle Ages, and modern times. In chapters 3-10, Zimmerman expands on each of these eras.

Chapter 3—Early and Mid-Roman: In this era, Christianity joined the intellectual and cultural battles over family—an interaction of various secular and Christian concepts of family. Zimmerman documents the changes throughout Roman history, from a mishmash of domestic and atomistic types to the eventual dominance of the atomistic family in Roman culture. 

Chapter 4—Late-Roman: Zimmerman describes the tension in this era (given the decline of Rome, its government, and its culture) between Rome’s atomistic families and the invading barbarians with their trustee families. “The provincial magistrate . . . wanted order and security,” and the trustee arrangement was more conducive to those goals.

But the Church was in an odd position here. It “had to decide between two family codes, although it was not completely sympathetic with either . . . From the standpoint of family life (practical indissolubility of marriage, fecundity, relative absence of divorce, dignified treatment of women), the church sympathized more with the barbarians than with the dissolute mores of the Romans.” Given the trustee approach and “ruthless barbarian behavior in interfamily feuds, it favored the refined and peaceful delicacy” of the Romans and their atomistic approach.[16] The result was a blend of all three family types.

Chapter 5—Middle Ages: The Church became more powerful and prominent. Transportation and communication improved, making it easier for the Church to operate. Its “economic muscle” increased, allowing it more resources. And governments became weaker, creating both a need for self-defense and an opportunity.[17]

Zimmerman emphasizes a desire to promote a Christian view of marriage. Economists have also emphasized economic (and cynical) self-interests: The Church “varied its interpretation of what constituted a ‘valid’ marriage in accord with certain economic objectives.”[18] The Church initiated a number of reforms for marriage and family, including the elimination of dowries and key restrictions on “incest” (that we now take for granted). This necessarily diminished the power of the clan and led to the increasing dominance of the domestic model.

Whatever the motives, the Church began to crowd out the trustee model and attract more people to the domestic model. Zimmerman writes,

Side by side in what was known as civilization were two of the most extreme developments of the family. From this state of affairs, the church began to formulate a conception of public power to regulate the family. . . . The Christian church was to be over and above [family and State] and give the essential moral directives to both family and secular authorities.[19]

In this new understanding, marriage is seen as a sacrament rather than a contract, a covenant instead of a convenience. Marriage is the union of husband and wife (Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:31)—a couple instead of a cog in the clan or tribe. According to Zimmerman, “The importance of the beginning of this conception of the domestic family cannot be overestimated.”[20] Through the Church’s efforts, Zimmerman observes, civilization had completed a full cycle over a number of centuries, from domestic as the dominant model, to atomistic, to trustee, and then back to domestic.

Chapter 6—Early “Modern”: Christianity at this point dominated the West and much of the East. Zimmerman observes that the trustee family lasted longer in the East than in the West, in part due to the influence of Islam, the Mongol Invasion, and greater ruralism. Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were late adapters of the domestic type as well. In any case, the domestic family was by now increasingly dominant. Now what? 

Zimmerman sees a variety of attacks on and defenses of marriage within the Church. Erasmus did not see marriage as sacramental or even sacred. More broadly, Protestant Reformers did not see marriage as a sacrament, but instead as a “divine institution.” It was to be regulated by the State. Luther compared marriage to food, clothing, and shelter. Still, he held it in high regard: “God’s way of life. . . . Strong marriages make strong society. . . . Marriage is a social institution and not merely individual pleasure.”[21]

We see the same struggles in the modern church: Protestants want to revere marriage, but they’ve diminished it from a sacrament to an “institution” and seem surprised when they (and others) struggle to uphold it. For them, it is not a sacramental covenant between husband and wife, but rather a contract, a covenant, a sacred institution—or implicitly, a merely social or civic institution. Likewise, we’ve seen contemporary Christian and “conservative” angst about same-sex “marriage,” but relatively little sense of crisis over the far larger problems with rampant divorce and illegitimacy over the past 50 years.

Chapters 7-10—From the Reformation into the 19th Century: In this period, Zimmerman lays considerable blame on French philosophers—and then the French and Russian Revolutions—for their promotion of easy divorce. Then he turns to Protestants again, with a focus on the Puritans. Milton followed Luther’s relatively secular and liberal view on marriage and divorce. Other Puritans had a “fully secular conception of marriage” and invoked the State in requiring civil marriage. Locke’s analysis was “secular in nature” and explicitly promoted atomism after the children were out of the house. Voltaire relied on secular, practical arguments to promote marriage. Of the writers cited, only Thomas Paine provides a defense of marriage as sacred!

Zimmerman summarizes historical Protestant thought on marriage as “indecisive.” He concludes, “Most writers praise or blame the Protestant leaders for the philosophical steps that led to the modern atomism of the family. Neither praise nor blame is deserved.”[22]

Whatever the cause, James Kurth’s epilogue provides a great summary statement of the relevant trends in the last century: “What was once a common extended-family structure has shrunk first to a nuclear-family structure and then, during the past quarter-century, to a non-family phenomenon.”[23]

 

Cause and Effect

In Chapters 11-12, Zimmerman sets the table for his three chapters on the causal factors of the various family structures. He argues that family structure is inherently stable, but can be undermined by external factors such as changes in government policy, economic context, and beliefs about morality.

In Chapter 13, Zimmerman turns to the trustee family, with a focus on Appalachia. These families did not have this structure until they moved from the colonies into the frontier—a context with little government. With the presence of Native Americans and bandits, “the formation of the trustee family was a quick reversion in family organization, achieved early and long preserved because of a series of conditioning environmental factors . . . identical to those which caused its development in Western society” during the early Middle Ages.[24] As Zimmerman described earlier, trustee families are likely to arise as a response to the lack of order that comes with a weak State.

One might expect these trustee families to have been undergirded by religious belief and the Church. But the rural setting made all types of community more challenging. Soon, the “camp meeting revival” changed their form of religion—in part, substituting annual meetings of emotion for weekly meetings of a congregational community.

Decades later, the trustee family system was entrenched. As the state began to strengthen with economic development and greater population density, the trustee families captured the political process, controlling it through voting and implicitly maintaining the status quo. “That,” according to Zimmerman, “was why many Kentucky feuds allegedly started over ‘politics.’”[25]

This system seems in many ways like a cousin of today’s politics—with various forms of “identity politics” and partisans of the two major political parties fighting for power. Current events certainly resemble a tribal approach, with an increasingly “strong” (yet weak) government in a society with an increasingly atomized approach to family. Consider also non-urban Africa with the dominance of tribes. In the coming years, one would expect Africans to evolve toward some combination of domestic and atomistic—given technological advance, stronger economies, greater mobility, more effective governments, and varying levels of Christian influence.

In Chapter 14, Zimmerman discusses the causation of the domestic family: the presence of a strong religious influence; a reasonably strong government; and responses to the excesses of trustee families. It is the primary “type of all developed civilization”—most prevalent in the middle stages and less so, in the early and later stages. The domestic type is also an attractive family structure, since it allows for the strongest approach to economic development.[26]

Zimmerman argues that the move away from the domestic family must be (largely) external as well. “We cannot think of the domestic family as being the agent of its own decay. . . . There is no general cause within this family type which is antithetical to it.”[27] Are there potential excesses of the domestic model? Of course. It’s not difficult to recall or imagine anecdotes here. But Zimmerman’s point seems to hold that the causes of its fade or demise are more likely external than internal—changes in economics, religion, morals, or government policy.

In chapter 15, Zimmerman gets to the fascinating causes of the atomistic family and its chicken/egg contributions to the decline of civilization. For explicit forms of statism, atomism is attractive—with family power reduced (compared to trustee or domestic) but family still a useful cell for the all-important organism of the state. In democracies, Zimmerman points to the rise of legal “divorce without cause” and below-replacement birthrates as the cultural norm becomes having fewer children. Population can be supplemented short-term by immigration. For example, European nations have used immigration to offset declines in birthrates.[28] But this brings its own challenges.

In some ways, the atomistic approach does have some advantages: fewer children are easier for parents to handle, and there are fewer problems with sibling rivalry—as children or adults. Even so, Zimmerman compares this situation to that of carbohydrates versus healthy foods in a diet. The former has “superficial, discernible values” that are appealing; the latter is better although potentially more difficult to discern.

Ironically, this family type is often imagined as the height of social progress. A further irony is that those who see this type as progress often view some of its primary causes (modest government and economic growth) as deeply troubling. Horwitz writes: “Where conservatives will have to reconcile their supposed love of capitalism to the reality of the dynamic cultural change it produces that they dislike, progressives may have to recognize that the diversity of family forms they rightly celebrate is significantly due to capitalism and the wealth it has created.”[29]

Debate here is not surprising: “It is customary for people with very decided opinions to take opposite points of view about the atomistic family. . . . the high point of civilization, the peak of human development . . . the decadence of the times.”[30] Of course, this is true of all family structures: People inside the trustee family often praise it; those outside it view it as something bizarre and repugnant. The domestic type has the most support, but even so, it still has detractors, especially when its struggles are imagined as part of its nature rather than compared to its ideal. 

If Zimmerman is correct, then the atomized family will necessarily lead to profound social troubles. Those who see the atomized family as an advance—out of flawed analysis and/or deficient ideology—will ignore or downplay these problems (e.g., the various pathologies more likely in single-parent households).[31] But often, the problems are not particularly debatable (gang violence, declining education standards, greater violence and drug use, etc.).[32] In such cases, the defenders of the atomistic family must find rationales or scapegoats. In the late-Roman era, Christians blamed family structure and general moral decay while Romans blamed the Christians for society’s decline. The two possible approaches today are to deal with the cause (which requires introspection, the requisite worldview, and tremendous courage) or to address the symptoms (“to build up institutions to ‘remedy’ the misery”[33]—likely a losing battle).

 

The 1950s and Zimmerman’s Predictions

One underrated question is the extent to which the 1950s were a glorious time in U.S. history. In some circles, it’s common to celebrate the era; in other circles, it’s common to disparage it. But the question is more complicated than either view—for society in general, or for marriage and family in particular.[34] For one thing, the parents of the 1950s gave us the children of the 1960s.[35]

Christianity was dominant, but how much of it was biblical Christianity, and how much some bastardized form of Christianity, a key part of American Civil Religion?[36] The predominance of “Christianity” in 1950s America is better seen as an aberration, rather than the end of a long era of Christian dominance. The same holds for the American family, which has experienced cycles, rather than a long period of stability and then a famous collapse after the 1950s.

For example, Carlson describes concerns about the family in the late-19th and early-20th centuries—both the statistics and a troubling set of potential causes: feminism and contraception, the Industrial Revolution and greater incomes, greater mobility and urbanization, state schooling and the Great Depression. These “should have led to the demise of familism in America . . . yet, just the opposite occurred. The next several decades actually witnesses an extraordinary blossoming of a culture of marriage . . . ”[37]

Kurth argues that the post-World War II period was not a Golden Age for marriage or much of anything else.[38] Scholars were concerned about the increased incidence of divorce going back into the 19th century[39], laws that made divorce easy[40], and an easy-to-see trend toward less respect for marriage. For example, Zimmerman shares an anecdote from 1945 where two couples from New Jersey go to Nevada to get divorced and switch spouses, with the kids being “awarded” to the mothers.[41]

Zimmerman predicted imminent trouble and ultimately, crisis, saying we would “reach the final phases of a great family crisis” by the end of the 20th century. Instead, we experienced a short-run domestic family renaissance—or at least, a delay in long-term trends—during the post-war recovery from the Great Depression and World War II.[42]

Looking back now, Zimmerman probably would have seen the Baby Boom’s population bump and a renewed focus on family as an unforeseen blip within a general decline. Carlson reports that by 1960, “Zimmerman became almost euphoric about the family miracle occurring in the American suburbs.”[43] But by 1972, he seems far less optimistic. In an essay for The Journal of Marriage and Family, Zimmerman worries about the family—and in particular, about the impact of higher education, which had gone through a rough decade. He pointed explicitly to “the cyclical factor in family behavior” and seemed to anticipate a future closer to his earlier predictions.[44]

Certainly, the last three decades of the 20th century were not good for the American family. Family renewal “vanished with remarkable speed”; marriage rates fell by 35%; early marriage disappeared; cohabitation increased dramatically; and fertility dropped significantly.[45] In the short run, Zimmerman’s predictions were wrong; in the long run, his analysis seems accurate and his predictions have been coming to pass. But is this phenomenon different parts of the same cycle, or a slippery slope to the end of viable marriage? Without reform, where do we go from here?

Zimmerman wrote, “The basic, moral, and ideological population sources of the strength of the culture dry up . . . resentment against this overextended atomism . . . creates, purely negatively, conditions that lead to a new synthesis and reaction.”[46] It would seem that we are probably in that phase now—with social experiments in sexuality; our legal experiments in marriage; and, at least in some circles, concerns about current trends in marriage and family. What are the likely outcomes and what will the social response be? Here are some of Zimmerman’s thoughts on the topic.

Without the domestic family, one cannot have civilization for long. High atomism is not good for society and thus, is ultimately not good for the individual.

The root cause of both atomism and trustee families is connected to a loss of faith in God or useful gods. “Familism has never succeeded without a system of infinite faith.”

The cause of the decline is likely to be confused with its symptoms. Government agencies will try to stem the tide of symptoms but this “will only make the situation more confused and difficult.”

“Speculation about the family and the future course of civilization arises only when the atomistic type of family is coming into full control of society.” There will be “very little public knowledge of the nearness, the inescapability, or the seriousness of the impending crisis. The intellectuals almost completely avoid discussion of it.” One of the costs of modern political correctness and “tolerance” is a greatly reduced ability to speak candidly about obvious social problems in terms of both cause and effect.

There will be a “somewhat ambivalent” attitude toward family: “We want to retain the family, but it must not interfere with our love affairs, either hetero- or homosexual.” This observation seems remarkably prescient in light of current events. Even those who favor expanded “rights” and social approval for homosexual relationships cannot be excited about the implications for family, the birth dearth, etc.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Zimmerman observes that the family is always in flux. And he is optimistic that downward swings are not inevitable. Are we starting to understand the importance of the issue and the severity of the problem? “Must there be another cataclysm” along the lines of Greece and Rome? “The struggle over the modern family and its present rapid trend toward a climactic breakup will be one of the most interesting and decisive ones in history. So much is at stake.” Is a short-run cycle somewhat natural or does it require purposeful actions? Is there a natural “regression to the mean”? “In sociology we sometimes speak of a theory of limits. When a movement goes so far in one direction, it seems to stir up antagonistic forces that bring about a return toward an old idea or a revision of an old idea.” [47]

In Family Cycles, Allan Carlson identifies four cycles of marriage in American history, each of which lasted about 50 years. If the cycle repeats, we would bottom out in 2020. Despite his own study of this pattern, Carlson still finds it difficult to be optimistic—just as others would find it challenging at the end of their contemporary cycles![48]

Why? Modern tendencies (legal, economic, social) all seem to favor increased atomism. Carlson asks, “Might this happen? The odds are against it. Most notably, the current legal climate is overwhelmingly hostile. . . . And yet . . . the circumstances of the 1930s and 1940s were also overwhelmingly hostile to family renewal. Nonetheless, it occurred.”[49]

Can we discern possible causes for the effect of a reversal and the continuation of the cycle? Christianity and the Church are a possible corrective, but at present, they seem to have insufficient prevalence and influence to change the World’s penchant for increased atomism.[50] A stronger Church, focused on discipleship with Jesus, would foster stronger marriages—as believers follow the humility and self-sacrificial approach of Philippians 2:3-4, serving as winsome examples with respect to marriage and family.

What about the possibility of those outside the Church seeing cause/effect and making a push for domestic family? This could come through public opinion and observations about what works well and not so well. For example, we see high rates of marriage and relatively low rates of divorce in the military. As Brad Wilcox notes, there’s something for both ideologies to get excited about in this example. Progressives will point to “stable work, decent-paying jobs, access to free or inexpensive housing, and free healthcare.” Conservatives will note “a culture that honors marriage and the traditional family life, and policies that say you don’t get housing on base or other benefits if you are co-habiting.”[51]

Zimmerman looks to the “educated literati” for hope. Christensen’s epilogue is appreciative of Zimmerman’s work. But he finds Zimmerman’s faith in “the learned classes” to be a “very dubious culmination to an analysis that has put the reader on guard against the ‘hybrid’ alliance of the growing state and the skeptical modern intellectual.”[52]

Still, Zimmerman’s hope does line up (at least in terms of lifestyle) with Charles Murray’s observations in Coming Apart.[53] For those in the middle and upper classes, marriage is still popular in absolute terms and quite popular in relative terms. Why? It could be a reflex dependent on accumulated social capital. Marriage “works”—for individuals and for society—in comparison with the alternatives. People are often driven by the eternal whether they recognize it or not (Ecclesiastes 3:11)—for their kids, their legacy, etc. The atomistic family is not subsidized by the government in the middle and upper income classes (as is necessarily the case with welfare policies). And perhaps those in the middle and upper income classes are not as strongly influenced by cultural norms (at least relatively speaking).[54]

To some extent, all of this is “by construction”: Those who are married and stay married are much more likely to have worldly success and avoid worldly problems. The concept of “class” is always complicated—often reduced to income (for statistical ease), but obviously including wealth. More broadly, it includes education, lifestyle, non-financial resources—and here, marital status. Steven Nock notes that: “The ‘haves’ are generally those in stable marriages. The ‘have nots’ are generally those who live outside marriage, especially with children. So vast is the difference, one is tempted to replace the traditional notion of social class with the more descriptive term marriage class. Marriage now divides the population in the same way social class once did. Indeed, it may do so more profoundly.”[55]

What is a reasonable level of hope to have about these matters—and in what can that hope be reasonably placed? Christensen, Kurth, and Sorokin share a faith in the ability of Christianity to bring revival to society—and in particular, to society through marriage and family. But Christensen notes that Zimmerman departs from and even avoids Sorokin in two key and ironic ways: the pessimism of Sorokin’s predictions and the extent of his hope for a reversal. Sorokin anticipated profound “tragedy and suffering” from the drift into atomism, even comparing it to crucifixion. But “he envisioned a future in which a chastened and humbled people would recover strong marriages and strong family lives as they listened to new St. Pauls, St. Augustines, and great religious and ethical leaders.”[56]

Where Sorokin affirms the potential power of religious faith, Zimmerman has his doubts. It seems odd for Zimmerman to put more faith in secular, intellectual authorities than religion. But this may stem from Zimmerman’s sense of Christianity’s mixed-bag history with defending marriage properly.[57] And for some contemporary observers, at a time when the American church at least seems to be in decline (although perhaps in terms of nominal Christianity and American Civil Religion), it can be difficult to be optimistic.

Still, Christianity probably offers the only substantive hope for revival of society in general and marriage and family in particular. Certainly, in a time of increased atomism, the world has little to offer. So, the choice would seem to be between a revitalization of Christianity, a view of marriage as sacramental, New Testament conceptions of marriage and family, and believers faithfully living out these principles. At the end of the day, the keys are the same as emphasized by historic Christianity: a fruitful birthrate (the Creation Mandate in Genesis 1); renewed fidelity to New Testament marriage norms; and a return to a more sanctified view of marriage.

 

D. Eric Schansberg is Professor of Economics at Indiana University Southeast.


[1]     Carle Zimmerman, Family and Civilization (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2008), 9-18. 

[2]     See Allan Carlson, Family Cycles: Strength, Decline, and Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 2016). Carlson sees three related ways in which historians have tried to understand the history of the American family—all of which are “progressive” and more strictly “evolutionary” in their own sense. First, the “Liberal or Whiggish” view of Henry Sumner Maine is largely economic: As economies grow and as political economy becomes more complex, there is a natural evolution from “status” in one’s family to individual contractual arrangements—and thus, from the family to the individual as the chief unit of governance. Second, Carlson describes a Marxist view as enunciated by Arthur Calhoun—again, an economic story, but with a more purposeful government creating “a new set of family values.” Third, Carlson points to a social narrative based on “the Love Revolution,” as put forth by Nancy Cott and Stephanie Coontz, which sees family devolving and reconstituting along (far) more individualistic lines. Carlson argues for a fourth interpretation that is cyclical. In this, he joins Zimmerman in imagining a less determinative march through history. (See Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, ix-xi.

[3]     Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, ix.

[4]     Ibid, 185. See also Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York: Basic Books, 1977). Lasch critiques the Chicago School in a similar manner: “The Chicago school succeeded not so much in banishing history from sociological study as in banishing it as an object of explicit analysis . . . [they] forgot self-interest and concentrated their entire attention on the [family] . . . It was as if the family alone, of all the institutions of modern society, had managed to escape the drift toward individualism . . . ” In chapter 3, Lasch lauds the contribution of Zimmerman and Willard Waller as “challenges to sociological orthodoxy.” 

[5]     Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 186.

[6]     Bryce Christensen, epilogue to Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 111-26. Moynihan was later joined in his assessment by Christopher Jencks, Robert Bellah, Noval Glenn, David Popenoe, and others. Fillingim (see David Fillingim, “U.S. Family Policy in Search of Values, 1965-95,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 7.1/2, 1995: 71-82) is helpful in describing Moynihan: “the prophet of hope in the 1960s became a messenger of despair in the 1980s.” 

[7]     Lasch said his opponents’ strategies were to deny “the importance of the family altogether” and to defend “the matrifocal household as a ‘healthy adaptation’ to ghetto conditions” (see Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World, 160-64).

[8]     See Allan Carlson, “The Family in America: Retrospective and Prospective,” The Family in America (Fall 2009): 1-13. Carlson notes that contemporary reports “faulted the rigid American family model” and saw family breakup as the consequence of poverty and other economic and social problems. He reminisces, “I was puzzled by these reports, unable to see the connection between effect and cause.” Given the “advances” of the 1950s and 1960s, “under the causal analysis and policy recommendations advanced by recent family-policy advocates, the 1960s should have evidenced a blossoming of family life. But exactly the opposite happened. Why?”

[9]     George Palermo, “Restoring the Family as the Primary Human Community,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 7.1/2 (1995): 51-70, at 51-52. 

[10]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 2. 

[11]   W. Bradford Wilcox, interviewed by Marvin Olasky, “The state of matrimony,” World, August 5, 2017.

[12]   See Gary Becker, A Treatise on the Family (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981). Becker describes the role of information problems and being subject to high-risk food-gathering options. In such cases, clans and larger families can serve as low-cost insurance. In this light, marriage within the clan becomes more attractive, and maintaining (perceptions of) family quality becomes vital for marriage prospects outside the clan.

[13]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, x. In Family Cycles, Carlson draws a distinction between European and American versions—with the latter involving early and nearly universal marriage and high fertility in particular (see p. xi).

[14]   See W. Bradford Wilcox, Robert Lerman, and Joseph Price, “Strong families, prosperous states: Do healthy families affect the wealth of states?” (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 2015). The authors find that a higher marriage rate is a top predictor for higher GDP, greater income mobility for children, lower child poverty rates, lower crime rates, and higher median family income within states. See also W. Bradford Wilcox, “Marriage Makes Our Children Richer—Here’s Why,” The Atlantic, October 29, 2013. 

[15]   Jennifer Morse, Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2001), 5. 

[16]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 50-52.

[17]   See Robert Ekelund, et. al., Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (New York: OUP, 1996, 18-19.

[18]   Ibid., chapter 5. Marriage ceremonies were increasingly public and performed in the church. The authors emphasize the prohibition against divorce (increasing the incentive to seek a suitable spouse ex ante); and severe restrictions on endogamy and incest—which impacted arranged marriages and the disposition of inheritances (making it more likely that the Church would receive the inheritance, or at least, more of it). More damning, enforcement was selective—often, as it seemed to benefit the Church. One might think that this interpretation is cynical, but it certainly lines up with standard incentives and the Church’s rules had no precedent in the Old or New Testament. See also: Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History (New York: Viking Press, 2005); and Steven Horwitz and Sarah Skwire. “Getting the State out of Marriage,” Reason (November 2017): 57-61. 

[19]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 70, 69. 

[20]   Ibid., 65. At the same time, the Church still allowed “outs” to marriage, including annulments. The Church provided “good” reasons for “nullifying” a fundamentally flawed union. In a nutshell, the view was “don’t divorce, but if you do, let it go.”

[21]   Ibid., 72.

[22]   Ibid., 269.

[23]   Ibid., 305.

[24]   Ibid., 207-8. 

[25]   Ibid., 211.

[26]   Moreover, capitalism has some advantages in terms of a holistic view of families and the human person. Horwitz comments on the move away from rural family production toward industrialization: “Without a need to treat family members instrumentally as parts of a production process, and with the means to treat them more frequently as ends in themselves now possible as a result of the higher incomes capitalism produced, the family became the focal point of the altruism of intimate associations . . . capitalism made it possible for Love (and perhaps Faith and Hope as well) to come in and take its full and rightful place at the family table . . . capitalism is in our own time often accused of reducing interpersonal relationships and other higher ideals to naked, financial self-interest or narrow calculative rationality, when in fact it was capitalism that humanized the most deeply interpersonal of all human institutions—the family.”

[27]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 235, 240.

[28]   In his epilogue, Kurth focuses on the implications of Zimmerman’s analysis for immigration and culture—for Islam in Europe and Hispanics in America (306, 316-17).

[29]   Steven Horwitz, Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015), at 7.

[30]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 271. 

[31]   See Horwitz, Hayek’s Modern Family, p. 7: “I will argue that the family is a necessary institution in any society. . . . The advantages that parents have in socializing children, for example, cannot be replicated sufficiently by schools, ‘the village’, or the state.” Horwitz develops this theme at great length in chapter 8. He argues from an Austrian Economics perspective and values liberty but sees a preeminent role for family. 

[32]   See Benjamin Scafidi, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States” (Lehi, UT: Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, 2008). Scafidi notes that trouble with family stability and structure will reduce the generation of social and human capital, increase the need for costly social programs, and reduce taxes from those who have been harmed. As a conservative measure, only focusing on these variables and their contribution to the government’s measure of poverty, he found a cost of $112 billion per year in 2008.

[33]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 245.

[34]   Whatever the merits of the 1950s, how do we see marriage in that era within historical trends? Some scholars see the 1950s as a “unique” Golden Age. This seems too narrow, given the strength of domestic marriage throughout history. Perhaps this is an attempt to reduce marriage (at least in its domestic variants), by associating it with a time that they generally consider to be a liability. For an example of such treatment, see Coontz, Marriage, a History, particularly pp. 225-44 for her coverage of the post-WWII decades.

[35]   See Allan Carlson, “The Fifties Illusion: The Cultural Dry Rot that Doomed the Postwar Era,” The Family in America (Summer 2012): 127-37: “Beneath this façade, however, lurked the theological, moral and social dry rot that would usher in ‘The Sixties.’” He cites Sorokin on the moral anarchy and “sex obsession” of the 1950s. Carlson concludes that “the postwar era was not the family-centered utopia often celebrated later by pro-family advocates. Nor were the Fifties a pleasant one-generation wonder tucked nicely between two eras of long-term family decay. Rather, the very nature of the notable decade rested on ideas, values, and behaviors, all of which conspired to damage family life and which would find their more complete expression in the Sixties.”

[36]   See Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (New York: Doubleday, 1955), and Peter Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (New York: Doubleday, 1961). These authors argue that the popularity of American religion was identification with “the American way of life” or an “American civil religion.” For a summary of Herberg’s book, see: D. Eric Schansberg, “In ‘God’ We Trusted: America’s 1950s Religion & Hope for Today,” Touchstone (August 2018): 27-29. See also Dennison Nash and Peter Berger, “The Child, the Family, and the ‘Religious Revival’ in Suburbia,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 2.1 (Autumn 1962): 85-93. Nash and Berger note increased church attendance—probably because of the baby boom, a desire for parents to have their children in church, and the cultural momentum from this trend. They also observe a near-absence of theological reflection, “conversion experiences,” or life crises that were catalysts for newfound faith. 

[37]   Carlson, Family Cycles, 117; for further statistics on this trend, see pp. 133-34.

[38]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, Epilogue, 308. Even today, a little bit of religion may be a very bad thing for marriage. Religious affiliation is not correlated with divorce, but religious attendance is. See Charles E. Stokes, Amber Lapp, and David Lapp, “A Bit of Religion Can Be Bad For Marriage,” The Federalist, available at http://thefederalist.com/2014/07/08/a-bit-of-religion-can-be-bad-for-marriage/. 

[39]   Lasch reports that the number of divorces increased 15-fold from 1870 to 1920. And by 1924, one of every seven marriages ended in divorce. “There was no reason to think that the trend toward more and more frequent divorce would reverse itself.”

[40]   For a more recent look at “no-fault divorce,” see Thomas Farr and Hilary Towers, “Time to Challenge No-Fault Divorce,” First Things, December 8, 2014; Wesley Smith, “The Case that Destroyed Marriage,” First Things, September 6, 2013. Smith argues that Marvin v. Marvin was “the proverbial tipping point,” by raising cohabitation to a similar level to marriage.

[41]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 244.

[42]   Ibid., 320. 

[43]   Carlson, Family Cycles, 134.

[44]   Carle Zimmerman, “The Future of the Family in America,” Journal of Marriage and Family 34.2 (May 1972): 323-33.

[45]   Carlson, Family Cycles, 139.

[46]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 254. 

[47]   Ibid., 281, 285.

[48]   Given the Great Depression and the trends going into it: “No one anticipated or predicted that these dips were merely a prelude to a ‘marriage boom’ and a ‘baby boom’ that would soon dominate and even define American life during the middle decades of the 20th century.” 

[49]   Carlson, Family Cycles, 161. 

[50]   Zimmerman, “The Future of the Family in America.” 

[51]   Wilcox, “The State of Matrimony.” Carlson (in “The Family in America: Retrospective and Prospective,” 7, 11-12) applauds the expansion of the personal exemption in 1986 and the increased child tax credit in 1996 and 2001. Also see William Marty, “Government, Morality and the Family,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 7.1/2, 1995: 1-24. For a nuanced libertarian perspective, see: Horwitz and Skwire.

[52]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, Epilogue, 298. 

[53]   See Eric D. Schansberg, “The Other America Is Coming Apart,” Journal of Markets and Morality 16.1 (2013): 239-48. 

[54]   See Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2013); and Becker, chapter 4. These authors talk about the increased role of “assortative mating”—marriage matches more often being derived within income classes, most notably, as college attendance has increased with income and as elite universities have become increasingly able to reach elite students from across the country. 

[55]   Quoted in Bryce Christensen, “Two and a Half Cheers for the 1950s: Rediscovering Virtues of a Maligned Decade,” The Family in America (Summer 2012): 111-26, at 118.

[56]   Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 302. 

[57]   Another angle is to note some ambivalence toward family in the Scriptures. Marriage is the second institution in Genesis—after work and vocation. Marriage in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament is a mixed bag. Jesus elevated belief and kinship over blood in His Kingdom. Mom and his brothers thought he was crazy. His disciple John is supposed to take care of Mary, not his brothers. Jesus didn’t get married. For more on this, see Ben Ponder, “Idolatry of the Family,” MediaRostra.com, September 11, 2012.