The Family Debate: A Middle Way

by Browning Don and Ian Evison

Don S. Browning is Alexander Campbell Professor of Religion and Psychological Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Ian Evison is coordinator of research for the Religion, Culture and Family Project at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 14-21, 1993, pps. 712-716. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Mainline churches need to say something relevant to the family debate. Before speaking up, however, they need to face squarely the disturbing trends in family life that are fueling the debate.

A great debate is taking place over the condition and prospects of the American family. This debate reflects the fact that Americans are worried about the family. Republicans had hard evidence during the 1992 presidential campaign on the extent of this concern. The Wirthlin Group, which does most of the national polling for the Republicans, published an article in the Reader's Digest (May 1992) which in effect outlined the Republican campaign strategy. It demonstrated that one of the largest and most cohesive voting blocs is married couples with children. According to this article, they are "a political powerhouse, a voting block of about 92 million people, 57 percent of all Americans over 25." They are surprisingly conservative on cultural values and family issues, more conservative than either singles or older couples whose children have left the nest—a point which the church should note.

The Republicans tried to win the election by appealing to this group, but they overplayed their hand. They used the family issue to single out scapegoats (single mothers and inner-city residents), and they avoided talking about the economy and failed to develop meaningful and practical family programs.

Although the Republicans were wrong in how they used the family issue, they were right in recognizing that it is vitally important. The family debate is far from over. Note the countless articles and op-ed pieces on single parenthood, the pros and cons of professional day care, the state of children's health, family—friendly industry, parental leaves, and the sins of absent fathers. Consider the tremendous response to the Atlantic article (April 1993) in which Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argued that the two-parent family is better on the whole for child-rearing than are single parents and stepfamilies. This was followed by sociologist James Q Wilson’s almost identical argument in his Commentary (April 1993) article, "The Family-Values Debate."

Voices from the mainline Protestant churches have been strangely absent from this debate. As James Davison Hunter suggests in Culture Wars, churches have been paralyzed by a division between orthodox and progressive parties that see the family issue—as they see abortion, homosexuality, education and popular culture—in vastly different ways. Mainline churches need to say something relevant to the family debate. Before speaking up, however, they need to face squarely the disturbing trends in family life that are fueling the debate.

1. Families are in crises. The central evidence is the deterioration of the physical and emotional well-being of children. Economists Victors Fuchs and Diane Reklis say bluntly, "American children are in trouble. Not all children, to be sure, but many observers consider today's children to be worse off than their parents' generation in several important dimensions of physical, mental, and emotional well-being." From 1960 to 1988 standardized test scores fell significantly, teenage suicide and homicide rates more than doubled and obesity increased by 50 percent. In 1970, 15 percent of children were in poverty, but by the late 1980s nearly 20 percent were on or below the poverty fine. An authoritative report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by Nicholas Zill and Charlotte Schoenborn provides more discouraging statistics. Twenty percent of children ages 3 to 17 have a developmental, learning or behavioral disorder. By ages 12 to 17, one in four adolescents suffers from at least one of these disorders. One in three teenage boys has one of these problems.

2. Changes in cultural values as well as changes in the economy have contributed to the crisis in families. Changes in values may even be the key factor. Fuchs and Reklis demonstrate that children's well-being began to worsen before the economy turned sour.

Between 1960 and 1970 the fall in test scores, the doubling of teenage suicide and homicide rates, and the doubling share of births to unwed mothers cannot be attributed to economic adversity. During that decade purchases of goods and services for children by government rose very rapidly, as did real household income per child, and the poverty rate of children plummeted. Thus, we must seek explanations for the rising problems of that period in the cultural realm.

The cultural changes that Fuchs and Reklis have in mind are increasing individualism, growing preoccupation with individual fulfillment, wider tolerance for divorce as a solution to marital problems, and more general acceptance at all social levels of the high rates of out-of-wedlock births and single parenthood. These shifts in values preceded and now interact with worsening economic conditions.

3. Changing values have interacted with worsening economic conditions to create increasing numbers of poor women and children. Much of this poverty is associated with single parents, most of whom are women, and is produced by divorce and out-of-wedlock births. The divorce rate has been increasing for a century. It rose from 7 percent in 1860 to over 50 percent today. Furthermore, demographer Larry Bumpass says that "life table estimates suggest that 17 percent of white women and 70 percent of black women will have a child while unmarried if recent levels persist." According to the Census Bureau, the proportion of children born to unmarried women has doubled since 1970 to 28 percent in 1990. Bumpass estimates that 44 percent of all children born between 1970 and 1984 will spend some of their youth in a single-parent home. Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin say in Divided Families (1991) that if present trends continue, that "figure could reach 60 percent."

It is now more frequently admitted that single parenthood, on the whole, is a disadvantage for raising children. This is true even when single-parent families are not poor, although they frequently are. We have been slow to acknowledge this because we do not want to stigmatize single mothers who are often heroic, frequently quite successful as parents, and may be single for a wide variety of reasons. But in avoiding moralism we should not neglect the truth of the situation. Whitehead and Wilson, in the articles mentioned, summarize well the social science data on this point. Children of single-parent families are far more likely even when they are not poor to do badly in school, get in trouble with the law, have poor mental and physical health, and have marital difficulties later in life.

4. The single most important trend in American families today is the increasing absence of fathers and the feminization of kinship. By feminization of kinship we mean that the families of children are increasingly composed of women—the mothers, grandmothers and aunts who do the child care. Men are increasingly absent from families and their children. Social scientists report that fathers of out-of-wedlock children and divorced fathers give surprising little economic or emotional support to their biological children. There are exceptions. There are the good fathers who do everything they can to give financial and relational support to their children born from former unions. But a large number of these fathers gradually give less and less of either. Furstenberg and Cherlin report that a recent national survey found that after divorce "only one child in six saw his or her father as often as once a week on average. Close to half had not visited with their fathers in the 12 months preceding the survey. Another sixth had seen them less often than once a month." Monetary payments by divorced fathers to their children are low. Fathers of children born out of wedlock visit and pay even less.

5. Families in our society are simultaneously undergoing both deinstitutionalization and coercive reinstitutionalization. Marriage is losing its normative status. By deinstitutionalization we mean not only that fewer couples ask the church to bless their unions, but that many are not even asking the state to make their families official. The proportion of first marriages that were preceded by cohabitation increased from 8 percent in the late 1960s to 49 percent by the mid-’80s. The average duration of cohabitation is short-a median of 1.5 years. Forty percent of these unions split before marriage. Our point is not to moralize about cohabitation but to raise a more complex issue. The deinstitutionalization of marriage and family has led to a new brand of coercive, state-enforced regulation of the family. For example, the state of California requires fathers of out-of-wedlock births to pay the same rate of support as divorced fathers. But such a requirement tremendously expands government control over private lives. Most young men have not awakened to this. One thoughtless sexual adventure can lead to a lifetime responsibility—enforced by the strong arm of the state. A man can avoid marriage, but he is less likely to avoid the courts and their collection agencies. Even the newly developing category of "domestic partnerships" invites coercive state intrusion. Determining the validity of domestic partnerships will entail some investigation by employers and the state into the private lives of couples. Nothing comes free; red tape and public declarations of one kind or another may be required for all those who want government protections and benefits.

6. Family law is diverging sharply from the inherited traditions of the church. For centuries family law in Western industrial societies either reflected or was highly consistent with church teachings. Historian James Brundage and legal historian John Witte have described how Catholic canon law of the Middle Ages was used to a significant extent by both the Protestant Reformation and much of secular family law in Western society. This is why the law until the 1960s resisted or delayed divorce, gave a privileged status to monogamous marriage and upheld the need for public commitments of a mutually consenting man and woman as the ground for the formation of legal families. Now most if not all of these traditional commitments of secular family law are up for grabs. We are likely to hear talk soon of legalizing polygamy, extending marriage privileges to the unmarried, and possibly even abolishing marriage, as the moderator of a conference on "Law and Nature" at Brown University recently proposed.

Family issues will be the dominant ones facing the churches in the 1990s and possibly into the next century. They will be hotter than issues of race, or of investment in South Africa, or of involvement in Central America. Family issues hit people in their innermost beings.

After several decades of ignoring or neglecting families, mainline churches will have to decide which of three pro-family strategies to adopt. The first strategy, the most popular in many liberal churches and denominations, will be simply to accept the new pluralism of the family. According to this view, churches must accept openly and without prejudice the full range of single families, stepfamilies, cohabiting families and same-sex families that modern societies are evolving. This position believes that churches also should pressure the government to extend the range of economic and social supports so that these changing families and their children will not become poor. The church in this view should aim in its ministry to provide the psychological and communal supports that help families maintain their dignity and self-esteem.

The second pro-family strategy is that of the Christian Right. Some of the mainline churches will move in this direction for want of a better strategy. They will resist family pluralism. In emphasizing the centrality of the intact two-parent family, the conservative reaction probably will continue to emphasize traditional gender roles (even if gently) and to advocate aggressive antihomosexual policies. This approach regards the problems of families as primarily cultural, the result of a decline of values. This strategy distrusts most governmental and legal intrusions. It would cure the problems of families with a triumphalist spread of Christian values into the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike and into all corners of public policy.

The third pro-family strategy, the one we advocate, is to try to reconstruct the church's ethics of families while advocating selected governmental and market supports for families. This approach recognizes that the family crisis is caused both by cultural changes and by social-systemic developments in areas of work, economics, child care and gender inequality. This view recognizes, along with the conservative voices, that unfettered individualism and its drive for adult fulfillment at the expense of children presents a real threat to the family. But this third strategy sees the drive toward individualism as partially good. It supports, for example, the push toward more equality for women. Aspects of individualism can be included with integrity in those interpretations of Christian love which see it as commanding a strenuous equal regard for both self and other. This view tries to hold individual fulfillment and regard for the other, be it spouse or children or both, in rigorous balance. Although the Jesus movement and Pauline Christianity never completely freed themselves from the patriarchy of the ancient world, they went far in replacing Greco-Roman male honor-shame patterns and related aristocratic forms of masculine dominance with servanthood models of male responsibility. Furthermore, they pushed the rule of neighbor love and the egalitarianism of the Galatian 3:28 baptismal formula ("there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus") to the point of threatening patriarchal patterns both within and outside the early Christian ecclesia. This third pro-family approach affirms gender equality even as it both affirms and criticizes aspects of modern individualism.

Mainline churches must recapture their interest in children. For 30 years mainline denominations have tended to see the problems of children and families as privatistic issues. They have held that if the church could help society establish economic and racial justice, the welfare of families and children would automatically follow. The above analysis shows how inadequate this view has proved to be. It failed to anticipate the tremendous shifts in cultural values that have preoccupied adults and undermined the well-being of children and youth. Today, support for family programs, for developing family theory and family theology, and for local initiatives on behalf of families should be top denominational priorities.

Churches should be skeptical, however, of programs that treat children as if they were not a part of families, thereby undermining family solidarity and parental responsibility. Furthermore, they should resist becoming a tool or agent of government programs that have no interest in the unique values and mission of the church. Churches should attempt to find their own voice, their own style, their own message and their own programs, making all other necessary collaborations, even with the state, fit with integrity into their unique identities.

To put children first, mainline churches need to resist easy talk about the new family pluralism. Without becoming moralistic or harsh, they need to recognize that not all family forms are equal for the task of raising children. Intact families have, on the whole, more emotional and material resources for this task. We need to recognize that family pluralism has too often meant exempting men from their responsibilities in raising children, leaving women to do the job. Some people do not believe that fathers are very important for families. For instance, judge Richard Posner in Sex and Reason (1991) argues that there is no convincing evidence, other things being equal, that outside of their procreative functions fathers are necessary for the well-being of their children. In contrast to this view, we believe that the Christian tradition, common sense and the recent social-science evidence summarized by Whitehead, Wilson and others make a strong case for the importance of the educative and moral role of fathers with children, in addition to their procreative and financial contributions. Even if it were possible to replace fathers with government supports, better-paying jobs for single mothers, day care and elaborate social and extended-family networks, it would be unhealthy for both men and society to have increasing numbers of single men adrift without connections to families.

While the churches should promote the egalitarian, intact mother-father partnership as the center of its family ethic, it also must recognize that a pluralism of family forms is a part of modern life, including church life. There is much that churches can do to ease the burden of single parents and stepfamilies and help them do better jobs of raising children. Some churches—mainly large evangelical and some black churches—have outstanding programs for a wide range of family types. They give special emphasis to the two-parent family and at the same time deal realistically, nonjudgmentally and helpfully with all families. Some of these churches have strong programs in marriage preparation and marriage and family enrichment, as well as strong support groups for single parents, divorced people and stepfamilies. They preach and teach regularly about family issues. Some run day-care programs, after-school programs, parental training groups, and sometimes even home visitation programs which assist families with their daily interactions. Some have special programs for men and young boys. Many black churches have programs designed to prepare young men for responsible marriage and parenting. Many conservative churches are able to maintain the tension between their ideals about families and realistic support for where families actually are. But many otherwise excellent programs in conservative and fundamentalist churches are marred by rigid gender distinctions and oppressive male authority. The liberal, mainline churches would do well to imitate the energy of some of the conservative churches on family matters, while finding a new language and new ethic to guide their programs.

If liberal churches are to help reverse the trends toward family decline, their youth programs should emphasize preparation for life in the egalitarian, postmodern family. This family will be "postmodern" because it will not idealize the rigid distinctions between public and private, work and home, breadwinner father and domestic mother that characterized the family that adapted to early industrial society. Since one of the major trends of family life in America is the absence of fathers and the feminization of kinship, boys and young men should be a major target for the church's family programs. If all family forms were equal for raising children, then young men could be ignored. They would not be needed. But if intact mother-father teams are generally better for children, then serious work with young men about parenting ideals and skills should be part of the church's mission.

With regard to trends in family law, mainline churches must live with ambivalence. They must realize that family law may continue to diverge from inherited Christian morality on family matters. The law may grant legal status to more forms of domestic partnership. It may continue to ease divorce proceedings through no-fault settlements. It may protect the rights of youth to make moral decisions about abortion and contraception without the knowledge, and against the moral guidance, of their parents.

But mainline churches would be wise not to adopt these legal developments as their basic morality. Churches should forge their own unique position on family and sexual ethics and help their members live by it. At the same time, churches must realize that some of the new trends in family law may make some sense; it is the primary function of law to regulate behavior, not necessarily to project the moral ideal. Projecting the ideal is the task of culture-making institutions such as the church. This does not mean that churches should be entirely passive before the law. They have the right to influence the law, just like any other group in our society. One part of the law worth influencing, for instance, is divorce laws. Here the task may not be to make divorce more difficult to obtain; rather, the task may be to require divorcing parents to make better long-term financial plans for their children, plans which the courts could enforce.

Finally, the church must understand that there is a place for government family supports in complex postindustrial societies. But they should not petition government to solve those problems that only churches and other voluntary organizations can successfully address. Since the days of their successes in the civil rights movement, mainline churches have tended to think they are fulfilling their mission when they lobby government for worthwhile programs. The first obligation of the churches is to discern their own message, their own values, their own programs; only after these are established should they work to influence government policy.

Nevertheless, government policies are important. Some government programs build families; others tear them down. Some undermine family authority and put control in the hands of experts outside the family. Others build family coherence and deliver real assistance. One such proposal, which has gained support from political right and left, is to increase personal federal income tax exemptions for dependent children. It was first proposed by the Progressive Policy Institute. It recommends increasing the exemption that parents can claim for dependent children from $2,300 to $6,000 or $7,000 for each child. This would make exemptions for dependents equal in value to the original $600 per child that families received in 1948, the year the IRS first allowed the exemptions. The Rockefeller Report titled Beyond Rhetoric (1991) went in a slightly different direction; it recommended a $ 1,000 tax credit for each child. These kinds of legislation help families without causing dependency and without putting family functions into the hands of government. They expand the income of parents and make it possible, for instance, to purchase day care or provide the child care themselves.

Our aim has not been to offer a comprehensive-pro family strategy, but to suggest what a coherent strategy might look like. If nothing more, we have tried to show that a middle road exists and that in the long run it may offer the best course to follow both for the church and for society.