As The “Nuclear” Family Goes, So Goes God?

As The “Nuclear” Family Goes, So Goes God? January 20, 2022

Let’s compare two contemporary views on the nature of the family. The first is that of the late Pope, John Paul II. JP II was a much beloved religious leader in his day–admired by friend and foe alike. Here is what he had to say on the family in 1981:

The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator.

John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio

The institutional structure JP II presupposes here is obviously that of one, biological male with one, biological female united for life in an exclusive sexual relationship that assumes, at least, the attempt to procreate children. 

The second view is more recent, in a sense. It is found, or was found, on the website of Black Lives Matter, the now global social justice organization:

We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.

We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

This particular statement by BLM was eventually removed from the website after backlash from the black community. However, to think that this is still not part of the organization’s ethos would be rather naive. As “trained Marxists,” the leaders of BLM certainly recognize the deconstruction of the family as a central tenet of any Marxist revolution.

Karl vs. Christianity on Marriage and Family

Historian Richard Weikart highlights this facet of Marxist thought that the founders of BLM presuppose:

Marx’s and Engels’ critique of the family consisted of three main elements: (1) a depiction of the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the contemporary bourgeois family; (2) the historicisation of the family, i.e. a historical account of the origins and development of the family in the past; and (3) a vision of the future ‘family’ in communist society.

While Marx once alluded to a higher form of the family in communist society, he and Engels usually wrote about the destruction, dissolution, and abolition of the family. The relationships they envisaged for communist society would have little or no resemblance to the family as it existed in nineteenth-century Europe or indeed anywhere else. Thus it is certainly appropriate to define their position as the abolition of the family. Only by making the term family almost infinitely elastic can they be said to have embraced merely a reformulation of the family.

Weikart, “Marx, Engels and the Abolition of the Family

The question to address, therefore, is not that of who is teaching what. This is straightforward and clear. The Marxist teaching on the family is to disrupt the entire traditional structure and extend it in such a way as to make the term “almost infinitely elastic.” This is antithetical to the traditional Catholic, Protestant and Easter Orthodox view of marriage. There is simply no controversy here that the two views are utterly incompatible. This is not, as some might stupidly contest, an issue about whether or not children should be shepherded by extended family members like aunts, uncles or grandparents. That is a red herring if ever there were herrings that were red. 

In addition, it is fine to be a Marxist in America as America is home to all kinds of false and deleterious views about man and his world. The freedoms written into the Bill of Rights protect all manner of folly, even Marxism. It is also fine to be a traditional Roman Catholic in America, although it seems it is becoming less fine to be a Roman Catholic than a Marxist. The issue at hand is not about rights. One has the right to have a Marxist view on the family as well as a traditional Christian one.

There is furthermore no appeal here to some kind of Christian nationalism that would compel religious belief or practice. At the same time there is an appeal to reason that must be taken into account. On the other hand, what does seem unclear, is whether one would have a right to have a traditional Christian view on marriage if Marxists dominated the culture. At this point in time, it seems quite unlikely that there would be freedom for the traditional Christian in a neo-Marxian society. But these are not the questions I am asking now. 

The real question is whether the “Western-prescribed nuclear family” that groups like Black Lives Matter want to deconstruct is identical to that espoused by Christians like John Paul II. The follow up to that is what are the ramifications of that deconstruction.

It seems we already know the answer to the first question, for it is obvious. What family structure other than the traditional Roman Catholic one could Marx or his later disciples have in mind? It simply must be the “nuclear” family as described above. What Marx and Engels call the “bourgeois” family is basically the same thing as the Roman Catholic or traditional Protestant family, with perhaps some minor modifications, like less reliance on extended family or some notion of cultural refinement. But these are trivial things. 

Therefore, let’s dig deeper into the second question. What is the potential fallout of such a deconstruction?

The Family and Moral Formation In Ancient Times

“The nuclear family”– the term itself is nuclear in our culture today. However, the connection between the family unit and the vitality of a culture has been noted since antiquity. In her book on Seneca’s understanding of the family, classicist Elizabeth Gloyn highlights the ancient stoic view of familial integrity and societal welfare:

For now it is enough to say that oikeiosis [affiliation, affinity] is arguably the primary building block of human relations. The first stage, which [Seneca’s] Letter 121 describes, is the process by which babies begin to realise that their bodies belong to them, and thus that looking after their arms and legs is in their own best interest. More advanced stages involve the realisation that the interests of other humans are also our interests; a parent’s relationship to a child is often used as the classical example of assimilating someone else’s interest into our own. So oikeiosis begins in the basic bond between parent and child, and is a key stage in the moral development that ultimately lets humans achieve virtue.
Elizabeth Gloyn, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, 6 [emphasis mine]

It is worth noting the definite article “the” in Gloyn’s statement about what “the classical example” of “assimilating someone else’s interest into our own” is. 

For the ancients, the model for social morality and public virtue began with the parent-child relationship. It was not just one option toward moral development, it was the paradigm for it. Without this “basic bond” there would inevitably be a deficiency in moral development. This deficiency would lead to a breakdown in virtue later in life. To put it metaphorically, moral development would be “nipped in the bud” if the parent-child relationship failed.

Any failure to launch morally within the family would demand significant social expenditures later in life in order to bring virtue to fruition. However, in most ancient cultures moral deficiency did not end in long, state-sponsored, tax-payer funded rehabilitation programs for the unvirtuous. Instead it almost always ended in incarceration or execution.

By extension, a society comprised of multiple, individual families living and working within a shared geographic, linguistic and cultural space will rely on the ingrained, familial virtues of its individual members for its own continuity and prosperity. This is a truth as old as the Greek polis itself. It is also one presupposed by the biblical authors and captured in the opening verses of Proverbs:

Listen, my son,
to your father’s instruction,
and don’t reject
your mother’s teaching,
for they will be a garland of grace
on your head
and a gold chain around your neck.  

Proverb 1:8-9

In short, if my neighbors are parenting their children together and training their children in virtue, then I can have no fear of leaving my front door unlocked or lending their teenager my car if they ask for it. The nuclear family structure provides the right context for this training in moral virtue. Or, at least, it provides the best possible context for it. 

The Family in Modern Times

John Paul II echoes Seneca on the crucial relationship between the welfare of the organic family unit and the commonwealth of the nation, saying:

Yet it still seems that nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities. In this regard, Catholic social doctrine speaks of “natural” societies, indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension.  Every society’s formation takes place in and through the family: of this there can be no doubt.  Yet something similar could also be said about the nation.
John Paul II, Memory and Identity, 67.

The formation of society takes place “in and through the family,” and of this there “can be no doubt.” The relationship between family and nation has been attested throughout history, both in philosophical and political theory, as well as in concrete social and legal action. These are indeed “permanent realities.” Anyone working in criminal or family law or dealing with men, women and children suffering from substance abuse will know how deeply connected those social ills are to family dynamics. 

Karl Marx and later historicists, like the Frankfurt School philosophers and French post-structuralists, rejected any notion of a fixed human nature or permanent institutions. But they were flat wrong. There are innate human structures that resist attempts by society to change them. They do so because they are inscribed into human life by transcendent design and not products of random material processes. Because of this John Paul II was able to say with confidence, “As the family goes, so goes the nation” and “as nations go so goes the world in which we live.” 

As such, there is continuity between the ancient and the modern and among cultures. The family is and remains to this day the central unit of society. It is the compass which must point true North if a society is to be a moral and virtuous one. Modernity and post-modernity with all their a-theological speculations about the malleability of man cannot escape this fact of life as hard as they might try. 

The Nature of Family and Religious Belief

However, the relationship between the health of the nuclear family and the moral health of a nation is not the only correlation recognized by great thinkers of the past. The relationship between the constitution of the family and religious belief itself has also been scrutinized. Starting with the early Enlightenment, but especially since Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, religious belief and family structure have been considered intimately connected.

The father of social psychology and one of the early members of the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm, put it this way:

As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection–protection through love–which was provided by the father, and the recognition that this helplessness would last throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one.
Thus the benevolent rule of divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have often so remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place.
Fromm, The Dogma of Christ, 28-29

For Fromm, devoutly Jewish in his younger years but agnostic later in life, the need for a divine “Father figure” starts with the fundamental social relationship of parent and child. Religion is the imaginative projection that provides a parallel solution to the basic familial need of protection, guidance and security in an uncertain world of natural forces.

However, because these needs are abstract, like justice and love (not like food or water), they are libidinal in nature. They exist in the category of non-physical needs and can therefore be met by religious institutions and their practices:

Religion serves to make it easier for the masses to resign themselves to the many frustrations that reality presents. The satisfactions religion offers are of a libidinous nature; they are satisfactions that occur essentially in fantasy because…libidinous impulses…permit satisfaction in fantasy. 
Fromm, 26-27

If these reflections by thinkers as diverse as Seneca, John Paul II’s and Fromm ring true, then it makes sense that the nature and well-being of the family is something not only controversial in our culture today, but that finds itself at the center of political movements like that of Black Lives Matter. It would make sense for groups like BLM to address the family, if the family is really as important as men like these have suggested. After all, if it is the case that “as the family goes, so goes the nation” or even “as the family goes, so goes religious belief in God,” then to control the definition and language of “family” becomes a very desirable goal indeed.

The Rise of Science and Belief in God

As alluded to above, Freud believed it was in primitive man’s confrontation with untamed nature that God was invented in the mind of man. Feeling helpless before the power of nature, as in his infantile state, early man fantasized an all-powerful father figure who could protect him from the harshness of reality. Freud called this the reality principle.

Further, as moral intuition and reasoning developed in early society, other more abstract needs developed along with them. The need for ultimate justice at the sight of apparent wrongdoing and incomprehensible suffering, as well as the desire for prolonged satisfaction–the pleasure principle, led to the imaginative creation of an extended realm of conscious existence. In this realm punishment and reward would be meted out in full and all human deficiencies satisfied. Nevertheless, much of this imaginative work was generated on account of man’s harrowing battle with “nature red in tooth and claw.” Ananke, or sheer necessity, precipitates visions of heaven. 

With the rise of modernity, however, it was thought that the religious illusions devised by earlier civilizations would ultimately fade away. The advance of technology, medicine and industry, as well as the increasing explanatory power of the natural sciences and man’s increasing mastery over nature were supposed to relegate religion to the dustbin of history. To some degree, one could argue they have done just this.

After all, in the most technologically advanced cultures, there is an increase in what Charles Taylor might call “exclusive humanists.” Taylor pointed out in his A Secular Age, there is a greater number of people who live the entirety of their lives without regard for the transcendent or any serious religious commitment. This explains the so-called “rise of the nones,”  a phenomenon most prominent in major metropolitan areas of the WEIRD world (western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic).

Nevertheless, even if we assume victory over nature (albeit COVID-19 has exposed this as a presumptive claim), and even if the natural sciences have undermined some forms of religious beliefs, there is another fundamental human relation over which man has not yet gained full mastery. That is the relationship between the natural family and the viability of culture.

Deconstructing the Family

Some argue that the natural sciences have given us a way to understand nature without appealing to divine agency, as Laplace suggested in rejecting the “god hypothesis.” However, it is questionable as to whether the social sciences have been able to give us a way to understand society without making the same appeal. For some reason we can now look at the Grand Canyon and see only natural elements and millions of years. At the same time we struggle to look at our neighbors and see only molecules in motion and bio-chemical exchanges. Society and its members are not reducible as such, even if we try hard to do just that.

Therefore, some critical theorists of the mid 20th-century, like Herbert Marcuse, argued that there remains a vestige of traditional religious belief that lingers in spite of our otherwise progressive and scientific Western culture. That vestige is the nuclear family itself. It may be we have successfully suspended belief in providential design in the natural world (although not really), but when it comes to the social world religion still haunt us. 

If social theorists like Marx and later disciples like Fromm and Marcuse are right, then to gain control over the family structure itself is the primary means to altering particular religious beliefs or belief in God generally. This is the basic intellectual heritage of social justice groups like Black Lives Matter. It is no wonder, therefore, that the founders of BLM, who openly declare this Marxian heritage, have a vision of the family that is in radical opposition to the one revealed in Genesis 1:27 and 2:18-25 and reaffirmed by Jesus in Mark 10 and Matthew 19.

After all, for the true Marxist, any text, to include the Bible, is nothing more than the product of culturally situated people. In the hands of the historicist, nothing biblical, or even textual, transcends the particular cultural conditions under which it was produced. The culture and its people are not the product of a divine revelation, they are producers of a historical and pragmatic fiction.

The far more central issue for groups like Black Lives Matter is, therefore, not really racial identity. It is family identity.  This is entirely regardless of race, as family structures can easily be distinguished from the racial features of individual family members. With BLM’s view of the family we have truly drifted far afield from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian vision for racial equality. MLK simply wouldn’t have imagined altering the structure of the family. Garza, Cullors and Tometi‘s vision of social justice is not even close to that of the former Baptist minister, regardless of how many of their followers may say otherwise. But their protest is itself part of the propaganda.

On a separate note, one cannot help point out the irony that the intellectual heritage of Garza, Cullors and Tometi’s social agenda is almost exclusively the work of white, heterosexual German men. Even more notable is that most of them were Jewish and intimately familiar with the text of the Hebrew Bible (especially Erich Fromm) and its sexual ethics. 

It’s Family Identity, not Racial Identity, That Matters

If racial identity really is the central focus of theories like Critical Race Theory, or movements like BLM, then why is it the case that nearly every concrete manifestation of that theory is accompanied by an alternative vision of family structure and human sexuality? Is there a logical connection between the two? There certainly doesn’t seem to be any.

Given that the book of Genesis explicitly teaches all human beings belonging to one family line, that of Adam (and Noah), racial distinctions are simply irrelevant to the biblical teaching on the family. The biblical view of family is universal: applying to all nations, people groups and identities. 

Thus, what does seem to be a logical entailment is that if one tries to mess with the permanency of gender, family and sexuality, one also messes with the notion of how societies should be organized morally. This is why groups like BLM need both race and sexuality involved in their program. To address race alone makes no ultimate difference in the moral structure of a culture. It was the moral structure of the Christian West, after all, which contained within itself the moral values required to overturn slavery and racist Jim Crow. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. could say confidently that America had on outstanding promissory note that needed to be cashed in. America wasn’t living up to its theological claims.

More fundamental to us as persons than our racial identity is our sexual identity. And far more fundamental to us as persons than our racial community is our biological family. If the Marxist-Freudian approach to the human person is correct (which it is not), then for Marxists and Freudians it is most important to change family structures and sexual norms than to change anything about race or racial systems.

Race is not the real Trojan horse standing outside the walls of American culture and her churches. The real Trojan horse is a false view of human sexuality and a rejection of the God-ordained nature of the family. If these change then, at least according to the Marxist-Freudian, so will our belief in God.

All this, of course, has little to do intrinsically with the fight against real racism, which certainly exists in every generation. But America’s racist past becomes a useful tool in the hands of the Marxist activist who looks to cut society loose from the permanent structures that God has put in place. Slavery and institutional racism are most certainly contingencies of history, thank God, but the family is not. The former can be fought against and done away with, the latter remains until God actualizes His new creation. 

Conclusion: Do Family Structures Alter Our View of God?

Marxism and Freudianism are, as totalizing systems, fortunately not true. However, like much human inquiry, some of their insights are. Again Marxists and Freudians are not wrong in their assessment of how family structure affects both the moral values of a culture and a culture’s religious beliefs and practices. But, since Christianity is true, one must not assume that even if every family was magically transformed into a “Modern Family” that belief in God would vanish. God ultimately has the final word on every era of human history and every “ism” spawned by the minds of men. 

 The real culprit, therefore, is not men like Marx or Marcuse, Freud or Fromm or Foucault. The real culprit is the age-old enemy of Christ, the enemy that Jesus saw fall from heaven like a blitz of lightning. The “isms” of history are merely his means to attack what God has given to man for man’s own benefit. It is his way to twist and turn God’s designs for his purposes and lead us to our destruction.

In the beginning God did not bother to tell us that He made us “black and white.” But, God did say He made us “male and female.” To deconstruct the family then, as John Paul II pointed out, is to go against the permanent plan of God. It is to be unfaithful to His will. It is to reject His gift to us. As such, we should be careful about embracing any theory or its accompanying social movement that would inculcate in us the idea it might be okay to mess with the God-given structure of family. Even a charitable reading of BLM’s statement cannot help but notice the glaring absence of any mention of a father as the head of the family or even as a necessary component of it.

Could it be that the attack on family structure is a way, perhaps the paradigm way, for Satan to introduce new gods into a culture? After all, BLM and their theoretical overseers are not doing away with the idea of family completely. Nor are they, like the atheist materialists, trying to dispel god from culture. They are, however, seeking to alter the definition and the constitution of family. If God has ordained the family to be a certain way, the only thing that Satan can do is distort that ontology. Could it be that in changing the ontology of the family Satan is trying to lure us into worshipping false gods?

Something like this seems to have already happened in the distant past to God’s people:

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women…And his wives turned away his heart. For When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God…

1 Kg 11:1-5

As the family goes so goes the nation indeed!

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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