When Family Dies: The Demoralization of the West and the End of Culture

When Family Dies: The Demoralization of the West and the End of Culture July 31, 2023

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the preeminent Harvard sociologist, Carle C. Zimmerman completed his major study on civilization and the family. The study carried the rather anodyne, but straightforward, title Family and Civilization. In 1947, 26 years before Roe v. Wade, 68 years before Obergefell v. Hodges and roughly 70 years before the public emergence of transgenderism and various legal proposals conveying the absurd notion that biological facts are mere mental states, Zimmerman concluded this about the state of the family in America:

The fact is now well known … that the Western world has entered a period of demoralization comparable to the periods when both Greece and Rome turned from growth to decay. Divorce, premarital sex experience, sex promiscuity, homosexuality, versatility in sex, birth control carried to excess, spread of birth control to every segment of the population, positive antagonism to parenthood, clandestine marriage, migratory divorce, marriage for sex alone, contempt for familism, even in the so-called educated circles–all are increasing rapidly.

Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, 174

For Zimmerman, along with his ideological opponents at the Chicago school like William Ogburn and Joseph Fulsom, these were simple social facts. And this in 1947, a time that we often look back upon as one of strong Christian values and staunch traditionalism.

However, Zimmerman goes on to point out that this underlying reality of the breakdown in moral, and medically healthy, sexual relationships and family structures was often glossed over in the culture of the 1940’s with pious language and hypocritical thinking:

In spite of our virtuous words, and without even the intellectual honesty of the Greeks and Romans, we have gone as far as they, and it would appear that we are going even farther. The family crisis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is like that in Greece and Rome, except that we do not recognize it and are intellectually dishonest with ourselves on this subject.

Zimmerman, 174

In other words, at least the Greeks and Romans were honest with themselves about what they wanted the family to look like and their vested interests in having a culture where libertine sexuality was an accepted feature of society. Writing this in 1947, Zimmerman was clearly speaking to the apparent veneer of a Judeo-Christian sexual and family ethic, the genuine article having long since eroded.

Of course, we have come a long way in the West since 1947. And with the exception of only a few “western” countries, like perhaps Hungary, or a reinvigorated Italy, that may be genuinely intent on reclaiming a traditional family ethic, we seem justified in saying that, in America at least, we are much more honest with ourselves today than in 1947 when it comes to our view of sex and family. The rejection of Christian moral values and duties as they relate to the family is far more explicit than it was then. Moreover, the defense of the same by the Church in America is far less hypocritical, in part because there is little defense to speak of. Although, even in those churches where strong theoretical defenses are made, that does not necessarily translate into actual practice of the biblical standard for marriage and family.

Weak Families and The Strong State

One of the consequences of a weakened view of the family that Zimmerman traces throughout Western civilization is the correlation between the loss of autonomous power on the part of the family and the commensurate gain of power by the State or Government. As marriages devolve more and more into mere contracts between individuals, ones oriented mainly around personal satisfaction and life-fulfillment, various aspects of family life get outsourced to state control.

First and foremost the State becomes the definer and determiner of marriage contracts and the conditions under which they can be made, and broken. Divorce especially is increasingly considered merely a procedural adjudication by the secular government in accordance with the private wishes of the parties involved. The idea of sacredness in the bond itself is utterly lost.

This means that the actual breaking up of a marriage is not seen as a violation of something divinely ordained. In addition, it is also not viewed as a violation of a public obligation, a social responsibility aimed at the good of the commonwealth. Zimmerman summarizes this sense of marriage, which is neither new or novel, having existed just the same in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, as follows:

Society as we know it, develops demoralized social classes–products of many ill-advised war marriages, veterans shocked by war, a new set of social climbers, literati, public entertainers and the newly rich–who do not care for a confining marriage, a marriage of children, of manus [common life] and potestas [parental authority]. They look about for escapes, loopholes which will permit them to live as they want and yet not bring them into public disrepute. Out of this comes a reduction in the meaning of marriage in law.

Zimmerman, 172

This type of demoralized family structure, a family structure that Zimmerman argues inevitably heralds the downfall of a society, he labels the “Atomistic” family. It deemphasizes life-long commitment, life together, the bearing and raising of children (large families) and the personal authority and responsibility of parents. Instead it encourages the pursuit of individual goals and aims as opposed to social obligations and the common good. The atomistic family is a harbinger of a civilization in decline.

it shows a broken family
Can Culture Survive the Broken Family?

The State as Teacher and Caretaker

The situation that emerges out of this collapse is one that favors the role of the State in filling the authoritative gap that inevitably ensues. As larger, stronger families became increasingly rare as a source of social stability, moral education and economic advancement, there is a transference of social, economic and even spiritual power to the State.

It is not hard to imagine how this works. As families break apart, neighbors cannot rely on each other for stability. As social maladies increase in each particular community and each individual household, resources, material, psychological and spiritual, are stretched ever thinner. Everyone is broken and in need of help. The State alone now stands ready to “fill the gap,” both in the area of economic support as well as education.

Of course, this gain in the power of the State in lieu of family breakdown, is equally a burden to the State as it may appear to be a blessing to those living in an undesirable marriage:

The extremely weak family (atomistic) also can break up because it fails to carry on the necessary family functions or because it fails to satisfy the needs of individualism. If the atomistic family fails to satisfy the necessary family functions, the state helps to break it up, through legal fiction or positive law …. When it fails to satisfy extreme individualism, the atomistic family is broken up by the individuals, oftentimes with the aid and blessing of the state, and the end result is temporary family negativity, nullification, or nihilism.

When the state permits the weakened or atomistic family to break up completely, the state loses a certain amount of power in one of its subordinate units and this must be supplied through tutorship (the fiction of the state a parent) or through public support of the aged and infirm adults in case they do not need juvenile tutorship.

Zimmerman, 23 (emphasis added)

In sum, the State, and the culture, is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the State is more than willing to help break apart marriages in the name of individual liberty and personal autonomy. On the other, as it does this, it must at the same time assume the burdens that relate to the neglect of manus (common life) and potestas (parental duties) by the formerly married couple. This takes on the form of assuming the role of the parents, especially that of educator or “tutor” to children, and becoming the caretaker of the elderly and unattached.

The Role of the Church in Family and State

Zimmerman historical analysis in Family and Civilization is sweeping in scope. Ancient Greece and Rome both experienced the same kind of family decay that we see today in America. As Zimmerman unequivocally states, “Speaking from the standpoint of fundamental sociology … modern Western society has followed the Graeco-Roman path. Formally speaking, history has thus far repeated itself” (183). Although, as pointed out above, Zimmerman presaged in 1947 that America was going to “go further” than even our ancient ancestors were willing. This radicalism, or to use Philip Rieff’s term, this “death work,” has indeed become historical fact.

Never before in human history have destructive anti-family laws like those related to same-sex marriage, abortion or now so-called transgender “equality” been legitimized. Even in the late Roman Empire, whose type and degree of moral dissolution still shocks us today, such things would not have been conceivable. Of course, one institution since the late Roman Empire has acted as the mediator between the individual family, the broader society and the State. Up until Zimmerman’s day that institution had been the Church.

Oddly, in a strange twist of historical providence, the early Reformers thought that handing over family affairs to the secular State would actually increase the health, vitality and moral purity of marriage and family relations. Luther and Calvin, among others, thought the State would do a better job of enforcing familial discipline and norms than the clergy:

As shown repeatedly in this work…none of these writers [Luther, Calvin, the humanist Erasmus] had any idea other than that under secular control the family would be strengthened. All of them discussed the matter merely incidentally to their basic underlying drive for secularism, and the development of what has now become the modern state.

Zimmerman, 167

Unfortunately, a historical contingency the Reformers could not have predicted (nor their Roman Catholic opponents) was the collapse of the Christian worldview in the West. With the erosion of public Christian belief, especially after the 17th-century Wars of Religion, and the loss of the Church’s social authority, a loss felt equally by both reverend and priest, the secular State became increasingly an extension of an irreligious culture. As such, “one of the arguments of both Luther and Calvin,” that “the state would be severer than the Catholic Church in matters of marriage purity,” has, in the long run, turned out not to be the case. But, these were just men, and the detrimental results of such miscalculations were, by the grace of God, nevertheless accompanied by commensurate positive developments (e.g., biblical literacy among the nations).

That said, as the atomistic view of marriage increased over the centuries in the aftermath of the Reformation, it became more and more clear that apart from a strong familism, and without the mediation of the Church, some other institution would have to step in to complement the weakened natural family. Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent decades in America, if the Government itself does not step into this complimentary role, some other pseudo-societal group will. Some of these are pathological to the core: like that of the street gangs that have emerged, especially among black communities, since the 1980s. Where the family is most broken, and the Church most feeble, some other agency will fill the roll of family for those lost to the streets or backwoods of a nation.

Zimmerman’s Conclusion: A Return to Strong Familism

There are contemporary civilizations right now in the world that are literally at the brink of extinction. Countries like Japan and South Korea, or even China, stand at the precipice of extreme population decline. Eastern European countries like Latvia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Moldova may cease to exist as distinct nationalities by the end of the century. America too now finds itself amongst this growing set of dying nations and endangered nationalities.

Zimmerman, in a rare moment of poetic flourish, drives home why a renewed “familism” is the only real answer to the fate of a nation in decay:

The family as a social institution is part of the life of everyone. We are here as the result of the family, we are the product of families, most of us create families of our own, and when we die those families bury us and mourn our passing. If we have done good while here, this is remembered and worshipped. If we have not done good, this is excused and forgotten. If one is in trouble, the family is the first to help and last to condemn. If one does not create a family of his own, he or she lives in a world where family law and family mores sharply define the most important phases of conduct

Most of the sentiment and emotion of the world is centered about the family or is of a family nature.

Zimmerman, 15

Further, in contrast to his progressive counterparts of The Chicago School, the core features of the strong family that Zimmerman sees as indispensable to the revitalization of a culture are threefold: proles, fides, and sacrementum, or “offspring,” “exclusivity,” and “sacredness or indissoluble union.” These, of course, are the same core features given not only in the natural law of general revelation, but in the special counsel of God’s revealed word. Marriage is meant for procreation (Gen 1:28), exclusivity (Gen 2:24, Matt 19:4-6) and sacrament, which entails life-long commitment and a sanctifying process of mutual sacrifice (Eph 5:22-27, Matt 19:9 and Col 3:18). It is these features that are real features of marriage, they are features that reflect the essence of marriage, its divine purpose, and its appropriate relation to our own human natures.

Everything else, as Zimmerman points out, is a nod toward a modernist nominalism about both human nature and relationships. This is the view of the progressives, the critical theorists and the existentialists who argue that all things are merely human conventions. For them, marriage consist solely of the names we ascribe to it, names which point to nothing more than our ideas, and the superficial legal fictions we conjure up to give force to those otherwise empty names.

This anti-familism is represented by those who often see marriage as an individual pursuit for personal happiness, or a contract between sexual partners without the burden of children. It is a view that now permeates and pollutes the American Church itself, to the point even of some churches becoming the very vehicle of anti-familism in the culture. These churches, more than anything else, might appropriately be called “synagogues of Satan,” false assemblies hell-bent on the death of a nation for the sake of individual comfort and narcissistic ease. It ultimately resides in the hands of the true Church, the community of faithful men and women of Christ, to step up and once again reestablish the revealed roots of marriage and family. For the sake of Christ, and Christ’s Kingdom, this must be done.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is a recipient of the Baker Book Award for Excellence in Theology in 2018, and has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Currently, he lives in Orange County, CA with his three children. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives