Why “Value” Families?

In responding to a recent post of mine criticizing our liberal culture for its hostility toward the traditional family, a commenter wrote: “I don’t know a single liberal who … doesn’t value (and participate in) both traditional and non-traditional families.” I think it is important to examine this liberal response to conservative criticism, not because the issue can be “settled,” but because it can tell us why liberals and conservatives so often seem to be talking past one another when it comes to social issues.

Conservatives (like me) often are accused of being unfairly censorious in accusing liberals of undermining primary institutions like the family.  After all, the argument goes, we talk about “attacks” on relationships liberals genuinely value.  And there is a way in which this is true—a way that shows why the “culture wars” are not likely to end any time soon.

When someone tells you that he and his liberals friends “value (and participate in) both traditional and non-traditional families” that person expects a fight about just what a “non-traditional family” might be. Most liberals, in my experience, are loaded for bear on this question. “What, you mean just because both parents aren’t present, or both happen to be male, or female, or the family is a mixed one, having been through one or more divorces, or there is no marriage certificate, that it somehow isn’t ‘real’?  Well how intolerant and narrow-minded is that?”

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If true, this charge would be a serious one. But it is not. Tragedies occur, as they always have. Children are left to be raised by a single parent—neither death nor abandonment is new. Children are raised by maiden aunts, struggling uncles, and other relatives or adoptive parents. Broken families seek to reform in the wake of one or more tragedies.  And common law marriage grew up to recognize the rights of children and spouses in situations where marriages are difficult to obtain or one spouse (or both) persists in refusing to solemnize the relationship.

The real issue is not what exact form of family we value, but what it means to “value” this fundamental institution of social life.  The difference between the traditional and liberal position, here, is summed up in the term “broken family.”  The term is considered rude, today, because it is seen as indicating that there is something wrong with single parent and other “non-traditional” families. In reality, it is a recognition that something tragic has occurred when spouses die, abuse, walk away, or never marry, leaving children to be raised by fewer or more distant relations.  Countless children have overcome the struggles caused by such a tragedy, and we have a duty to help them in that endeavor.  But pretending that nothing bad has happened is something we do for our own benefit (so that we will not “feel guilty”) not for theirs.

The issue, then, is not the particular shape of a particular family, but rather the understanding of what purpose a family is by nature intended to serve.  Perhaps it is best, here, to go a bit deeper into the charge against conservatives:  not only are we narrow-minded for denying the status of “family” to “non-traditional” relationships, we are, in effect, denying the validity of the feelings of those who live in intimate relationships that don’t fit our definition of “family.”  That is, we are accused of somehow claiming that the feelings of homosexual couples, or non-married co-habitants, or persons in other relationships, are false.

The source of this charge is the belief that those feelings are what really matters in any family.  As I’ve been told more than once, the real issue in the same sex marriage debate is love. By denying the full status of married people to various groups, conservatives, on this view, are standing against love.

No one should deny the reality of love (after all, God Himself is love). Nor should we deny that love is an important good (after all, again, God Himself is love). The question, however, is not one of love, or even of commitment to and support for a particular person, but of what purpose a family serves. For example, the fundamental issue in the same sex marriage debate is not whether homosexual couples should be allowed to love and support one another, but whether that love should be recognized as familial.

Americans increasingly fail to recognize the importance of this distinction because they increasing fail to recognize the natural purpose of the family, which is to raise children. Marriage, in the proper (non-“broken”) sense means giving oneself wholly to another person and the natural outgrowth of that relationship. So now I have “narrowed” the definition of family still further?  Only a couple with their own biological children is a “real” family?  Again, tragedies, including the inability to have children and the death of a child, occur. But the millions of couples struggling to have or adopt children are evidence that such facts are, in fact, tragic, because they obstruct us from achieving the full good of family life.

Not to come off as too harsh, but love does not make a family. I am reminded of the ending to that old Robin Williams movie, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”  Having been divorced by his wife, mostly for not paying attention to her or his children, Williams’ character gets decked out in drag to play nanny to the kids so that he can spend time with them.  It can’t last, of course.  But in the end, back in drag, the title character tells us that “some families” aren’t like in storybooks, spending all their time together; some may not even see one another very often, but they still are families, so long as there is “love.”

My question at the time remains my question now:  “how does the occasional ‘I love you’ delivered over the phone or on a weekend visit make a family?”  Such expressions are natural and good, but constitute, at best, recognition of meaningful ties and yearning for familial connections that are no longer fully there.

The family is by nature a lifelong joining of two people, and their families, for the purpose of bringing new life into the world and raising children to be virtuous members of that family and, through it, of society. This is a demanding vision. And it does, in fact, entail the view that a whole slew of behaviors that are common today are in an important sense wrong—because they prevent the formation and flourishing of real, full families and, through them, of full lives.  What really upsets people, of course, is the notion that they sin when they engage in these behaviors.  But then adultery, abortion, non-marital sexual intercourse, contraception, and abandonment of one’s family (not to mention spousal or child abuse) do not cease to be sins just because we fail to recognize them as such. And “sin” is not a word coined so that Church Ladies can feel superior to people who live on the edge.  Sin is a fact of life, something in which we all share in many, many ways. Pride, sloth, gluttony, greed—sins are everywhere and we all engage in some of them. The point is not to pretend that we are better than one another, but to recognize and work on our failings so that we all can be better people.  And families provide the natural and by far the best institution in which to do that.

Families are not relationships, they are institutions that are rooted in relationships. If we only value our families because of the good feelings we get from them, they will become disposable extensions of ourselves, and they will die. Obviously, this does not mean that all natural families fulfill their purpose of nurturing children and raising them to be virtuous adults.  Many children, sadly, grow up in “traditional” families that inculcate violence, hatred, or simple indifference.  But that is a commentary on the failure by one or more members of that family to live up to their duties, not of the family itself.

The family is the basis of any decent society because only in it do children learn how to be decent adults. They are taught virtue in families, or nowhere, because it is only in the home that the kind of intensive, round-the-clock nurturing and acculturation necessary for character formation can occur. And, while it may be nice to talk about how common emotions and dedication to abstract ideals like justice or tolerance or love are what really matter, those emotions and ideals only become real when they are shaped by traditions handed down from parent to child over generations and reinforced through broader institutions of family, church, and local association.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared May 21, 2013 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission. The photo above pictures the cast of The Waltons television series which began airing on CBS in 1972 and ran for nine seasons.


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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