All in the Family?

Josh McDowell has an unbelievable story. It’s not unbelievable because of the horrible things he experienced as a child — an alcoholic father who beat his mother — or because of the repeated sexual abuse from one of his fathers’ farm hands for seven long years — but remarkable because of his recovery. McDowell was able, because of the love he received from some caring Christians, to recover from this hellish nightmare and grow to become a successful husband, father, author, speaker and apologist.

I heard this story in an interview with McDowell on Moody Radio — which frequently focuses of family issues — and was reminded of it when I heard that some classical conservative media elites have been discussing the issue of family. Among these commentators I count David Brooks, who column discussed some research on childhood abuse and trauma.

Two researchers divided this sort of trauma into 10 categories — abuse, divorce, mental illness, and others — and gave several thousand children of wealthy families a score based on their experience of trauma, reported Brooks. Then they compared the likely-hood of those with low scores (little or no experience of trauma) to those with high scores (more childhood stress and trauma). They found, not shockingly, that those with trauma were more likely to become alcoholics, be disruptive in school, have premarital sex, or have suicidal tendencies. These problems exist because of dysfunctional families, and they are central to “unravelling” of our society, as one blogger put it.

Miraculously, Josh McDowell was able to overcome the trauma that has touched the lives of millions of Americans, and receive the love of those who “adopted” him and cared for him until he went to college. Then he became a Christian and embarked on his remarkable career.

I marvel at it not to bring attention to him, or his recent book and movie going into the gritty details of his pain and healing, but rather to emphasize, as Brooks does, that stable families are the crux of a stable society. In some of the major issues of our day — unemployment, debt, childhood obesity, education, the prison system, economic inequality, eating disorders and depression — healthy families are the starting point for a solution.

Blogger Rod Dreher pointed out in response to Brooks’ column:

I don’t think we as a society can look at the falling apart of the family, and in turn the unraveling of the social fabric, and satisfy ourselves with either the left-wing alternative (more social programs and redistribution) or the right-wing alternative, a libertarian like approach that sees the family as more or less a market institution, subject to market ideals.

Secularism and liberal political theory have not told a compelling story about the role for the family, to their detriment. And while President Obama and Mitt Romney seem to be modeling healthy family life, their behavior is disconnected from their political agendas. Obama’s positions regarding abortion and welfare seem to go against the grain of family values, while Governor Mitt Romney is taking great pains to avoid social issues in general, and speak only about the economy and jobs.

How can the family become a solution? In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray calls for a “bourgeois paternalism,” creating institutions that induce people to behave responsibly. Couldn’t the family be one of those institutions, and the church another? And education another? But paternalism cannot exist without a pater.

Abraham Kuyper postulated in his Stone Lectureson Calvinism that, absent of sin, all of political life “would have evolved itself, after a patriarchal fashion, from the life of the family.” Contrarily, the world not being in that sinless condition, it would follow that the family is the starting point for publicly dealing with sin, while the state is the last resort, in the form of imprisonment or capital punishment. In between are institutions like the Church, and education and businesses. All of these institutions have potential for curbing human irresponsibility. When the first one fails, the others will inevitably be given the responsibility of making grown-ups out of the rising generation of unparented youth.

When parents fail in their job of bringing up the next generation, other institutions — from public school, to foster care, to prison — fill the gap. A study of California’s state prison system, which is one of the nation’s largest, estimated that up to 30 percent of former foster youth had been incarcerated in their adult years. Roughly 14 percent of the inmates had been in the foster system at some point, which is less than in other states.

To remain vigilant against the outsourcing of parental responsibility to the state, which can drag the population along in adolescence, the church ought to support and nurture families to produce responsible adults.

Unfortunately, the church is not being a leader in this kind of paternalism. In a Barna study of over 500 full-time Protestant youth pastors, only 22 percent reported that exposing teens and youth to healthy Christian families was a major part their approach, while 66 percent said it played either no part (42 percent) or only a minor part (24 percent). 10 percent were not sure.

As a Christian and as one who cares about my political system, I believe with Kuyper that God created the nations and institutions of society, and they exist for Him. He is the father of them all. How can our nation glorify God by modeling his paternalism in our institutions?

-Joshua Little graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in political science and theology.