Blaze News investigates: Family or fallout — experts assess the threats now facing the nuclear family

Rampant divorce, juvenile depression and delinquency, abortion, loss of parental rights, plummeting fertility rates, euthanasia, loneliness, apostasy, and addiction — these are consequential issues that all have something to do with the health of the family: an institution that has been both attacked for millennia by antipathetic radicals and undermined by policies from both sides of the American political binary.

Given the centrality of the family, not only to these issues but to civilization itself, and the repeated
claim that the family is a thing under siege, it is worth assessing the battlefield and defining key terms.

What is the family? What does optimal functionality look like? Why is the institution important, not just for the individuals involved and their communities, but for the nation at large? If it is the case that the family is under attack or sick, then what are some possible defenses and remedies?

To answer these questions, Blaze News recently spoke to three experts who have long written and spoken about the family: Yoram Hazony, Dale Ahlquist, and Scott Yenor.

All three appear to agree that the family is the basis for civilization, comprising, at a minimum, a married mother and father and child — although Hazony emphatically tied the well-being and function of the family to its multi-generationality; that the family’s stability is reflected in the overall health of the nation; that its defense is largely a matter of local and cultural action, contra top-down fixes and legislation; and that divorce is one of the greatest weakening forces affronting the family today.

Background

Hazony is an Israeli-American philosopher, biblical scholar, and political theorist who serves as the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation as well as the president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem.

In his latest book, “Conservatism: A Rediscovery,” Hazony not only disentangles conservatism from libertarianism or what others might term “classical liberalism,” detailing the robust “empiricist, religious, and nationalist” traditions of America and the U.K., but drills deep into the matter of the family, explaining why God, Scripture, family, and congregation are essential to conservatism.

Dale Ahlquist is the president and cofounder of the Society of G.K. Chesterton, publisher of Gilbert magazine, the creator and host of the EWTN series “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense,” and cofounder of Chesterton Academy — the flagship of the growing Chesterton Schools Network, which has over 60 schools in five countries.

Ahlquist recently released “The Story of the Family: G.K. Chesterton on the Only State That Creates and Loves Its Own Citizens” — a book that captures virtually all of the late Catholic apologists’ writings on the family and bridges them and their corresponding insights to the present.

Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University and a Washington fellow at the Claremont Institute, and leftist journalists have been
trying to get Yenor fired for his reported membership in religious, pro-family groups.

Yenor’s latest book, “The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies,” explores “the ends and means of family policy” along with what would amount to optimal policies in a liberal society.

The choice-less blessing of the mini-state

Ahlquist, quoting Chesterton, noted that the family is the “only state that creates and loves its own citizens.”

“Chesterton recognizes that the family is a mini-state, and it is therefore the building block of the larger state. So, it is the fundamental unit of society. If the family breaks apart, then that means the whole foundation of the society starts coming apart as well,” said Ahlquist.

“If you can get along with your family, Chesterton says you can get along with the whole world,” said Ahlquist.

In a chapter on the institution of the family published in “Heretics” in 1905, G.K. Chesterton noted that in “a small community our companions are chosen for us.” Blaze News asked Ahlquist why it is important that individuals have no choice over their membership in a family or over the natural constituents of the family.

Ahlquist suggested that this lack of choice — or what liberals today might call consent — is by design and for our own good.

“The world is full of people that are our neighbors that we also can’t choose. I mean, I can’t choose Canada for my neighbor, right? Same thing exists in the world. You can’t really choose your neighbors but the one’s you
really can’t choose are the ones born into your family along with you. You can’t choose your parents. You don’t choose your uncles or your cousins. You are given them. And the fact is that those people are all challenging to get along with. If you can get along with your family, Chesterton says you can get along with the whole world,” said Ahlquist.

“That’s a wonderful lesson,” continued the Chestertonian. “The most challenging people in our lives are our family. Learn how to love them and live with them, yeah; then we are set for getting along with anybody else.”

A biological unit with a common good

Pressed for a working definition of family, Yenor told Blaze News, “The family is a biological unit formed by a married man and a woman that brings kids into the world and raises them to honorable adulthood.”

“[The family is] dedicated to satisfying necessities in a common life, so shelter and common meals, reproduction — all of the blunt facts of reality are central to what I call the biological reality of the family,” continued Yenor. “One other aspect of it that I would mention is that a family always has a common good that the members of the family love.”

Echoing the Chestertonian understanding raised by Ahlquist, Yenor noted that the family is “not chosen. It’s an unchosen number of people and collection of people, but they share a common good, usually around meeting those necessities.”

When pressed on whether the notion that the family shares a common good is built into the modern concept of the family or is instead tied to a premodern understanding, Yenor said, “I think it transcends both or unites both. … The classical family might have a thicker and more substantial version of the common good, but it nevertheless shares with the modern family the idea that families are built around a common good.”

Hierarchical order and value

For Hazony, this basic biological unit is situated within and derives its strength from an extended network. He noted that “human beings, by nature, are healthy, and they do well when they grow up in a hierarchical order.”

That order begins with the immediate family but does not end there, according to Hazony. After all, the “immediate family is just part of a broader society, so the family is part of a larger congregation or community, and that congregation or community is part of a larger tribe, which is part of a larger nation.”

“In a liberal society, what we’ve done is to assert and to teach over and over again that human beings don’t need to be in family, community, tribe, and nation in order to be happy and healthy; that they should be independent; that they should think for themselves; that they should dictate their own values to themselves. And obviously, there’s some truth to these liberal claims, but basically, the bottom line is that when you raise two or three generations of children to think that they’re independent of their parents when they get to age 18 or 20, that they’re separate individuals with their own values and no obligations to anybody, and their life is theirs — when you teach them that, they become incredibly unhappy because they find it extremely difficult to know what it is that they’re supposed to do.”

Hazony suggested that extra to liberalism’s flattening, anti-traditional reflex, there is an underlying assumption that everyone must come up with and dictate their own values in a Nietzschean fashion in an effort to make themselves grand and important.

“Empirically, we find out that is absolutely not true. … When young people are taken away from the traditional hierarchies in which they grew up, they become lost and confused and depressed and mentally ill, and they temporarily are willing to believe almost any crazy thing.”

Children, families, and society will instead thrive within “an economy of honors” where members give honor upward while enjoying the education and training that are transmitted downwards through the hierarchy.

The hierarchical nature of the family is reinforced by its multigenerational nature, which Hazony said is “inherent in the natural family structure.”

Having multiple generations simultaneously engaged not only affords members with a strong support network but aids in the transmission of values, the reinforcement of culture, and with education.

“And in terms of multi-generationality, the part that’s important to remember is that human beings are not designed to stop learning from older people when they get to be 18 or 20,” said Hazony. “In healthy human societies, young people get married, have children, and continue learning from their parents how to raise their children for decades.”

Faith and the family

The family is bound not only by structure but by common beliefs and values.

“There is a strong link between practicing faith and [a] strong family,” said Yenor. “Not simply affirming God’s existence or something like that, but as I say, practicing faith, going to church regularly. People who go to church regularly have a much higher birth rate, a much higher marriage rate, and
lower divorce rate than those who don’t. And these things are very well established by scholars of the left and the right.”

“The commonsense wisdom that public morality is built on the back of private families, and private families are the direct result of religious faith that you found with the American founding, seems to be borne out by a lot of contemporary evidence.”

When asked whether the family would be imperiled by increasing secularization, Yenor highlighted the link between secularization and declines in marriages.

“The greater the amount of secularization, the fewer people marrying. It’s not going to die out entirely, but just the strength and the cultural power will wane,” said Yenor.

“We’re seeing the loss of Christian influence in our society,” said Ahlquist.

Ahlquist agreed that the family prospers in a religious environment.

“I think the evidence [shows] the rise of Christendom was built on strong family units that became strong village units, and Europe was highly civilized because it respected the family, and the families that were respected within a community built a great civilization on that philosophy and on that protection,” said Ahlquist. “There was always a devotion to the Mother of God. There was a devotion to St. Joseph, which will play out in the devotion to human fathers and human mothers in a regular setting.”

“But what are we seeing around us right now? We’re seeing the loss of Christian influence in our society. Most people are unbelievers. Guess what? The family is falling apart. High divorce rates. High illegitimacy. High abortion,” added Ahlquist.

Hazony similarly indicated that a belief system serves as glue for the family and society by extension.

“I think everywhere that we look, thriving societies, thriving families, are based on some kind of a broad framework for how you think about life,” said Hazony.

“Ok, so in the West, in a Christian context, it’s very easy to take ‘faith-based’ to be something very similar to the Christian religion, but if you look at Chinese religion or Indian religion, they’re somewhat different from Christianity, but they still always are seeking to hand down a broad view of how human beings should live; what’s the relationship to their people and their ancestors; what’s their relationship to God and to right and wrong. All of those things are an integral part of the traditional family, which is part of an extended family like a congregation,” added Hazony.

The honor system

Hazony indicated that many of the societal problems referenced at the top correspond, at least on some level, with the disruption of the familial honor system.

Children removed from the natural system where parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are honored, then dumped into a system “where they don’t know who God is” may end up honoring “pop stars and other kinds of meaningless things, but in the end, they end up honoring nobody.”

“They basically give all honor to people who are their age, to these kind of little gangs and cliques that they create, which are based on no reliable tradition on how one should lead one’s life,” said Hazony. “And the result is people are depressed and scared and violent and don’t know what they’re supposed to do with themselves.”

The family, according to Hazony, serves to provide a lifelong education to young people entering society in exchange for lifelong obligations of giving honor.”

“Giving honor doesn’t just mean you always have to obey your parents, but you always have to be on their side, you always have to be looking out for their good name, and making sure that they feel that you take what they say seriously. Traditional family is built on that exchange, and it’s lifelong, and nothing changes when it gets to 18 or 20. So, it’s almost the opposite of Locke and Rousseau, where the whole purpose is that by the time you get to be 20, you’re supposed to be independent. In a traditional society, you’re never independent. You’re inheriting things from your parents, and you’re upholding things that were important to them.”

“They cut off the chain of transmission and then we’re surprised that they don’t honor God, they don’t honor Scripture, they don’t honor the law or the Constitution.”

Hazony noted that in every audience, there will inevitably be one individual who asks, “‘Well, what if your parents don’t deserve to be honored? You know, what if they abuse you and so forth?'”

The Israeli-American philosopher indicated there are always exceptions and workarounds, such as rerouting honor to others in the familial network.

“In a liberal society, what we’ve done is we have turned those exceptions into the rule. Every adolescent thinks, ‘Oh, my parents don’t deserve to be honored so I can’t learn anything from them.’ They cut off the chain of transmission and then we’re surprised that they don’t honor God, they don’t honor Scripture, they don’t honor the law or the Constitution. Why? Because they’re incapable of inheriting anything; because the training ground for being able to inherit crucial things from the past is the training ground of being small and honoring your parents, learning to honor your parents all the time, even when it hurts and even when you disagree with them.”

“As soon as you eliminate that, we stop talking about honor, that commandment disappears completely from our vocabulary, then the kids, as soon as they get to be teenagers … they’re all puffed up with self-importance, they think that they know better than their parents. … There are 8-year-olds who think that they know better than their parents. It’s just like a social sickness that comes from giving up on the hierarchical family.”

Unholy attacks and holy matrimony

Ahlquist stressed that the human trinity of father, mother, and child — the “fundamental family and the basic unit” — “is the thing that
isunder attack, fundamentally, in our society today. Chesterton saw it under attack in his society as well.”

“All the things that Chesterton wrote about really have come to pass. He warned against easy divorce, which breaks up the family. And he warned against the wage-slave mentality where both father and mother worked outside of the home, and breaking up the family. He warned about public school systems, which separate parent from child and interfere with the raising of the child. And then, of course, he warned against contraception and abortion 100 years before these really became hot issues.”

When asked whether the attack on the family is a coordinated effort or just a confluence of dark forces that appear to look like they’re working in concert, Ahlquist said, “Well, let’s go back to the Holy Family.”

“How did the [Holy Family] begin? With Satan trying to kill it, all right. Herod sends his soldiers to kill all the babies in Bethlehem. So, here are the forces of evil at work, first on the Holy Family, and then on the rise of the normal family. It is an evil act,” said Ahlquist.

“Chesterton says in his book ‘The Everlasting Man,’ you have a very sophisticated culture, Carthage, with its high art and its high education and its well-developed commercial system and they would throw their babies into the furnace to the god Moloch. So, there is an evil force that is attacking the family. Certainly, anything that wants to kill a baby, the most innocent of all things, is truly evil.”

While abortion was among the various weapons Ahlquist indicated has been and continues to be used against the family, he underscored the gravity of divorce.

“We’ve become sort of immune to divorce. It’s just, ‘Oh, yeah, that marriage failed. So sorry to hear that,'” said Ahlquist. “That was the first thing that Chesterton spoke out against, and I think that we need to start going back to the idea that marriage is a permanent relationship. It’s a permanent bond. It is for better or for worse.”

“If the parents are strong, then the rest of the family will be strong. It’s the breakup of these marriages, for one reason or another, that’s really, really hurt the family the most. … We have to return to the idea of preparing for holy matrimony. That’s what we have to think about marriage — holy matrimony. And the word ‘mother’ is inside ‘matrimony.’ The purpose of getting married is to have a family, and that’s what we’re forgetting,” added Ahlquist.

Anti-family messaging

When asked a similar question, specifically whether anti-natalist cultural messaging and other trends that serve to undermine the family amount to a coordinated attack, Yenor said, “I think it’s coordinated but not by a single master plan or mastermind. Rather, it’s a set of mores and manners that are the natural result of our sexual revolution and its associated ideology.”

“‘I think you need to wait to get married until you have a job and are stable.’ Well, that’s a great way of delaying marriage, and marriage delayed and deferred is much less likely to happen. That’s a form of cultural messaging that’s widely accepted,” said Yenor. “Whereas previously, it was thought that marriage would be a foundation for life; that you kind of learn to live together with another person and go through life’s struggles and have moments where you weren’t prosperous. And now we have marriage as a kind of capstone to all of life’s achievements.”

“That new cultural messaging obviously leads to different kinds of marriages and later marriages and fewer children and more fertility problems. The fertility problems themselves are the result of waiting until you’re 30 to get married,” continued Yenor. “I think there are thousands of agents of this cultural messaging, but I definitely think it is there, and it shapes the way people approach that important decision in their life.”

Some of the most effective anti-family messaging appears to come from the ideological forces Yenor regards as two of the greatest threats to the family today: modern feminism and sexual liberation theory.

“Feminism changes the priority of women, and family goes down several notches on the priority list and maybe disappears altogether off the priority list. Same with motherhood. And that’s a big threat to the family,” said Yenor.

“Sexual liberation theory disconnects sex from the family and from marriage. As long as that is honored and taught, it’s difficult to see how the fundamental necessity at the heart of marriage and family life —that is procreation — will be elevated and prioritized by people. So, I think both of those things are fundamental to the threat to the family. But I don’t want to say one is worse than the other.”

Against the gates of hell

In a February 2016
public lecture, Ahlquist called for a counteroffensive regarding the war on the family.

“We have to defend the family — the basic unit of civilization. We have to defend these things, but we have to understand that we are not fighting a defensive war. … We are the church militant! We are the ones doing the attacking, and of course Satan will put up a fight, but the gates of hell will not prevail against us”

Blaze News asked Ahlquist what this fight might look like.

Ahlquist joked, “I’m surprised I said something that well back in 2016.”

“What we’re doing with the Chesterton Academies is certainly an offensive move and not a defensive move. It is taking the control of our children’s education into our own hands as a small community of Catholic believers who are faithful not only to the church but to each other and to each other’s children as well.”

“Changes tend to come from the bottom-up. There are no top-down solutions,” said Ahlquist.

“We are teaching something that’s completely countercultural, starting with the Incarnation as the central truth that informs everything. … We’re not doing it by lighting the wagons on fire and circling them, we are sending these kids out in the world, and they know their faith, they know how to spread their faith, to defend their faith, but it’s the most important thing is to live their faith.”

“When they start their own families, they will be the model of what a Christian family looks like, and that’s how you start a grassroots movement by a whole bunch of people doing it right. All the strength is on their side because the enemy is quite scattered — and the whole point about the offensive is that the gates of hell are not an offensive weapon. They are a defensive weapon. So prevailing against the gates of hell is, you know, conquering hell. That’s what we are out to do.”

Ahlquist emphasized that these big “changes tend to come from the bottom-up. There are no top-down solutions.”

“It would be nice if we had more helpful laws that weren’t so antagonistic to the family, but in the meantime, we can’t control the legislature, and we just have to make some changes in our lifestyle and in the way that we are raising our children, and hopefully, that spreads to some of our neighbors as well. But yeah, this is a grassroots revolution,” added the Chestertonian.

Like Chesterton — whom Ahlquist indicated was “an anti-globalist in just about every respect” — Ahlquist believes winning solutions are found at the local level, even if the results manifest at the national level.

“I think that all major political problems have to be solved starting locally. We have to start making local changes and then those spread to the top. Not the other way around. Because whether it’s the family or whether it’s the way a local community is run, if you have a remote, centralized power trying to organize things, that simply doesn’t work. And so as Chesterton says, ‘You have to keep your politician close enough to kick him.'”

Culture first

Yenor indicated that “cultural support is way more important than economic support from the state.”

“In the absence of any widely felt and articulated sense of public honor attached to the family … there must be little communities that provide that honor to family life, and those who practice family life in a strong way will attach themselves to that. Eventually, having a dominant culture that is pro-family is probably necessary and that’s going to require vast economic support, and not simply cultural support, but also eventually legal support.”

With the understanding that “culture follows law, and law follows culture,” Yenor suggested there will be a political and legislative component to any successful effort to fully turn the tide, providing the example of no-fault divorce.

“Having no-fault divorce be the dominant approach to marriage dissolution weakened marriage, and it’s very difficult to imagine a strong marriage culture existing when no-fault divorce is the default position in our public. Eventually, that position of no-fault divorce would have to change in order for there to be a strong marriage culture in the country. But pockets of strong marriage culture can nevertheless exist within the dominant culture of no-fault divorce.”

To make significant inroads on the legislative front, Yenor indicated the culture piece still takes priority.

Helpful laws will be adopted only when “the family culture itself is strong and that, I think, ultimately is not a governmental matter but a church matter, where churches’ cultural messaging puts family at the center, tries to attract people and convert as a result of real pro-family messaging.”

Yenor added that without these institutions “unapologetically defending the integrity and really the priority of family life, it’s difficult to see how any kind of Renaissance would happen.”

In the way of religious organizations and groups presently putting up a good fight, Yenor said traditional Catholics, some prominent Presbyterian pastors, and others have great messaging on the family.

“I think, actually, throughout the shrinking Christendom, conservatives are kind of waking up to this problem. Conservatives within various other non-denominations are changing their behavior and uniting with like-minded people. So, it’s not just the Catholics and the Presbyterians I mentioned, but also other denominations. …There are reasons for hope in that respect.”

A God- and Bible-based solution

When it comes to turning the tide, Hazony said, “The great imperative is for governments to get out of the way of states and communities and regions where there’s still a Christian majority or a biblical majority or a pro-biblical majority. I mean, not everybody has to be a believing Christian or a Jew. We’re talking about a society where there’s — in those cities or states — a majority that has seen the neo-Marxist revolution coming, and they don’t want it. What they need to do is they need to agree that our public culture is going to be based on Scripture, so in most places that means on Christianity.”

“Once you have an agreement that the public culture is based on Christianity, there is a tremendous amount of work to do,” said Hazony. “Schools need to be God-based, Bible-based schools. If you’re a Christian and you’re sending your children to somewhere that’s not a Christian school, then don’t expect your children to come out Christians. But that has to change everywhere, everywhere where there’s a majority.”

Hazony recommended that families in locales where their faith is not the represented majority ought to move.

“You know, it’s hard enough to raise children. Raising children is not that easy to do, even in the best situations. But you know, raising them in a society where the schools are programmed to destroy them. That’s completely unfair to your children. So, the first things that need to happen are at the level, at the parenting level.”

Extra to seeking out a community where the family’s values are supported, Hazony suggested families not presently raising their children in a multigenerational home should reconsider.

Sidelong to this family- and community-level conservative revolution, Hazony said there needs to be a rejection of the theory of church and state at the governmental level.

“It’s not in the U.S. Constitution. It was never thought to be in the U.S. Constitution until the 1940s. It’s part of the liberal revolution to overthrow America’s Christian traditions, its American tradition as a Christian people. And so, at the level of government, at the level of the courts, provision needs to be made to allow states that want to go back to America’s traditions where the public life was Christian and assumed God and assumed Scripture — those communities that are willing to give it a try, the government needs to get out of their way. These false constitutional constructions that imply that you’re doing something wrong if you want your public life and your city to be based on Christianity, they just need to be rejected.”

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