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The Atlantic

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake

by David Brooks

The Briefing

Monday, March 15, 2021

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It's Monday, March 15, 2021.

I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

The Normalization of Polygamy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Will Legalize Polyamorous Relationships

We need to track how moral change happens slowly, and then very, very quickly. It happens slowly in the sense that many of the most revolutionary rebellions against, say, creation order and traditional morality, they start out as isolated examples, but then they become not so isolated. And before you know it, you're really looking at a pattern in which what was completely abnormal is normalized. What was almost universally condemned becomes, at some point, euphemized, a different language is used, and then it's rationalized, some kind of argument is brought for it, often a therapeutic argument, and then it is normalized. And by the way, that means, as we have seen in the definition of a moral revolution, that the entire structure has to be turned upside down so that those who will not go along with the project are the ones who are to be condemned.

Well, what's the project du jour? The project is polyamory. The city in this case...well, just buckle your seatbelts...is Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home to Harvard university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and just acre by acre or square foot by square foot, just about the most academically concentrated place on earth, the Cambridge Council in the city has decided to become the second municipality in the entire United States to legalize domestic partnerships between three or more people. Now, when you're thinking about this, just recognize that Cambridge is described here as the second municipality. That means there was a first, but the first in this case came just a matter of less than a year ago, and it is also in Massachusetts and also fairly close to the academic concentration there in Cambridge. That city was Somerville and last July, USA today reported that the city had adopted a domestic partnership policy, including polyamorous couples, that by a unanimous vote of the Somerville City Council back in July.

Now, the argument was society was changing. Social structures are changing. The definition of the family is changing and the law has to keep up with those changing definitions. If the law doesn't keep up, we're told there will be people who will be vulnerable because their own relationships would not be recognized. Now, just understand something. That is virtually exactly the argument that was made by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy when he wrote the majority opinion in the Obergefell case in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage. He said that refusing to legalize same-sex marriage would be a dignity harm to those who are in same-sex relationships and to their children. A very similar form of argument, very, very quickly, we need to note, has made its way now to polygamy or polyamory as it is euphemized and renamed. We also need to recognize that when you go back to the Obergefell case, there were all the assurances given, "Don't worry, this isn't going to lead to anything else." But of course that's a ridiculous argument. It's ridiculous on its face because actually, same-sex marriage didn't come out of nowhere. It was the result of prior legal changes, even changes coming by decisions of the Supreme Court.

But going back to Cambridge, Reason Magazine...that's, by the way, a libertarian news site...it says that Cambridge has legalized polyamorous relationships, becoming again that second municipality in the country to do so. A domestic partnership in Cambridge now means, "The entity formed by two or more persons who are not related and file a registration declaring that they're 'in a relationship of mutual support, caring, and commitment, and intend to remain in such a relationship.'" They also have to say that they are not in a domestic partnership with others outside this partnership and that they, "Consider themselves to be a family." Now here's something that we really need to note very carefully. Don't miss this.

Now we're being told that people who consider themselves to be a family are a family. Now much more is afoot here than just the legalization in a second American municipality of polyamory as a domestic partnership. What's at stake here is the redefinition of the family from anything that is based in a familial construct, which has been true through millennia, and that is by blood descent, that is, a man and a woman coming together in marriage as a recognized union, and the children who are produced by that marriage, and the larger extended family of blood kinship. Add to that those who come into the family by adoption. So it is both by reproduction and by adoption, kinship structures throughout all of human history have come down to recognizing that the family isn't any group of people who consider themselves to be a family. Every society has to define in some sense what a family is.

Now you'll notice that even now in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the family still has some definition. It's just not a good definition. It's actually a very dangerous and unfaithful definition. But the city of Cambridge hasn't thrown the door completely open or anyone to declare any kind of family on any terms. For one thing, there is a legal limitation on the fact that this kind of domestic partnership, which may include two or more people, may not include any people who legally could not wed because of a blood relation. That is to say, there's at least some definition here. But the story gets more bizarre in the third paragraph. We read, "The new language removes the requirement that all individuals in a domestic partnership must reside together. It also does away with a section declaring that domestic partners must submit to the city various pieces of evidence, proving their familial relationship."

So no need for evidence, and furthermore, no need to live together. But let's also go back to something. As you think about the historic definition of the family, living together has not been incidental. It has been absolutely central and essential. You actually, in many cases, could identify who is family by who is living together, at least through human history. That's a good place to start. But the story just gets even more interesting when we are told that the Cambridge definition is actually here superior to the Somerville definition because this one was done in concert with polyamory advocates, legal advocates who carefully crafted the language.

The main advocacy group behind this was identified as PLAC. And we're told that it's "a coalition comprised of the Chosen Family Law Center, the Harvard Law Review, LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, and members of the American Psychological Association's Committee on Consensual Non-monogamy."

Let's work backwards on this. This turns out to be important. This might be the first time that most of us come to understand that the American Psychological Association that completely reversed its position on homosexuality in the early 1970s now has an entire committee on consensual non-monogamy. Now, if you're forming a committee, that means that by definition, you're not against it. This is an advocacy group from within the American Psychological Association on Consensual Non-monogamy. The other group in the middle was the Harvard Law School, LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic. Enough said.

But the first one was the Chosen Family Law Center. And I'm going to argue that's most important because the very title of the organization tells you something essential to the redefinition of the family in our time, and it has a history. Diana Adams identified as Executive Director of the Chosen Family Law Center, spoke of the need of these non-nuclear families for legal protection. Alexander Chen of the Harvard Law School, LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic said, "Non-nuclear families such as single parents supported by relatives, step families, open adoption families, multi-generational families, multi-parent families, and polyamorous families have changed the landscape of American society. And yet many of these diverse family structures are not protected or recognized by the law."

Now a sane society has very good reasons for not recognizing any ad hoc relationship of whatever duration or of whatever gender for whatever purpose as a family. That's called cultural sanity. But what we're seeing here is a deliberate effort to undo that sanity, to reverse the entire process here, to de-normalize the nuclear family. The very phrase nuclear family is treated as if we should respond to it with disdain.

Part

Is the Family Merely Forged by Choice? The Destabilization and Subversion of the Biblical Family

But this takes us to this idea of the chosen family as organized in the Chosen Family Law Center. What's the history there? Well, the history has to do with the gay rights movement in the 1980s. And it came from San Francisco in particular. It came from author Kath Weston in her book of the 1980s entitled Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinships. She's an anthropologist, and she wrote, "The families I saw gay men and lesbians creating in the Bay area tended to have extremely fluid boundaries, not unlike kinship organizations," she wrote then, "among sectors of the African-American American, Indian and white working class." Now I would simply say that the connection between all those different models she mentioned is extremely tenuous, and frankly, disingenuous. That is, intellectually dishonest.

But nonetheless, the point is that back during the '80s...so you're looking at a generation ago...she pioneered the idea of the families we choose, and that created the new notion in society of so-called chosen families. It's not a family by birth. It's not a family by adoption. Now it's a family, not by kinship, but by choice. And just consider where we are...and we talked about this recently on The Briefing...as a society that has created a rather unprecedented idol of choice. But let's just track what the fact that it's the city of Cambridge that made headlines in recent days. We'll be looking a little more closely at one aspect of that in just a few minutes, but we need to look at the fact that this is now being described as a movement towards the legal recognition of and the legal protection of chosen families.

And again, to Americans, that probably sounds pretty good. Again, considering how Americans idolized choice. But what does chosen family mean? Well, it means the destabilization of a family based upon birth and adoption, what's now dismissed as the heteronormative family. It's also sometimes simply dismissed with the language of the nuclear family, as if we need to be liberated from such a nuclear notion. In recent years, even especially in recent months, you see organizations such as the Center for American Progress. We've mentioned it on the briefing. It's one of the most well-funded and influential liberal activist groups in the United States. They've run a couple of reports of late. Back in February, just not yet a month ago, they ran an article, the headline: "Making the Case for Chosen Family in Paid Family and Medical Leave Policies."

Now that turns out to be a pretty big issue because you're talking about federal taxpayer support. You're also talking about family policy and American businesses to include chosen family. They're seeking to make the case in paid family and medical leave policies. But just note, every time you look at one of these expansions of say the definition of family for paid family and medical leave policies, what you're actually looking at is the moral revolution taking on a new policy aspect. And what you're looking at again is the fact that the actual nuclear family...and we as Christians ought to refer to the family and its essence as the natural family or the biblical family...is here sidelined. By the way, one of the points made in this article is that an analysis of Census Bureau data in 2020, "Shows that just 18.4% of American households follow the traditional nuclear family structure." So what we're supposedly being told is that the nuclear family is just out of date. It's being abandoned by Americans.

Well, marriage is being abandoned by all too many Americans. And without marriage, you don't have the stability of the natural family with a mother and father and their children, and often extended kin in the family. But it's not just that. It's the fact that what's not acknowledged here is the reality that the goal of most adults and the hope of most children is exactly for that kind of natural family. What's not acknowledged here is that when you take a snapshot of America and you say only 18.4% of American households follow the traditional nuclear family structure, well, just keep in mind what's included in that snapshot.

Think of how long people are living now without children in the home. If you have a married couple say celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and they have children and they celebrate their grandchildren, they don't count because there are no children in the home with them at the time. You think about single people, even college, students. if they are declared to be by the Census Bureau a household of some sort, they don't count. But most of them are desperately wanting to eventually find their way into marriage and into a stable family structure.

That same Center for American Progress also ran a report entitled, “Expanding Definitions of Family in Federal Laws.” This tells you something of how all this becomes policy. By the way, a little footnote. Did you wonder how in the world that massive $1.9 trillion plan that was pushed through by Democrats in Congress and my President Biden, how it came to shape so quickly in the administration? Well, it's because think tanks working for progressivist causes, by their own definition, had long been working on the legislation. So most of it was simply handed over for a kind of reworking by Congress and the administration. Similarly, what I'm holding in my hand right here is the kind of work done by a think tank... again, this one's the most influential right now in this administration, the Center for American Progress... arguing text by text, through the legal code of the federal statutes, how the definition of family should be changed.

But before leaving Cambridge, I want to go back to something that happened last summer. It was actually last July that the Cambridge city government, it city council decided that it would consider this legal recognition of polyamorous relationships, the redefinition of domestic partnerships in the city. That was last July. The news was that last week, this proposal actually took on the force of law. The city council passed it. But what was interesting about last July? Well, what was interesting is the fact that there were members of the city council back then who were questioning this proposal, if not outrightly opposed to it. Back then in July, when the issue was moving this forward in the process, two of the members of the city council...they're known as councilors...voted present instead of taking a position. Now that means they didn't want to be on the record saying, "No, no. That would require a whole lot of moral fortitude."

They just wanted to be counted as present, but they did want to say that they weren't yet for it. Here's what makes it so interesting. One of them was E. Denise Simmons, "Whose term as mayor beginning in 2008 was notable because she was the nation's first openly lesbian black mayor. When she married in 2009, her ceremony was the first same-sex marriage in a traditionally African-American church in Cambridge. She's been an advocate for LGBTQ plus rights over the years as well as for the faith community."

Well, here's the problem. Here you have a woman who identified as the first openly lesbian black mayor in America. And yet she is not, at least yet, entirely for the redefinition of domestic partnerships for polyamory, but she's also identified as being an advocate for LGBTQ+. what exactly did she think the plus was? But this is also, just as a footnote, very important because it shows you the toxic notion of intersectionality that's now so current in society that intersectionality says, well, you're looking at all kinds of intersections of different forms of oppression and victims. And if you're looking at someone who was a lesbian black mayor, well, she evidently checks off three here being a racial minority and a woman and a lesbian, but the polyamory community might come up and say, "Hey, we're next in line, and we have even more intersections."

Part

Recognizing the Essential Nature of the Family: Rebelling Against the Structure of Creation Is a Recipe for Disaster

But all this makes me also want to go back to something that happened just over a year ago. I mentioned it at the time, but I want to give it a bit more attention now. And this was an article by David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, that appeared as a cover story in The Atlantic. And the cover story was explosive. The title, "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake." Now I have often mentioned David Brooks, and his analysis is often very interesting, but I think usually quite wrong. David Brooks, I would argue, is not a conservative. He's counted as a conservative columnist for the New York Times, but a conservative by definition seeks to conserve the institutions and the forms of order that are necessary for the conservation of morality and society and human happiness and human rights.

And David Brooks has found his way into a kind of mediating position in which he wants to say, "Let's keep as much as we can, but we probably can't keep all that much. Let's create ad hoc responses." So just to give an example, in this article in which he declares that the nuclear family was a mistake, he celebrates the emergence of what he calls as an alternative, forged families. Where do you get the term forged families? Oh, it was actually from an author who used the term, but in the background to that was the idea of chosen families, and he acknowledges that in the article. It was Daniel Burns... he identifies as a political scientist at the University of Dallas... who came up with the term forged families. They become what the anthropologists call fictive kin. If you hear fictive, that means like fiction. They're not actually kin, but they operate as kin.

In the article, I'm going to argue that David Brooks commits the same mistake that we saw in that report from the Center for American Progress. The fact is that using a term like less than 20% of American families are represented or defined by the nuclear family is intellectually dishonest. It doesn't acknowledge the fact that many of those households were nuclear families by definition, and many of the rest of them are on their way to being. But nonetheless, we all acknowledge there's been a vast sea change in the family. The question is, what do we do about it? David Brooks argues that basically we should do the best we can, but this is the same David Brooks who eventually came to be a proponent of same-sex marriage because he said, "There are goods in marriage that might temper, for example, the promiscuity and the lack of structure in the LGBTQ community."

You'll notice the kind of argument here that isn't conservative. It is actually just a way of perhaps tempering either the fervor or the velocity of a moral revolution. Eventually you lose everything because if you can replace the nuclear family, which he says after all was a mistake, with the forged family...well, a chosen family...you can choose anything. You can move in any direction you want. There's a complete instability in family relationships. He doesn't want all that instability. So we want society to encourage and to uphold and to nurture these forged families. But here's something we just need to note from a biblical perspective.

There is actually only one family on earth that will actually fulfill some of the functions of family over an intergenerational period. When you're looking at these chosen families, you'll notice they too are snapshots. You're looking at young people who may be living together. You're looking at people who may be students or young workers. You're looking at people who might be divorcees, or they might be in a situation of family brokenness, and they gather together. Maybe they even have meals together on a periodic basis. But the reality is that there is no example in human history of those bonds continuing in an intergenerational pattern. And many of those fictive families, they actually don't even survive a person's adult lifetime.

But nonetheless, what we're seeing here is the fact that the argument is made that society should nurture them. But nurture them means to define family law in such a way as to protect them and to recognize them. But once you recognize them, you actually have destabilized the natural family. You've just made it one choice among others. And this is where conservatives--and this includes biblical Christians in this sense--are in a very interesting predicament right now because we actually do believe that children deserve a mother and a father.

We actually do believe that the biblical family, which by the way, has never theologically been reduced to a nuclear family, the natural family , includes extended kinship, but it does come down to the fact that you have a unique relationship between parents and children, a mother, and a father, and their children by blood and by adoption, that is more central to the definition of family than anything else. And I will simply go on to say that is not only biblical wisdom. No society that has been at war with that concept has any record of survival. And finally, this just takes us to one of the most important Christian worldview affirmations, and that is this. There is never an adequate ongoing substitute for what God has given us in the structures of creation. Rebelling against the structures of creation is a recipe for disaster for any society.

Now listen very carefully. There is brokenness in every society. There are children in need in every society. There are vulnerable people who need to be protected in every society. But as you read the Bible, for example, given the responsibilities assigned to Israel, the widow, the orphan, and the alien in their midst, given the responsibility given to the Christian Church in the New Testament, we come to understand that what is not called for in any one of those Testaments, neither the Old or the New, is the abandonment of the family, which is created by kinship, by blood, and by adoption.

If you put together the Old and the New Testaments in a biblical theology, you come to understand that there is never an argument that in God's plan of salvation, the family is central. Instead, the New Testament tells us that it is the Church that is absolutely central. But when it comes to human society, even with deep theological consequence, the family is central and the family is essential.

And that's evident in commands as simple as, "Children, honor your mother and your father. Children, obey your parents." The very kind of structure you see commanded in the 10 Commandments, repeated all throughout the experience of Israel, and repeated even by the apostle Paul in giving instruction to the Church at Ephesus.

All this gives us a lot to think about today as Christians, but make no mistake. This is just a sign of things yet to come. So get ready.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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