The Death of the Nuclear Family: Towards a New Sexual Ethic in America

By Brickner, Rabbi Balfour | Conscience, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Death of the Nuclear Family: Towards a New Sexual Ethic in America

Brickner, Rabbi Balfour, Conscience


Politicians avoid discussing it publicly lest when they do they sound less honest than usual. The American population is pitifully hypocritical with it. Clergy, seeing it, offer neither wisdom, guidance nor leadership. Against it, the religious right conducts a fearsome but losing battle, while the broad extent of it is revealed by the mushrooming rash of gay marriages now flooding court houses across America.

What is this truth?

The nuclear family as we once knew it has crumbled. In its place a new understanding of family is emerging. That mythic television family of yesteryear, the happily married monogamous wife and husband, two drug-free children and a dog, living in a three-bedroom, two-hath house on a 100' x 100' plot in a cookie-cutter suburban development somewhere, hardly exists anywhere anymore. In tact, the reality is radically different.

The most recent US census reveals that the marriage rate is declining precipitously, only 24 percent of households are made up of a married couple and children, and in some age cohorts as many as half of all marriages will end up in divorce. More people than ever before live together in permanent relationships without legal sanction. The number of unmarried couple households rose from 500,000 in 1970 to 5 million in 2004. More children are being born to or adopted--without social or religious stigma--by couples in such arrangements. It is almost the norm for gay and straight couples to live together unmarried and more widowed or divorced older folk find new partners and cohabit without marriage. A veritable epidemic of gay marriages has erupted across the land creating gay families that raise children in familial settings where, much to the dismay of braying religious fundamentalists, the kids are doing just fine with two mommies or two daddies. According to the 2000 census, 594,000 households in the United States were headed by same-sex partners, a figure considered by some experts to be conservative. Of those, about 33 percent of lesbian couples reported having children aged 18 or under, while 22 percent of male couples did.

Even the opprobrium of adultery has lost its moral and legal sting. In most of our nation's courts, adultery is no longer used as grounds for divorce. Its practice is so common that most of us just shrug on learning that our friends, neighbors or business associates are, or have been, involved in some "affair." After all, every one knows that adulterous relationships are conducted regularly in the highest of professional, governmental and even clerical circles. So what?


Conservatives and religious fundamentalists represented by organizations like Focus on the Family, Concerned Women of America and the Family Research Council see these patterns as catastrophic, and do all in their power to reverse the trend. One can understand their desperation. After all, science, technology, philosophy, even Biblical studies, enlightened as they continue to be by archeology, have shattered their world at every level. They would like to see things return to some status quo ante where their world was secure, when folks believed the sun revolved around the earth, when there was no Hubble telescope to penetrate space to tell us that indeed our cosmos is 14 billion years old, not one created in six days, or when we could not prove that life evolved from lower to higher forms of being. The present situation, certainly the teaching of evolution in the schools, and the exposure of the young to "humanistic ideas," challenges the credibility of their faith at every level.

Bruised by these changes, angered by the hostility of what became a largely post-Christian era, many, mostly Christian traditionalists at first, sought solace by retreating into an otherworldly version of an earlier Christian identity. This movement became the fundamentalist stream of American Christianity that today dominates our nation's political life.

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The Death of the Nuclear Family: Towards a New Sexual Ethic in America


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