In April 2009, Dr. James Dobson stepped down as head of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family with a pessimistic message about his years in the "culture wars." "We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict," he declared. "Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles." (1) Dobson's words were widely taken as an admission of defeat. His statement highlighted a trend that now seems inexorable: In the Western World the traditional family continues to unravel, and its defenders are increasingly giving way to resignation and despair.
Yet an historical perspective reveals that the conflict over the family may only be beginning and that we may be on the verge of a wider confrontation that will decide not only the survival of the family but fundamental questions about the scope and nature of the modern state.
At first glance, it appears that history may not be on the side of the family. Today's crisis originated well before the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. A sobering perspective on how family decline undermines our civilization may be gained from realizing how limited awareness has been of the nature and dimensions of the decline over decades and even centuries and from realizing how today's awakening--still partial at best--comes at the eleventh hour.
As early as 1933, Christopher Dawson, in "The Patriarchal Family in History," drew a parallel with the declining stages of Greek and Roman civilization. (2) Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman elaborated in Family and Civilization (1947). (3) At a time when the "baby boom" was occurring and few people were disposed to listen to Cassandra warnings of a crisis for the family, Zimmerman described long-term reality: the traditional family had been deteriorating since the Renaissance and was nearing the point of no return. Like Dawson, Zimmerman noted unmistakable parallels with Greece and Rome.
Dawson and Zimmerman make thought-provoking reading today because they wrote long before the political and sexual radicalism of the 1960s launched an open and direct ideological attack on the family and placed it on the public agenda.
Moreover, popular culture is not the only family solvent. From the start of the modern era, political culture has included a strain of hostility to the family. "The attack on the family in modern political thought has been sweeping and unremitting," writes political theorist Philip Abbott. "If the family is to survive as an institution ... the major thrust of modern politics must be altered." (4) Virtually every theorist in the modern Western canon has had something to say about the family, often to its detriment, including Erasmus, Milton, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, and Freud. Dissenters, like Louis de Bonald, author of On Divorce (1805), have been relegated to obscurity.
The family crisis, in other words, is not simply a product of the sexual and feminist revolutions, though they certainly accelerated the pace of deterioration. Family decline may be inherent in what is commonly called modernity.
Political theory might seem only to compound the dangers posed by television, movies, rock music, videos, and other elements of popular culture, but the battle of political ideas is one that family defenders cannot ignore. By retreating into "culture" (though in a rather cramped sense) to the neglect of politics, family advocates may have invited precisely the political paralysis Dobson laments. "If you believe, as I do, in the power of culture," writes political scientist James Q. Wilson of single motherhood, "you will realize that there is very little one can do." (5)
Without neglecting culture, Dawson and Zimmerman were much more explicit than today's family advocates in emphasizing the power wielded by government. "As in the decline of the ancient world, the family is steadily losing its form and its social significance, and the state absorbs more and more of the life of its members," Dawson wrote. …