MLA: My apologies for not sending a Friday issue. If there are any specific questions about Covid-19 that I can be helpful on, just respond to this email.
The short story goes something like this: in its earliest days, the household was constituted by a vast, interdependent web of extended family relations which had near its center economic productivity. As industrialization occurred, folks left their families for factories, and the “nuclear family” was born. Interdependence with other nuclear families replaced extended family bonds. As the post-war economy boomed between 1950 and 1965, this arrangement flourished—but has since fallen under both economic and ideological pressures. Wages declined, which required households to have two workers and our culture became more individualistic. As marriage was reduced to a source of self-discovery and fulfillment, it’s rationale became less intelligible—and so young people delayed entering it, as they still are today (and will do so even more, with the extraordinary economic challenges they are about to face).
As Brooks tells it, the 1950-1965 window in which the “nuclear family” became the archetype was an aberration, rather than the norm. It was, he writes, “a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.” Not surprisingly, veiling the fragility of the nuclear family went hand-in-hand with overstated promises of what it could deliver. A “kind of cult formed,” Brooks writes, “around this type of family.” A 1957 survey apparently found that 57% of people thought “unmarried people were ‘sick,’ ‘immoral,’ or ‘neurotic.’” Which are ordinary thoughts to have about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This idolization of the nuclear family endured within evangelical circles far longer than it survived in the world around us, kept alive as it was through the (often helpful) complex of marriage ministries that evangelicals have so much practice in and the (nearly-always unhelpful) political battles to buttress the nuclear family through force of law. Many younger Christians face the opposite temptation of downplaying the value of marriage and family-life, it is true. But the manifest errors and excesses of youth are often symptoms of deeper problems they have inherited from their parents: and if today’s young people are disinterested in marriage, perhaps that is an indication that it has not lived up to the grandiose claims evangelicals have made for it.
At the heart of Brooks’ essay, though, is not a critique of the ‘nuclear family’ per se but an appeal to reframe familial bonds in such ways that we include within their scope those who are not biologically related to us. If the vagaries of our economy and the distance opportunities impose upon us prevent us from having extended family networks in our hometown, then we should expand the range of families through ‘fictive’ kinship bonds: “chosen” families, in the parlance of lesbian and gay activists. That rhetoric might strike many conservative Christians as queer: many might be tempted to reject it strictly on account of its provenance. But for a movement steeped in messaging about how adoptive parents are fully real parents, the idea that ‘fictive’ siblings might be really real siblings should go down smooth. For my own part, I’ve been gravitating toward reclaiming the notion of the Christian ‘household’ as a way of expanding our imaginations for family life. My essay in Christianity Today a few years ago on infertility was one step in that direction: ‘paternal’ love need not always take the form of parenthood. But there are other ways we could go.
Such an expansive notion of ‘the household’ is, to my mind, an invaluable resource within a pandemic. The extremely small confines that many couples live within make a ‘stay at home’ order deeply damaging to their emotional and mental health. The economic pressures people are under, combined with the amount of time they are spending together, means that every misstep by a child risks starting nuclear war. Divorces jumped precipitously when China ended their lock-down
; a local family-abuse non-profit is preparing for an increase in cases as a result of ours
. The ‘nuclear family’ model is not only brittle: it renders such difficulties invisible
, as it strives to maintain impermeable boundaries between what happens within the family and the rest of the world. A household into which extended family or others are welcome to come and go supplies, if nothing else, the possibility of accountability and help when life is especially hard.
Some debate erupted earlier this year about whether we’ve overvalued the nuclear family. That argument seems quaint now. The nuclear family is an essential defense and refuge. These are the only people you trust to infect you. COVID-19 may drive many singles toward the protection and camaraderie of marriage. And it may change many life patterns as young adults, forced by closed schools and lost jobs to live at home, fear to venture far away again.
Two things can be true concurrently: we have overvalued the nuclear family, and the nuclear family is indispensable. To idolize a good renders it impotent: but that does not mean it ceases to be good. The nuclear family may be a “defense and refuge,” but it is also in this fallen world a haven of sin and injustice and suffering. Hansen recognizes that coronavirus discloses the limits of the natural family: who, he rightly asks, will watch the kids when the parents get sick? But his (non)-answer reinforces the romanticized “love” that triumphs over all. As Brooks writes, conservatives often “ignore one of the main reasons their own families are stable: They can afford to purchase the support that extended family used to provide—and that the people they preach at, further down the income scale, cannot.”
Worse, Hansen inverts the reasons for our social-distancing regime in ways that fundamentally distort our Christian responsibility to the world. We are not hunkered down because we only trust our families to infect us: we have entered our isolation-regime because we are concerned about the possibility of infecting others. Hansen’s vision of the family in the midst of a pandemic is sad: it removes the responsibility of social solidarity with the weak and vulnerable from the heart of familial life. There are a lots of people I trust to infect me, and I will happily defy stay-in-place orders to see for the sake of their good and my own—even at the cost of my own nuclear family. And if I don’t, it is because they are surrounded by others who’s lives they cannot risk. That includes people within my church. No paragraph Rusty Reno has written in this pandemic has so persuaded me of the need to reopen and refill our churches as Hansen’s: the only family that is the “last defense” is the family of God.
For my part, I hope the pandemic will make us want broader kinship bonds. While many single people in New York or DC cannot go home, they can form what would effectively be temporary family units through ‘quarantine covenants.’ After all, covenantal bonds are what binds life to life within the family, rather than blood. The way most states have framed their stay-at-home orders is both short-sighted and narrow-minded: six unrelated twenty-five year olds who move only between each others’ respective apartments is no more dangerous a cluster than a family of six that occasionally goes to the park together. Such ‘chosen family’ arrangements (even if temporary) are ways of reinvigorating the sort of social trust that a pandemic jeopardizes: and for the ways in which this pandemic is expanding our sense of ‘who counts’ as family, we should be most grateful.