Fragmented Families

“Confirm Thy Soul in Self-Control, Thy Liberty in Law” from M. Pearlstein (ed.), Fragmented Families and Silence of the Faithful (2015)
By George W. Liebmann
In addressing the problems presented by fragmented families, religious institutions must first strengthen themselves. There was a time when the ministry was considered one of the three great learned professions, together with medicine and the law. At the turn of the 20th century, something like a fifth of the graduates of our elite colleges entered the church. Today’s graduates no longer even think of the ministry as a vocation; typically there are not more than one or two men and women of the cloth in each Ivy League graduating class.


The opportunities churches afford for intellectual leadership, pastoral counseling and social work, and community organization are ignored. They recruit fortuitously, and their recruits too often are psychologically wounded people looking for a refuge from engagement with the world. This must change.
As for strengthening marriage, Max Rheinstein, the most learned and notable secular writer on these problems, considered that a mere two changes in law and practice could discourage family breakdown: premarital counseling, with emphasis on the need for mutual tolerance; and relief from economic pressures through family allowances and the like.  Pressures which were greatly intensified by bracket creep, erosion of tax exemptions, and increased payroll taxes in the 1960s and 1970s.
The claim for full-time public daycare is inconsistent with what Learned Hand called “the preservation of personality.” “Parents tend to be fond of their children, and do not want them to be the subjects of political schemes,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1927. “The State cannot be expected to have the same attitude.”
Two notable but forgotten studies urge that half-time day care is the best solution, relieving the isolation and boredom of mothers and their separation from careers while preserving emotional attachments with children during what one psychiatrist called “the magic years.” Children who do not form emotional attachments with at least one adult when they are young are the sociopaths and psychopaths of the future. The first of these studies is the pioneer American social worker Mary Richmond’s book, 985 Widows. The second is the British Plowden Report, Children and their Primary Schools (2 vols., 1968).
One older approach to family support that has revived interest is a visiting-nurse program for parents of young infants, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. The latter-day sponsors of such programs seem to be entirely unaware of the earlier work along these lines under the Sheppard-Towner Act approved by President Coolidge that ultimately fell victim to lobbying by the medical profession.
As for what religious leaders should not do, I would urge that they not be too modish. In particular, they should uphold the unpopular notion that men and women have different characteristics, different needs, and different destinies. The distinctive responsibilities of motherhood do not begin at birth and end with the severance of the umbilical cord. College women do not have, and should not have, an equal right to get sloshed on Saturday night, and no redefinition of sexual offenses and rules of evidence can protect them if prevailing mores do not. All relationships are not created equal, and there must be an association of rights with responsibilities. Actions have consequences; women who give men no reason to marry should not be surprised at a shortage of husbands. Self-denial is essential to civilization. Churches can be judgmental in their administration of sacraments. Their anthem should be what was once the unofficial anthem of the country: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”



George W. Liebmann is executive director of the Calvert Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

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