In the February edition of First Things, Robert Reno examined an interesting report on different family cultures and what those differences portend for the future:
The report, which summarizes the results of a three-year investigation conducted by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (the research team includes Ashley Berner, author of “The Case for Educational Pluralism” in the December issue, and Advisory Council member Joseph Davis), breaks down family cultures into four basic categories: the Faithful, the Engaged Progressives, the Detached, and the American Dreamers. The latter two family cultures largely accept the status quo. Detached parents report a feeling of helplessness. For good or ill, their kids are formed by popular culture. American Dreamers are more positive, but they want their children to succeed as success is defined by others. By contrast, the Faithful and the Engaged Progressives raise their children on their own terms, inculcating into them well-formed, confident, and comprehensive worldviews.
Twenty percent of American parents are among the Faithful. They largely reject the sexual revolution. Sixty-eight percent register the strongest possible disagreement with the proposition that “sex before marriage is okay if a couple love each other.” Sixty-nine percent think contraception should not be made available to teenagers without their parents’ approval. Three-quarters reject same-sex marriage.
When it comes to women and the workplace, the Faithful mothers are more likely to stay at home with the kids than are others. This does not correlate to a simplistic view of women at home and men in the workplace. The Faithful are much more likely than other parents to “completely agree” that a woman should put family above career, but they also insist with equal vehemence that the same holds for men. Family trumps personal needs and desires. Not surprisingly, the Faithful are also hostile to the culture of divorce. A striking 60 percent reject the view that divorce is preferable to sustaining an unhappy marriage, as compared to 16 percent of other parents. Eighty-eight percent are married, and 74 percent remain in their first marriages.
These are the sorts of folks who read FIRST THINGS. They don’t accept the moral minimalism of our therapeutic age. A resounding 91 percent reject the view that “as long as we don’t hurt others, we should be able to live however we want.” Eighty-eight percent think we should guide our behavior by what God or Scripture says. And they’re confident. Two-thirds say that controlling teenagers’ access to technology (internet, social media, cell phones) is not a losing battle. They’re overwhelmingly more likely than the general population of parents to agree that “it is my responsibility to help others lead more moral lives.” Which is what they do, forming strong communities that are often organized around church and church-related education for their children.
The bells, they are a ringing. Broad categorizations such as this are obviously not going to perfectly capture where an individual family may fall, but the label Faithful is definitely the most apt choice to describe our family.
The Engaged Progressive parents are in many ways equally committed and equally determined—and, at 21 percent of all parents, as numerous as the Faithful. They emphasize personal autonomy. People need to be given space to find their own ways in life. Over half affirm that “as long as we don’t hurt others, we should all just live however we want.” A super-majority (83 percent) agrees that we should be tolerant of “alternative lifestyles.”
Engaged Progressives endorse a mobile and plastic view of morality, one attuned to personal needs and differences. They’re skeptical of traditional authorities, especially religious ones, which they view as overly punitive and insufficiently inclusive. Eighty percent of Engaged parents say they wouldn’t appeal to Scripture or religious authorities to guide the moral development of their children. They also tend to reject spanking (a third say it’s positively wrong to do so), which in my experience is the single most reliable predictor of the whole range of progressive views. They want their kids to be fair-minded, caring, and non-judgmental. This reflects their vision of society, which is not a libertarian dreamland where people get to seek individual self-interest, but instead a therapeutic culture in which people are affirmed and supported in their personal journeys.
Although Engaged Progressives say that divorce is preferable to an unhappy marriage, they are almost as likely to remain married as the Faithful. They are also as likely to eat meals with their children. Mothers with pre-school kids are very nearly as likely to stay at home. They may be more permissive than the Faithful, but they’re no less committed to maintaining their families and serving the needs of their kids. Almost all (93 percent) say that they invest a great deal of effort in shaping the moral character of their children. Their family culture is very strong.
This particular family culture is one that’s not always properly identified and understood. They are families that seem to embrace traditional views on things like the importance of marriage, education, and strong families, while at the same time holding progressive political views. They accept and help perpetuate a non-judgmental attitude toward the lifestyle choices of others while they themselves follow the same path that was once regarded as a societal norm that all should strive toward.
Child-rearing is the most primitive of all political acts, as Plato, Rousseau, and many others have recognized. Given the differences in family cultures, it’s not surprising that the Faithful and the Engaged Progressives clash in the voting booth. The Faithful are overwhelmingly Republican. Engaged Progressives are Democrat by an almost four-to-one margin. What’s more subtle is the clash over social institutions, with the Faithful tending toward a counterculture and the Engaged Progressives taking command of civic institutions.
The Culture of American Families Project shows that the Faithful are alienated from public institutions and the dominant cultural forces at work in society. They are the most likely to think moral standards in America have declined. They don’t turn to the experts our society now credentials and authorizes—therapists, psychologists, school administrators, teachers, and counselors. This distrust is epitomized in their attitude toward public schools: 42 percent see them as largely bad for children, as compared to 19 percent of other parents. Among the Faithful whose children go to public schools, 63 percent report that if they could afford to do so they would send their kids to religious schools or homeschool them. In sum, they largely reject the forms of social authority that have fallen under the control of the Engaged Progressives.
This alienation is not dysfunctional, although it can sometimes look that way to those who wish to superintend our society. The Faithful respond by investing in the social institutions they find trustworthy—religious communities primarily, but also the schools, media, and social networks that support and are supported by their religious, moral, and social commitments. In a way unimagined by cultural observers fifty years ago, a religious subculture has emerged in America. It sometimes expresses anger and despair over the larger trends in society. But just as often, it is confident and self-assured, even hopeful. As the investigators report, compared to most parents, “the Faithful feel better supported by their web of relations.”
So we have two strong groups each certain in their views and committed to following them in practice on a daily basis. As Reno notes, this means that we will not likely see an end to the “culture wars” any time soon.
From a political standpoint, it also means that if the GOP decides that it is no longer willing to fight battles over “divisive social issues,” the Faithful will not blindly follow them down whatever more morally neutral path the party chooses to take. The Faithful know that there are things far more important than politics and aren’t afraid to prioritize them.