A review of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought, by Scott Yenor

The statistics on the decline of the American family are by now all too familiar: the rate of out-of-wedlock births in the United States stands at 40% (in the African-American community, nearly 70%); divorce rates at 43%; and co-habitation rates have doubled among 30- to 44-year-olds in the past 10 years. Though the divorce rate has ticked downward, contemporary trends in family life are hardly encouraging.

Scott Yenor's new book, Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought, is a philosophic reflection on the troubles of the modern family. In several hundred pages he covers a wide range of the most important modern philosophic, political, social scientific, and religious works on the family. Few treatments of the foundational problems of the family are this thorough or deep.

As he describes them, our culture wars over the family pit the entire liberal tradition, from Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, and Mill to modern feminism and even such neoconservatives as James Q. Wilson, against the moral and religious teachings of the Catholic Church. Relying on Pope John Paul II's metaphysical and religious arguments is perfectly understandable given Yenor's contention that modern political thought has had the effect, and in many cases the intention, of undermining the natural and conventional foundations of the family.

In Yenor's view, John Locke's reform of the patriarchal family was designed to liberate it from politics—and from the Church. Magistrates and ministers would no longer dictate the terms of marriage; conjugal society would now be based on a voluntary, secular contract, the ends of which were simply, in Locke's words, "procreation" and "mutual support, and assistance." The educative duty of parents was paramount for Locke, especially the teaching of self-control for a "culture of liberty." But once the children were grown, Locke allowed for divorce. Yenor believes this to be a huge misstep, allowing "instability to creep into his teaching." What's more, Yenor finds that Locke's refounding of the family is dull and calculating. "Locke eschews the language of love," he writes, in favor of "softer terms" like "care and affection."

This is where Rousseau comes in, explains Yenor, to correct Locke's unromantic account of marriage by infusing it with passion, imagination, and poetic artifice. Through historical accident and social pressure, Rousseau's individual is moved from natural selfishness to conjugal society, where he is made whole. As Rousseau makes clear in the Emile, though society is informed by biology, it relies ultimately on an illusion of perfect union between the individual and the collectivity. Yenor suggests that Rousseau's vision of family life will collapse on itself because it relies so heavily on the imagination. As he puts it, "the perfect human whole, of which the family, for Rousseau, is a prime example, must be or become inherently rational and possible instead of illusory."

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Like Rousseau, Hegel endorses traditional sex roles that are informed by nature, and though he sees History as perfecting and overcoming nature, he believes that the natural sex differences between men and women will remain unchanged. Hegel's view of "ethical love" rejects and transcends the Lockean idea of marriage as a contract, and points towards an indissoluble union of man and woman that is communal. For Yenor, the problem is that Hegel subordinates love and family life to the unfolding of the rational state: "not only women, but marriage and the family as such are, in a sense, turned into means…," he writes, "so that individuals can fulfill their ‘highest duty' which is ‘to be members of the state.'"

If Locke wished to take patriarchal politics out of family life, in the 19th century John Stuart Mill thought it was safe to put politics back in. If the public sphere is to be governed by liberty, equality, and individuality, then the family ought to be as well. In fact, he argued that progress is impeded if the private sphere continues to be characterized by the tyranny of men over women. He offers a vision of "assimilative marriage" in which husbands and wives are true friends and equal partners. Yet Yenor points out that Mill's account of marriage largely omits child rearing and children generally. "Mill ignores the kids in order to propound an alluring promise of spousal friendship—the idea that husbands and wives will share the same experiences and the hope that they will be soul mates." "With this promise in mind," Yenor observes, "children seem to be distractions from the reflection of the husband in the wife and the wife in the husband."

While Mill downplays procreation in order to achieve marital harmony, Marx and Engels famously abolish the "bourgeois family" altogether. In the Marxist utopia, children are raised by state institutions so that women can labor productively for the cause. Simone de Beauvoir, drawing from Marx, goes so far as to advocate forbidding mothers from staying home precisely because too many women would choose it, impeding their liberation from biology.

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These modern assaults on the traditional Western family have not gone unanswered. Yenor explains that social scientists of a neoconservative bent, notably James Q. Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, and David Popenoe, armed with the findings of sociobiology, have offered a defense for the benefits of monogamy, marriage, and child-rearing. Monogamous family life is good for one's health and economic well-being, it turns out. For example, studies indicate that divorced men are twice as likely as married men to die from heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, children raised in two-parent families have advantages over those who are not. But Yenor finds these arguments to be insufficient insofar as they are built on appeals to self-interest. As he explains, sociobiology paints a bleak picture of the origins of family life: for women motherhood is a natural instinct, but for men fatherhood is a cultural construct. Because women cannot raise children alone, they must persuade men that monogamy is in their interest. This leads to a contract in which "men and women use each other to serve their own interests"—"a temporary meeting of the minds instead of…a durable union," according to Yenor. He argues that self-interest is an unstable foundation for the family and that the sociobiologists are "more in line with the social contract tradition than with the Aristotelian tradition of man being a political animal."

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Having surveyed the history of modern thought on the family, Yenor turns to the writings of John Paul II for solutions. He explains that the late pope, in writings spanning 30 years, argued for the priority of love over individual autonomy and presented a hierarchy or "ladder of love" that begins with attraction between the sexes and ascends to a "betrothed love" or a "total self-giving" of each to the other. This complete surrender of individual autonomy mirrors Jesus' sacrifice of his life and love to the Church. This total spiritual and physical unity permits no divorce and no contraception. To allow divorce, even for the wife of a serial adulterer, is to deny the unity of one flesh. To allow contraception is to sever the link between sex and procreation, which further encourages the hedonistic relations between the sexes in which each individual seeks personal pleasure rather than the "deeper commitments of betrothed love." Yenor concludes that "the most philosophically confident defenses of unified family life arise from organized religion, and the fruitful practice of marital and familial unity is associated, in the West, with natural law and religious belief generally and with Christianity in particular."

Yenor argues that modern Lockean contract theory has led to the destruction of family life and a forgetting of marital love's true basis. In his view, liberal notions of the family are all deficient absent the support of religion, meaning Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, since Judaism allows for divorce. "Faith," he writes, "prevents marriages formed by consent from devolving into a divorce culture; love supported by faith sustains parents to dedicate time and energy to their children. Locke's family unravels without these props."

Yenor well demonstrates the shortcomings of contract theory, and of Americans' love affair with autonomy at the cost of a more deeply satisfying betrothed love. His reflections on the intrinsically communal aspects of love and marriage in a world that no longer values self-sacrifice are certainly welcome. Still, there are reasons to question his analysis as well as his proposed solutions.

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He begins his study with the professed aim of not joining the "Locke-blamers," vowing to approach the problem of the family in the spirit of Tocqueville, "discerning the tendencies of human societies in order to counteract them and slow them down so that we can maintain democratic society over the long haul." A Tocquevillian approach would have been the right one, but it is not the one he in fact takes. "Modern thinkers," Yenor avers, "pressure marriage and family life by making each connection and trait testify at the bar of reason and pass the tests of individual freedom and sexual equality." Eschewing liberty and equality, he turns to the writings of John Paul II, which doubtless serve as an important beacon in our troubled times but may be too counter-cultural, as it were, to be effective. One wonders how much appeal these teachings can have beyond already committed Catholics. Are the American people really ready to make contraception and divorce illegal? Could the restitution of such bans be effective anyway? And could such measures in a modern liberal democracy even be considered just?

One may also doubt Yenor's conviction that our "divorce culture" can be healed by Christianity. We can all agree that our culture is strengthened by religion. But the relation between marriage and religion is not as straightforward as he makes out. Recent (though disputed) studies, for example, show that evangelical Christians have a higher divorce rate than the general population, indicating the limitations of even a deeply committed Christianity as a cultural salve. In thinking about what makes strong marriages, we should all begin with a bit of humility. There are no easy answers, and we should seek out help where we can find it. Religion can help us see the deeper meaning of marriage. But reasonable social policy can play a role, too, such as reforms of no-fault divorce laws and helpful policies for working mothers such as flexible leave times and telecommuting.

Social science arguments should not be dismissed either. For example, social scientists who emphasize that married men have half the rates of cancer, heart disease, and hypertension as divorced men help lay the groundwork for marriage-friendly social policy, even if their arguments are not morally edifying. Describing health benefits using the language of self-interest creates a rationale for legislators to act in this important area, achieving moral effects without moralizing.

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Yenor's sharp division between most of modern liberal thought on one side and John Paul II all alone on the other does not make our task any easier. He risks making enemies out of potential allies, weakening his cause in the process and heightening rather than ameliorating our culture wars. A consistently Tocquevillian approach would not be so critical of the American tendency to approach marriage as an imperfect union, a secular and voluntary agreement that finds sustenance in husbands and wives' mutual affection for each other and their natural desire to take the best possible care of their kids. It would acknowledge, rather than resist, the liberal ideal of equality, including the equality between men and women, and husbands and wives. It would, that is, seek out support for the family in both religion and liberalism itself. Still, Family Politics provides a good starting point for all those who seek to grapple with the problem of the modern family.