Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero, The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2007); paperback ed., The Natural Family: Bulwark of Liberty (Transaction Publishers, 2008)
Reviewed by Ryan C. MacPherson
An essay appearing in the March 2005 issue of The Family in America has attracted growing attention. Entitled “The Natural Family: A Manifesto,” it was co-authored by Drs. Allan C. Carlson* and Paul T. Mero. They are the presidents of two nonprofit think-tanks addressing matters of public policy in relation to family values: Carlson directs the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society; Mero heads the Sutherland Institute. Supporters of their manifesto include the town of Kanab, Utah, which formally adopted the “vision” section, and the World Congress of Families, which, under Carlson’s leadership as international secretary, has held several global conferences calling for all nations to protect the family in accord with natural law. Carlson and Mero have expanded their original essay into a book, The Natural Family: A Manifesto (2007), which boldly presents the family as more fundamental to society than any alternative unit—whether church or government, corporation or individual.
Their vision is both timely and controversial. The transition from agrarianism to industrialism—now complete in “developed” nations and still in progress in “developing” nations—has placed tremendous strain on the family’s ability to fulfill its time-honored functions of childrearing and economic production. Economic productivity has been relocated to other spheres (the corporation in capitalist societies, or the state in socialist ones), and procreation has been redefined as a burden rather than a blessing. Moreover, marriage itself is succumbing to pressures for redefinition, as surrogate institutions now seek to fulfill its fundamental purposes and married life loses the value it once had. Lifelong commitment has given way to “no fault” divorce; intrinsically non-procreative partners (homosexuals) now are accorded “marriage” recognition by some U.S. states; and, even heterosexual couples have become accustomed to viewing childbearing and childrearing as optional features that may be avoided by contraception or abortion, or delegated to others through daycare and mass schooling. This post-family social order and the public policies undergirding it draw support from a myriad of philosophical and religious trends that became dominant by the mid twentieth century.
[Carlson and Mero] provide a road map for transcending the religious-secular divide in America’s so called ‘culture wars’ by defending the family in terms of natural law, rather than sectarian doctrine, agnostic ideology, or postmodern whims.
Of course, none of this is news. Or, more precisely, all of this is news—hotly contested news that TV viewers, radio listeners, and web surfers know all too well. Carlson and Mero, however, offer a fresh perspective from which to analyze these debates. Specifically, they provide a road map for transcending the religious-secular divide in America’s so called “culture wars” by defending the family in terms of natural law, rather than sectarian doctrine, agnostic ideology, or postmodern whims. Moreover, they more readily exercise the virtue of self-criticism than many of the partisans in the culture war. Though sympathetic in part to the Religious Right, they also lay significant blame upon the Religious Right for the downfall of the natural family’s role in American public life.
What, then, is the “natural family,” why has it been weakened, and how do Carlson and Mero propose to strengthen it?
The term “natural” refers to natural law—the self-evident moral purposes embedded in human nature (presumably by the Creator, but without too much religious specificity being required for grasping the basic idea). The “natural family,” then, is “part of the created order, imprinted on our natures, the source of bountiful joy, the fountain of new life, the bulwark of ordered liberty” (6). When a man and woman unite themselves in love, they enjoy the potential for conceiving offspring; their children will have the highest likelihood of success if the parents commit themselves to a lifelong union with each other; hence, a family is formed and the family’s continued existence is important. A culture firmly rooted on the family envisions “the home built on marriage as the source of true political sovereignty, the fountain of democracy” (12).
By emphasizing the family as the foundation of society, Carlson and Mero echo Luther’s Large Catechism with regard to the Fourth Commandment and part ways from both libertarians on the right and socialists on the left.
By emphasizing the family as the foundation of society, Carlson and Mero echo Luther’s Large Catechism with regard to the Fourth Commandment and part ways from both libertarians on the right and socialists on the left. For example, they fault the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who has inspired much of libertarian political thought, with overemphasizing individual rights at the expense of family relations. “Locke,” they explain, “carved out only a small place for marriage as a reasonable, temporary pact for procreation and early childrearing” (32). It was both ironic and inevitable that the Enlightenment’s liberation of individuals from their historic ties to the sometimes oppressive institutions of family and church would pave the way for “the grander oppressions of the twentieth century, whether in the ‘total states’ of National Socialism and Communism, or in the ‘welfare states’ of Western Europe, North America, and Australia-New Zealand” (36-37).
While libertarianism overemphasized the individual, thus fragmenting the traditional strength of families, industrialism underestimated the importance of gender, thus weakening families further still. Carlson and Mero claim that “androgyny—the negation of male and female—is a political creation, an act of war against human nature” (127-28). By treating fathers, mothers, and children simply as nondescript “employees” (as if gender and family relations had no relevance to the workplace), the modern industrial order has fostered a redefinition of personhood. People are now viewed as autonomous individuals, rather than as a social beings interdependent upon others through the family in ways shaped by gender. The authors contend that this change resulted not only in weaker families, but also in weaker individuals, who increasingly turned to a new institution for their most basic needs: the welfare state of capitalist nations or the too-often totalitarian state of socialist ones.
Carlson and Mero’s vision for the natural family, by contrast, recognizes that “Men and women exhibit profound biological and psychological differences. When united in marriage, though, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts” (15). The Natural Family thus regards the distinct and complementary natures of the two sexes as central to the functioning of families—and the functioning of societies that families form. “Everything a man does is mediated by his aptness for fatherhood. Everything that a woman does is mediated by her aptness for motherhood” (14).
To stop here might, however, risk implying that Carlson and Mero are stereotypical traditionalists who confine women to a narrowly construed domestic sphere. Though some feminist groups have targeted the authors with accusations of misogyny, The Natural Family: A Manifesto in fact offers a more nuanced, and more compelling, vision. “Nothing in our platform would prevent women from entering jobs and professions to which they aspire. We do object, however, to restrictions on the liberty of employers to recognize family relations and obligations and so reward indirectly those parents staying at home to care for their children” (21). Carlson and Mero accordingly contemplate a return to the “family wage” model, in which a man can provide for his family on one salary so that his wife can raise their children in the home if they so wish.
Their solution is a re-centering of public policy around the family. ‘Because those who run family businesses seek more than merely financial profit, they can humanize a free-market economy.’
The Natural Family: A Manifesto further envisions a revival of the family’s historic strength through home-based businesses, home-schooling, family-centered elder care, and similar efforts to renew the family as society’s core functional unit—viewing the family as something more than a merely sentimental pursuit. Here again they steer a middle course between the political left and right. On the one hand, they criticize social entitlement policies that insist upon equal pay for equal work in a framework of androgynous individualism, since this overlooks the distinct responsibilities of the single, the married, the childless, and the child-rich. Carlson and Mero seem to have in mind a repeal of certain anti-discrimination laws, so that, for example, managers facing difficult layoff decisions would be free to preference an employee working to support his stay-at-home wife and children over an employee whose spouse also is gainfully employed. (In other nations, employment law actually requires such family dynamics to be considered.) On the other hand, the authors also caution against laissez faire capitalism, since unbridled corporate greed has left families in anguish. Their solution is a re-centering of public policy around the family. “Because those who run family businesses seek more than merely financial profit, they can humanize a free-market economy” (160).
To reinvigorate the family, they propose tax code revisions, such as larger deductions and higher credits for child dependents, credits against Social Security taxes for taxpayers who care for elderly relatives in their own home, and bonus “employment” credits toward Social Security benefits for women bearing children. “The American Social Security system,” they explain, “fails to recognize the full-time care of small children as real work.…This is troubling, for there is strong evidence that existing incentives within Social Security discourage the birth of children, even though such new children are in fact needed to maintain the system in the future” (206). Why is it, they ask, that federal tax policy provides “a generous tax credit, or subsidy, without income limit to parents who purchase daycare” but provides no benefit to full-time parents caring for their own children—even though social scientists have demonstrated that the latter is better for children? (205)
Although The Natural Family: A Manifesto in many ways reinforces historic Christian teachings concerning marriage, children, and society, some claims in the book will cause Biblically oriented readers to pause. The final sentence of the manifesto essay, for example, reads: “Natural families of all races, nations, and creeds, let us unite” (28). Is this a summons to compromise doctrine? The authors do in fact celebrate the cooperation among “Catholics, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, and even a Unitarian” at the 1998 World Congress of Families (WCF) convention, which adopted a formal definition for “natural family” (184). On the other hand, Carlson and Mero are emphatic that “The WCF is not an ‘ecumenical’ campaign seeking to advance its agenda by doctrinal compromise. It is a coalition of the most orthodox believers within each denomination, church, or faith group, persons who are the least likely to compromise on their core beliefs” (187-88). They envision the WCF not as a church or religious movement, but rather as a rallying point for civic activism, “a venue where religiously-grounded family systems can respond together in a positive manner to the global spread of a militant secularism that threatens the liberties and existences of all vital faiths” (188). Insofar as the members of the above-mentioned religious groups share a similar, even if not identical, foundation in natural law, their partnership could be not merely expedient but also appropriate in the civic sphere—for example, to challenge a legislature that privileges moral relativism in a mandatory sex ed program. However, the depicting of Mormons, Jews, and Muslims as having “vital faiths” (188) alongside Christians implies theological relativism. Such phrasing risks compromising the orthodox confession that Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).
In a way, of course, all this proves one of Carlson and Mero’s points: American conservatives lost ground in the “family values” public policy debates of the 1990s in part because their diverse religious convictions drove would-be civic allies apart. “The truth hurts,” they sigh in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas (2003) decision, which declared sodomy to be a constitutionally protected right. “If we [defenders of traditional family values] were a business, we would be bankrupt. If we were a sports team, we would be in last place” (186). In addition to stronger cooperation among religiously diverse defenders of the natural family, Carlson and Mero also call for a more proactive, positive tone. “We celebrate the creation of large families as special gifts (instead of ‘opposing abortion and population control’),” etc. (187) The positive rephrasing may come easily enough, but the greater challenge for Christians will be to chart a safely navigable course in which the realms of church and state maintain their proper distinctions, while natural law advocates learn to cooperate for the state even when they disagree about the church.
Could it be that the term ‘companionship,’ which refers to same-sex friendship just as well as to spousal love, has subtly steered the consensus definition of marriage away from its natural basis in gender complementarity — and hence toward homosexual perversion?
The authors’ discussion of Robert Nisbet’s sociology of the family provides another occasion where Christian readers may pause, but this time to re-evaluate rather than defend their own views. Contemporary Christian marriage guides often speak of “three Cs”: companionship, children, and chastity. “According to Nisbet,” however, “the key qualities undergirding family authority have been duty, honor, obligation, mutual aid, and protection, not the ‘companionship’ so emphasized by liberal modernists” (60-61). Carlson and Mero thus suggest that the state should respect the family’s autonomy not because husbands and wives enjoy companionship, but instead because their complementary family roles foster economic productivity, childrearing, and other social goods. Carlson and Mero appeal to sociological data when challenging the liberal modernists who have overemphasized an individualist “right” to personal fulfillment in spousal companionship—a dubious line of thinking that has culminated in state-sanctioned “homosexual marriage.” It is worth noting in this context that the Bible speaks of Eve not simply as Adam’s “companion” but more specifically as his “helper” (Genesis 2:18). Similarly, the Lutheran Confessions identify distinct and complementary vocations for husband and wife (AC XXVI, 10) and claim that sexual difference, rooted in God’s creation, cannot be altered by human decree (SA III, XI, 2). Could it be that the term “companionship,” which refers to same-sex friendship just as well as to spousal love, has subtly steered the consensus definition of marriage away from its natural basis in gender complementarity—and hence toward homosexual perversion?
Carlson and Mero do not answer this question—nor do they directly ask it. Their book, however, is sure to provoke a lot of new questions, while also suggesting new ways to address existing questions. To what extent, and in what manner, can or should Christians, whether as individuals or in church-related organizations, promote the natural law of the family in the civic sphere? To what extent, and in what manner, may they safely partner with non-Christian defenders of natural law when doing so? Carlson and Mero have begun a discussion worth continuing. May those who have wisdom, contribute.
*Dr. Allan C. Carlson, a life-long Lutheran, participates in The Hausvater Project’s Advisory Network.
Suggested citation: MacPherson, Ryan C. “Toward a Natural Law of the Family.” Rev. of The Natural Family, by Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero. The Hausvater Project, Apr. 2009. www.hausvater.org.