JUNE 5, 2003
All Families, All Forms
I am a Presbyterian minister and one of the consultants called on by my denomination to examine the issue of changing families, the impact of these changes on children, and the social structures, policies, and programs that would enable the church to support and nurture families and children. Martin Marty examined Dr. Don Browning's critique of the document we created ("Living Faithfully with Families in Transition") in his Sightings column of May 19. As stated in that column, one focus of the document is the question of family forms and whether form is the key to family well-being.
Dr. Browning and his colleagues in the Marriage Movement have answered this question with a resounding "yes." As he states in his critique, " good family process is important, but on the whole, intact married couples do a better job of it. Why? They are on average more invested in both their children and each other." His use of "on the whole" and "on average" is noteworthy. Social science researchers are in agreement that about 90 percent of the children of intact (married, two-biological parents) families do fine (score in the normal range) in achievement and adjustment tests. About 75-80 percent of children who have experienced divorce (are in stepfamilies or single-parent homes) also do fine (score in the normal range). As such, there is a 10-15 percent difference to be accounted for.
Here's where Browning stumbles. He accuses the report of trivializing the real suffering of the 10-15 percent that are not doing fine. He draws the following analogy: "Take cigarettes: would the authors of the report say that the majority of smokers is just fine since only one in three smokers die?" Browning is confusing correlation with causation. We know how the chemicals in tobacco harm body tissues and functions. Can we say the same about family form?
Sara McLanahan, a major family researcher and source of these statistics (Growing Up with a Single Parent), argues that about 50 percent of this 10-15 percent difference is due to economic factors -- that is, the greater poverty that plagues single mother families -- and the rest to other economically-related issues such as the greater housing instability of low-income families.
How should we interpret this data? The Presbyterian report examines in depth the changing economic factors that now require two-earner families and how this form fosters economic well-being. Whatever happened to the single-earner family and the 40-hour work week? Does marriage eliminate poverty for workers earning poverty-level wages? And what about the 75-80 percent of the children of single-parent families and stepfamilies who are doing "just fine." The Presbyterian report refuses to ignore or stigmatize the faithful work of these families who are obviously invested in their children.
Nor does the Bible provide us, as some would argue, with one, divinely mandated, family form. What the Bible does show us is the importance of families, the cultural origins of family forms, and the constant temptation to give divine sanction to one family form at the expense of doing justice for others. The prophetic concern was for widows, orphans, sojourners, and the poor -- those outside the protection of the dominant kin system and those whose survival was at great risk when social resources were appropriated by privileged families.
In place of that system of self-serving family loyalty, Jesus envisioned a new family defined by a shared faith in God as Father. For many African-American and Hispanic congregations, the work that is required to provide material, psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being flows unrestricted by biological or legal ties. The congregation is extended family to its families regardless of form. This is quite a different vision of church than that of a gathering of self-sufficient nuclear families. Neither vision denigrates marriage, but one is informed by the realities of life lived by communities subject to racial discrimination and economic deprivation.
Browning's charge of "elitism" is ironic. The report carefully acknowledges the privileged socioeconomics of most Presbyterians and documents the concrete differences faced by families in different contexts as well as the different responses that their support requires. It speaks truth-to-power. The growing concentration of income and wealth in the hands of the privileged few is not a policy that values families. The just relations envisioned by the "Reign of God" require a society in which all forms of family -- intact married families, single-parent families, stepfamilies, or other forms of families (singles, adults caring for unrelated children and so forth) -- are supported by socioeconomic conditions and policies that sustain their commitment to one another.
It takes courage to listen.
Gloria Albrecht is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, a Presbyterian minister, and a contributor to "Living Faithfully with Families in Transition," the Presbyterian Church (USA) Report on Families. Her recent work includes Hitting Home: Feminist Ethics, Women's Work, and the Betraylal of 'Family Values.'