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The Natural Family is the Fundamental Social Unit:
A Summons to Create Social Engineering

  Opening Remarks


Allan Carlson, Ph.D.


Opening Remarks to The World Congress of Families 15 NOVEMBER 1999

I offer here Two Themes, which I hope to show are closely interrelated:

My first theme: 

"The Family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state."
(This language is taken directly from Article 16 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

And my second theme:

We must now become creative social engineers.

Allow me to explain.

In December, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was, most clearly, a reaction to the horrors and crimes of Naziism and related ideologies during the prior fifteen years, where the concept of "race" had waged war against human dignity, with a terrible price.

It is important to remember here that, in some respects, the idea of "race" or of the "racial state" represented a perversion and corruption of the idea of family.  Naziism and its related ideologies took the reality of "genetic relationship" and, through the manipulations of pseudo-science and false history, extended it to mythical racial-nations.  In the pursuit of power and empire, the acts of marriage, human reproduction, and child rearing were also subordinated to the demands of the "racial state," again with terrible result. 

And so, a critical task after the war was to restore the concept of the authentic, real, or natural family, a task which the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took seriously.  We find in the 1948 Declaration these extraordinary proclamations:

"Article 3:  Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."

"Article 12:  No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…."

"Article 16:  (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.… (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.  (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State."

"Article 17:  Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others."

"Article 23:  Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection."

"Article 25:  Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and protection."

And "Article 26:  Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."

These are concise and powerful statements in affirmation of family living.  They directly affirm:

  • the unqualified right to life of all individuals;

  • the reality of family autonomy relative to the state;

  • the absolute right of men and women "of full age" to marry and procreate without state interference;

  • the place of the family as the fundamental base of society, one deserving special protection

  • the linkage of family and liberty to property;

  • the moral imperative of a family wage;

  • the special social, cultural, and policy status of motherhood and children;

  • and the "prior right" of parents to direct the education of their children. 

Our call in this Congress to promote the stability, autonomy, and fecundity of the natural family is wholly consistent with--indeed it is in the full spirit of--this Declaration.  Many of us, I believe, would say that we ask nothing more than that the nations of the world, and The United Nations itself and its allied bodies, fulfill the family-centered promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 But unfortunately, it would be incorrect to conclude that all is well with the natural family as the Second Millennium draws to a close, or that a positive family worldview governs contemporary international deliberations.  Although the systematic use of "race" as a corruption of the true human family system has largely disappeared, other ideological corruptions of the family idea have taken its place.  And signs of disarray--marriages delayed or foregone, mounting levels of desertion and divorce, a diminished valuation of children evidenced in both child abuse and below-replacement fertility--these steadily mount.  In seeking a family-centric and child-friendly world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights still has much work to do.

One contemporary ideological corruption of family, which I shall call "collectivism" here, assumes that the whole of a "society" can be operated on the family economic principle of altruism:  from each person according to his or her ability, to each person according to his or her need.  This is a rich and beautiful ideal, and the vision does in fact work well within family households and some other entities, such as the self-sufficient village or the religious community.  But it must be emphasized that this form of altruism can operate only in small places, where the character and practical strengths and weaknesses of each individual are known, and where the face of love can function on a direct human scale.  When this vision is made the organizing principle of a whole society, the result is human tragedy, and the very opposite of altruism and love.

Another contemporary corruption seeks to lift persons completely out of their human family connections; to supplant the bonds of men and women in marriage, of parents to their children, and of the generations by focusing solely on the isolated individual, and that individual's relationship to the economy and the state.

Some would call this pure liberalism, but that does violence to the original liberal ideal.  As the political philosopher John Locke explained in his treatise, Of Civil Government, the liberation of grown children from the legal authority of their parents never implied liberation from other, and more fundamental, authorities and bonds.  He wrote:

God having made the parents instruments in His great design of continuing the race of mankind, and the occasion of life to their children…,  so He hath laid on the children a perpetual obligation of honoring their parents which containing in it an inward esteem and reverence to be shown by all outward expressions, ties up the child from anything that may ever injure or affront, disturb, or endanger the happiness or life of those from whom he received his…. From this obligation no state, no freedom, can absolve the children.

True liberalism can only operate within this framework of Divine order and respect for family obligations. 

Over the last half century, though, God and family have commonly been lifted out of the liberal system, an action that has created a very different political order:  one centered on the unfettered individual; one that we might label atomistic.  Political and economic liberty--the goals of a liberal polity--actually have given way under the regime of atomism to new forms of dependency:  reliance on either the "post family" bureaucratic state, which ignores marriage and trivializes parent-child bonds; or on the growing economic power of secular, multi-national corporations; or on both.  In any of these cases, the place of the family as the "fundamental…unit of society" is overturned, a danger anticipated, I believe, by the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This document also deserves praise for its careful description of "the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society."  In using this term, "natural," the authors of the Declaration chose not to use the common phrase, "traditional," to describe the family, and in this they were very wise.

For largely by 1948, and almost completely by 1999, the whole of the truly "traditional" world had already passed away.  By "traditional," I mean a society where a whole way of life is dictated by birth into a web of customary, unquestioned assumptions:  in sociological parlance, birth into a gemeinschaft community of unblinking submission to the existing way of things.

The contrast here is with the "modern" world, a regime resting on the reality (or at least the illusion) of choice and intent.  In our so-called global village, almost everyone now lives under the modern regime of choice and intent; that is, persons know they could live in different ways.  Except perhaps for a few tribal groups untouched by the consumer economy, the international media, or government, we are all "moderns" now.

But the architects of the Universal Declaration understood that the family stood outside both the regime of "tradition" and the regime of "choice."  They used the word, "natural," to convey their understanding that the human family system had its basis in human nature:  that is, in the very biological and psychological makeup of men and women.  This means that our very identity as human beings impels us toward family life; toward marriage and children.  A religious person would probably explain this as the consequence of Divine intent, in the Creation.  The person of science could explain this as a consequence of ten thousand generations of human evolution.[2]  The conclusion, though, would be the same:  to be human is to be familial.

The architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also understood that this family system grounded on marriage and procreation was universal:  to be found all over the globe.  On questions of family life, religious, racial, national, and geographic differences were overwhelmed by the commonality of the human experience, rooted in the unity of human nature. 

It was in the same spirit that a group of twenty-five, from all the inhabited continents, met in Rome last year to craft this definition of the "natural family":

The natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed by the Creator in human nature and centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage for the purposes of:

  • Satisfying the longings of the human heart to give and receive love;

  • Welcoming and ensuring the full physical and emotional development of children;

  • Sharing a home that serves as the center for social, educational, economic, and spiritual life;

  • Building strong bonds among the generations, passing on a way of life that has transcendent meaning; and

  • Extending a hand of compassion to individuals and households whose circumstances fall short of these ideals.

This definition is, I believe, in full harmony with the Universal Declaration's description of "the family" as "natural," and it is at the core of our work here in the Congress.

But where, then, are we left?  How do we fit this "natural" family into our "modern" world, with its own ideological corruptions, in a way that promotes another goal of the Universal Declaration:  "the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world"? 
My answer is this:  We must all become good social engineers.
  This answer may upset many, who correctly see certain forms of "social engineering" as a cause of contemporary family disarray.  But in using this phrase, I actually draw my inspiration from a most special and unexpected place:  The Old Order Amish of North America. 

On the surface, the Amish appear to be one of the few communities in the developed world where "tradition" still holds absolute sway, and where the modern process of "social engineering" would be the least likely to be found.  After all, the Amish still use horses for field work and transportation. They wear clothing that, in its basic design, is unchanged for hundreds of years.  They end the basic education of their children at age 13 or 14, and rely thereafter on old-fashioned apprenticeships in farming, craftwork, gardening, and homemaking.  How can these apparent slaves to agrarian tradition be called exemplary "social engineers"?

The answer lies in what sociologist Donald Kraybill calls "The Riddle of Amish Culture."[3]  For it is simply not true that the Amish reject all technological innovations or changes in their way of life.  In recent decades, for example, gas refrigerators have replaced iceboxes and hydraulic water pumps have replaced hand pumps on Amish homesteads.  Wood fired cook stoves have given way to modern gas ranges.  Gasoline engines power hay-bailers, while air-powered sewing machines are displacing tredle machines and Amishmen stand among the world's finest hydraulic engineers.

The truth is that the Amish have learned how to build and use "moving cultural fences" to protect their communities from the arbitrary intrusion of both alien values and new technologies.  Instead of "surrendering" to modernity, they have learned to bargain with it.  The bishops of this religious community understand their role as "watchmen on the walls," responsible for guarding their flock from the "little foxes" of worldliness--of modernity--who would dig under the walls and undermine the vital bonds of community.  They engage in "selective modernization," where they judge potential changes and innovations against a set of fixed standards.  While successful competitors in a market economy and while growing rapidly (from 5,000 in 1900 to an estimated 150,000 in 1999), the Old Order Amish have learned to be masters of change rather its slaves, and to keep "modernity" subservient to their community's values and goals.  It is in this sense they are the world's foremost social engineers.

Their central achievement, I believe, has been their refusal to let industrialization in all its forms oust the major functions of life from their homes.  With fierce obstinance, they have defended "family integrity" and the functional nature of the family.  Education and certain form of primary production are still home-centered.  Family members are functionally interdependent:  these are people who still need each other, where the economic and the sexual are bound together in love.  And in consequence, their families are larger and stronger.  Divorce is rare.  And as Kraybill summarizes:  "Marriage is highly esteemed and raising a family is the professional career of Amish adults." 

Theirs is a family-centric world, full of life, children's laughter, and essential security.  The typical Amish family has seven children; the typical elderly couple will have 45 grandchildren; the typical child will have 75 first cousins.  Contrast this with the near future of many so-called "developed" lands where, in the wake of the Second Fertility Transition focused on the 'one child' family, over half of the population will have no brothers or sisters, no aunts and uncles, and no cousins. 

And so, my point is this:  While the details will surely differ, family reconstruction in our time must work from some of the same principles used by the Amish.  That is:

  • married couples must intentionally create homes that fiercely defend "family integrity" and embrace certain primary human functions, such as education, or child care, or food production, or basic craft skills;

  • technological and cultural innovations must be judged against fixed standards of social health, particularly the stability, political autonomy, and fecundity of the natural family; and

  • family, religious, and community leaders must serve as gatekeepers, protecting their members from the anarchy of mindless, ruinous change.

This is the social engineering most needed in our time:  the kind that will protect the natural family and allow it to thrive. 

We are gathered here, toward that end.  And we are gathered here in the spirit of those delegates from the nations of the world who, fifty-one years ago, sought to protect those very same principles in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Let this Congress begin….

[1]   John Locke, Of Civil Government (Chicago:  Regnery Gateway, 1955):  52.

[2]   See:  C. Owen Lovejoy, "The Origin of Man," Science 211 (23 January 1981):  348.  Lovejoy surveys here the paleo-anthropological record and concludes:  "[B]oth advanced material culture and the Pleistocene acceleration in brain development are sequelae to an already established hominid character system, which included intensified parenting and social relationships, monogamous pair-bonding, specialized sexual-reproductive behavior [by male and female], and bipedality.  It implies that the nuclear family and [monogamous] human sexual behavior may have their origin long before the Pleistocene."

[3]   The following discussion draws extensively on this book.  Full citation:  Donald B. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture (Baltimore and London:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).






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