The New Christian Right’s View of the Family and Its Social Science Critics: A Study in Differing Presuppositions

Patrick H. McNamara

Patrick H. McNamara, “The New Christian Right’s View of the Family and Its Social Science Critics: A Study in Differing Presuppositions,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 285–302.

Patrick H. McNamara was an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico when this was published. He received his PhD at UCLA, where he was a research associate with the Ford Foundation-sponsored Mexican American Study Project.


The problems of the nature of social order and its relationship to individual action are recurring central issues in the social sciences (Alexander, 1982). These order and action issues, couched in the form of structures and roles, plus individual freedom and activities, are familiar themes in the writings of contemporary family researcher/theorists. The social order vs. individual freedom dilemma is explored by John Scanzoni in Shaping Tomorrow’s Family (1983). Taking into account feminist critiques of female subordination in what Scanzoni calls the “conventional family” and aware of the rapid growth of single-parent families, dual wage-earner households, and the dramatic shrinkage in number of father-working/ mother-staying-at-home-with-children families, Scanzoni contrasts two models of the family. “Conservatives,” viewing society as an organic whole, see the family threatened with dissolution as ascendant individualism and insistence upon “freedom” and “rights” (action) erode authoritative hierarchical norms (order) once governing family relationships. Since family and society “constitute one organic whole,” modern cries for individual freedom and self-fulfillment must be resisted and authority and discipline restored if society as we know it is to endure. (Scanzoni, 1983: 56.)

Scanzoni explicitly embraces his second model, which he terms the “progressive” view of the family. This viewpoint holds that equal-partner relationships and a negotiatory model of husband-wife and parent-child relationships constitute the basis of a family form compatible with the basic dynamic of Western societies—participatory democracy. The conservative model, with its patriarchy-based hierarchical relationships requiring subordination of some human beings to others, is simply “out of phase” with Western democratic trends (1983: 93); a “morphostatic” script of fixed roles and behavioral prescriptions ill prepares children to take their places in a dynamically changing society insistent upon individual self-fulfillment and freedom to choose one’s roles and to modify them as one desires. Scanzoni is well aware of the challenge to “progressives” to integrate the individual’s ideals of action along the lines of freedom and personal growth with those ideals pointing toward the social order’s required commitment, trust, and responsible caring for children; but he is convinced a more flexible conception of family structure and roles can effect this reconciliation (1983: 193–94).

The New Christian Right’s (hereafter NCR) view of the family is one example of the “conservative” model and recently has drawn the critical attention of social scientists, notably authors represented in the D’Antonio and Al-dous volume, Families and Religions (1983). Barbara Hargrove sees the rise of the so-called Moral Majority as “a demand for the reassertion of the authority of the church over the family, and of the family over the individual, more in the pattern of earlier stages of modernization” (1983a: 45). While some evangelicals, according to Hargrove, acknowledge that the family is changing “even among their own members” and advocate counseling and other forms of support to deal with the changes, “the more militant evangelicals” refuse to compromise with changing sex roles or with premarital sexuality or abortion. “All these changes are viewed as a Satanic attack on the very foundations of Christian morality, to be resisted at all costs.” (Hargrove, 1983b: 136.) External regulation of a world in which “civilization is defined as control” is a hallmark of conservative Protestant views on the family, says Hargrove (1983b: 137). Sexual repression is far from unhealthy; it is God-ordained and promotes respect for the other person. A wife submissive to her husband expresses the will of God as revealed in scripture. While an “accent on individualism and its necessary correlate, freedom of choice,” has influenced the stances of mainline Protestant churches more adaptive to modern culture (1983b: 121), Hargrove points out that conservative Protestants see an issue framed by their opponents as “freedom” (abortion is a good example) “simply as one of expressing willingness or unwillingness to obey the will of God, whose power is evident in the fact of conception” (1983a: 39).

Further pursuing conservative/mainline contrasts, D’Antonio points to three major religious values affecting the family, but susceptible to varying interpretations as they are applied. Conservative Protestants concretize these values in specific normative terms: (a) sacredness of life is defined vis-à-vis divorce and abortion; (b) patriarchy is expressed in obedience of wife to husband and children to parents, together with the prohibition of women at the altar; (c) concern for others remains focused on a person-to-person level and does not include an obligation to change oppressive institutional structures. By contrast, mainline Protestant as well as Catholic theologians “have been struggling to develop an ethic of developmental sexuality and personality growth that changes the focus away from the negative control mechanisms (sex as sinful, immoral behavior) and toward greater concern for the integrity of individuals” (1983: 103). D’Antonio’s principal contention in this essay, however, is that conservative Christians, in supporting the free enterprise system and individual entrepreneurship—which have given rise to and, in turn, been supported by values of equality, freedom, and the right to self-fulfillment—will ultimately be unable to restore their cherished mechanisms of social control. They fail to recognize how closely the legitimacy of the very norms and values they fear (individual freedom, etc.) “is tied to dominant economic and political structures” which they support (1983: 105). D’Antonio’s comment is succinct and pointed:

The struggle of the Moral Majority to restore the mechanisms seems doomed because, in fact, less than one-third of the adult population supports them. The irony is that the Moral Majority supports the social structures and the ideology of the larger society that make improbable coexistence of traditional family structures and values. (1983: 105–6.)

A direct focus of New Christian Right Moral Majority views of threats to the family characterizes Jeffrey Hadden’s essay in the above-cited volume. Hadden is explicitly critical of such views and points out that (a) little space or time is given to elaborating positive functions of the family in NCR’s critique of modern culture. What is wrong with American families is stressed at the expense of “roles of nurture, love and support” (1983: 254). Adultery, abortion, premarital sex, divorce, and remarriage receive more elaboration than finding new and creative ways of showing and maintaining parent-child love and husband-wife affection in the face of such pressures as dual wage-earner families, etc. Instead, (b) “the overwhelming message that comes across in their printed and audiovisual messages” is that the family as an institution is principally charged with control over the “base impulses of human beings” (1983: 254). Family members are all human beings weakened by original sin who can too easily go astray without obedience to biblical injunctions concerning discipline of children; submissiveness of wives to husbands; and husbands’ avoidance of temptations to anger, lust, and drunkenness, (c) No clear cause-and-effect analysis appears for the alleged evils attacking the family (divorce, abortion, etc.). These are sometimes cited as actively destroying the family; at other times, the breakdown of Christian values is what permits them to flourish (1983). (d) A theology of love is too little evident. NCR fails to spell out “how love could overcome the tensions and contradictions of modern life” (1983: 265). These approaches are pictured as reducing NCR’s potential for gaining a broader following among Americans concerned with tensions between family and society, yet who are unable to agree with fundamentalist catalogues of evils (“too much permissiveness,” etc.) and remedies (firmer discipline, wives remaining at home, etc.).


Both approaches to the conservative family model sketched above—the explicitly critical review by Scanzoni and the more implicit critiques of NCR ideology by Hargrove (1983a), D’Antonio (1983), and Hadden (1983)—are based on presuppositions that deserve clarification in a broader context of alternative models of scientific theory and methodological procedure. Much of the above social scientific analysis of NCR families is informed by presuppositions that result in a tendency to describe NCR views of the family as unprogressive and, therefore, out of phase with modern values. By emphasizing the social control dimensions, the NCR view of the family fails to address pressing contemporary needs, and freedom. These presuppositions act as blinders preventing social scientists from seeing dimensions of the NCR position that emphasize agency and personal autonomy. This failure by social scientists to perceive relevant dimensions of the family discussed by NCR “insiders” results in a blockage of what Max Weber (1978) called the act of verstehen, whereby the meanings social actors bring to their beliefs and activities are grasped (or attempt is made to do so). The purposes of this treatise, then, are to (a) place the discussion of the NCR family within the larger issue of the role of presuppositions in differing models of scientific theory and methodological procedures; (b) articulate the presuppositions and resultant blind spots inherent in the worldview portrayed by social scientists’ critiques of NCR families; (c) develop, from sources not utilized by social scientist “critics,” an “insider’s” view of NCR family worldviews, with the attendant presuppositions; and (d) draw conclusions pointing to ways in which NCR family ideology can be understood better as a result of making clear the relevant presuppositions. It is hoped that these purposes will contribute in a small way toward better understanding and to ways of realizing how religion and family values combine to meet individual and group needs.

Presuppositions and Postpositivist Thought

Brown (1977) and Suppe (1977) have reviewed the process by which philosophers of science in the twentieth century—such as Polanyi, Popper, Hanson, and Kuhn, to cite but a few—have moved away from the long-established terrain of positivism or logical empiricism, with its sharp separation of data or facts on the one hand and theory on the other. For the positivist, empirical facts are knowable and known antecedently to the interpretive overlay of the mind with its theoretical conceptions. In fact, objectivity is assured only if “the facts” are available for anyone to see; understanding is provided by the human mind bringing to bear theoretical formulations that “make sense” out of that which is evident to any observer. Progress occurs as theoretical frameworks are refined to effect a more comprehensive and parsimonious explanation of the data, or when a new paradigm (Kuhn, 1970) arises to displace a previous one and better account for the data at hand. In any case, the world of sensory data and the world of theoretical formulations remain two separate worlds and must be so if science is to be “objective” and “verifiable.”

The postpositivist view holds that empirical data are never simply “seen” atheoretically. Theoretical presuppositions are at work in the very act of looking at the world around us; an act of observing is already theory-laden. Every scientist and layperson brings presuppositions to the most basic activities of observing, thinking about, and attempting to make sense out of the data he or she confronts. These presuppositions are essential to understand what Brown refers to as “the new image of science”:

Science consists of a sequence of research projects structured by accepted presuppositions which determine what observations are to be made, how they are to be interpreted, what phenomena are problematic, and how these problems are to be dealt with. When the presuppositions of a scientific discipline change, . . . the scientist’s picture of reality [is] changed. (1977: 166.)

Sociological theorists also have used the critique of positivism as a point of departure. Jeffrey Alexander begins his search for a “theoretical logic” for sociology by reviewing the antipositivist critique and subsequently focuses on “the postpositivist persuasion” which entails, in part, clarifying those “problematic presuppositional decisions that fragment generalized sociological debate” (1982: 69). In summary, Alexander’s work demonstrates the importance of examining and clarifying one’s presuppositions.

Family theorists Thomas and Edmondson have explored the significance of postpositivist thinking for theoretical work focusing on the family. They argue that family theory of the postpositivist variety generates knowledge that is “increasingly seen as constructed knowledge rather than discovered knowledge in the positivistic sense” (1986: 61). They ask to what extent “truth claims emanating from family theory” will be “based on a foundation of consensus of the scientific community,” rather than upon a positivist “correspondence” theory of data with scientist’s knowledge (1986: 62). Furthermore, they ask if the “consensus criteria of knowledge” will serve the interest of theorists “who believe they have an emancipatory responsibility when it comes to the study of the family,” a question relevant both to theorists and to family practitioners and therapists (1986: 63). At stake here are knowledge claims about the family and the basis of such claims. If the postpositivist family theory calls attention to the constructed nature of scientific knowledge relying on the consensus view of “truth claims,” and if it also assumes that “agency and intentionality” of family actors is part of the reality of family life, then the necessity of making explicit the underlying presuppositions is apparent.

The hitherto common portraits of NCR-conservative families and family ideals as unprogressive and out of phase with modern society are themselves based upon taken-for-granted presuppositions. The “new image of science” is helpful, for, in bringing out the inevitability of the observer’s prior theoretical convictions or notions, it strongly suggests the ethical desirability of acknowledging and examining one’s presuppositions. Of no less importance, it underlines the centrality of actors’ own beliefs, viewpoints, intentions, and behaviors. These must be grasped if a genuine understanding of a group is to be achieved and the researchers’ presuppositions made explicit.

Presuppositions in Sociological Critiques of NCR Family Ideals

Warner’s work (1979) is one of the few efforts to identify presuppositional biases of social scientists who examine various religious groups. He observes that evangelical Christianity is often “overlooked, or discounted, stereotyped, and patronized” by sociologists. Sociologists tend to see concern for personal challenge—that is, to get one’s own moral life in order—as somehow secondary to social challenge or the effort to identify and criticize those socioeconomic structures that inhibit individuals and groups from attaining a fuller human existence. Second, sociologists inherit an evolutionary bias which sees the Western world as increasingly disenchanted (the Weberian legacy). Through this bias theological liberalism is seen as an advance in sensible adaptation and compromise, while contemporary evangelicalism is “a temporary and retrogressive, albeit disruptive, phenomenon, a symptom of the growing pains of society” (1979: 7). Its belief system is a kind of anachronism. Finally, social scientists, in Warner’s view, too easily fall prey to a “we versus they” mentality in which “we” are more privileged and enlightened, while “they” are backward and unenlightened.

To the degree that social analysts adopt such a view, they are unable to analyze the degree to which popular evangelicalism meets cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal needs often unmet in the larger culture or in alternative systems of faith (Warner, 1979: 8). In these typical social science analyses, the demands of the inner life are neglected, and personal agency and autonomy exercised in the choice to examine one’s own life and put it in order according to an internalized ethic of repentance and freedom from sin is not acknowledged. In addition to the general presuppositional biases discussed above, Warner’s analysis introduces some specific presuppositions more or less latent in the critiques of Scanzoni (1983), Hargrove (1983a), and D’Antonio (1983).

First, the socioeconomic structures of the larger society constitute formidable pressures that must be adapted to if intolerable strain and contradictions are not to invade family relationships. For Scanzoni, Western participatory democracy is an overriding dynamic whose impact families cannot and should not try to counter. This dynamic has set in motion irresistible trends toward husband-wife equality and toward negotiatory rather than strictly authoritative disciplining of children. Tension is bound to characterize any family role, relationship, or policy that reasserts or reflects hierarchical relationships. For D’Antonio, the demands of a bureaucratized work world, an inflationary economy, a consumer society “selling” a higher material standard of living to all comers are forces whose impact is not just underrecognized by NCR advocates; NCR actively supports the structures and ideologies (free enterprise) of advanced Western capitalist structures and ideologies deeply affecting family life today.

Second, loving relationships cannot easily develop nor be fully expressed in “fixed-role structures,” which are simply incompatible with the dynamics of change characterizing Western societies. Scanzoni reviews at some length Swidler’s four dimensions along which the meaning of love is changing in today’s world, (a) “Choice vs. commitment”: love as commitment involves “fixed unswerving loyalty—’my partner right or wrong no matter what the cost’ “; such a notion cannot coexist with demands for continual growth and change, (b) “Rebellion vs. attachment”: here “rebellion” indicates a modern “restlessness” in search of meaning wholly out of “sync” with the modern drive for honesty and equality in relationships. The latter cluster of virtues demands constant “negotiation and negotiation of personal relationships.” (c) “Self-realization vs. self-sacrifice”: in traditional relationships spouses feel obligated to sacrifice for one another. In the newer mode, self-development is the norm. Each partner has a right to pursue what will fulfill him or her, though not without some mutual yielding to “maximize joint profit.” (d) “Libidinal expression vs. restraint”: the former phrase is more in accord with the modern drive for enhancing individual growth and allowing for new experiences including freedom in emotional expressivity. (Scanzoni, 1983: 74–81, quoting Swidler, 1980.) These characterizations reinforce Scanzoni’s conviction that “morphostatic” relationships of traditional marriages, celebrated by conservative spokespersons, engender tensions between husbands and wives and parents and children; “we are entering an era in which negotiation processes are becoming a way of life permeating family as well as all other institutions” (Scanzoni, 1983: 153; emphasis in original).

Third, as Hadden and other critics who focus on NCR worldviews assume (as distinguished from those of conservative families), there is very little of a “positive” theology of love, nurture, and support and considerable emphasis on the need for social control. The “Christian admonitions” seem rooted in negatives and in warnings to avoid and oppose current trends—divorce, adultery, ERA, women working full-time outside the home, etc. The family is a locus where control mechanisms must be employed. The emphasis, thus, is on disciplining children rather than on ways of showing love and affection; wives’ subordination to husbands takes precedence over shared love and mutual growth and equal-partner decision making.

In summary, in the very “act of observing” NCR families and/or family ideals, the social scientists cited previously bring with them fundamental assumptions that are rooted in values widely shared and disseminated within the social science community and within the ranks of those having received a “secular” higher educational experience and, finally, shared also by “mainline” church theologians. Elaborated above, these assumptions reflect a bedrock conviction not always articulated: each human being, born with practically unlimited potential for growth and development, must be allowed within the family, as well as in other social institutions, maximum freedom for self-development and the fullest self-expression. Subordinate roles are inconsistent with this ideal and must be changed toward partnership roles. This conviction constitutes a “truth claim” whose consequences, as Warner has indicated, are a tendency to relegate NCR family ideals to the categories of backward and unenlightened, and a blindness to the personal and group needs that these ideals, norms, and practices may serve within the NCR community of families. It is to these needs, ideals, and presuppositions that we now turn.

Presuppositions of the Christian Family Viewed through Pastoral Literature

The presuppositions discussed above make it difficult for researchers “carrying” them to utilize Weber’s verstehen approach to understanding social actors. If, as Thomas and Edmondson indicate, the postpositivist view of family theory requires attention to “agency and reasons for behavior” or “intentionality” (1984: 65; emphasis in the original), it is indeed crucial methodologically to grasp in as much detail as possible how NCR believers themselves view the family.

Marsden (1983) provides a helpful starting point. He points out that contemporary fundamentalism has several dimensions which include a polemical side and private or faith-nurturing side. NCR critics rely a great deal on published sermons and books, which deliberately stress the polemical side of the New Christian Right. LaHaye’s The Battle for the Family (1982), cited by Hadden (1983), is an excellent example. These polemics frequently state “conservative” positions in the strongest possible terms which, understandably, draw critical comment from “liberal” social scientists; and these, in turn, encourage more counterstatements from NCR authors.

Neglected in these polemical exchanges is the realm of pastoral literature and exhortations, both written and on cassette tapes readily obtainable. Why is this literature important? It is precisely within it that (a) the loving, nurturing, and caring dimensions of the NCR worldview on the family are to be found, as well as (b) a broader understanding of NCR presuppositions implicit in both pastoral and polemical literature.

An important source of popular pastoral material on the family is the work of Tim LaHaye and his wife Beverly. LaHaye is a member of the Executive Board of Moral Majority and the author of a dozen books. While citing LaHaye’s polemical treatise, The Battle for the Family (1982), Hadden neglects to cite, much less analyze, Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s Spirit-Controlled Family Living (1978). Another example of pastoral literature from NCR is a 3-cassette “Family Seminar Packet” by Dr. Ed Hindson (1978), director of the Christian Counseling Center at the Thomas Road Baptist Church of which Jerry Falwell is pastor. While polemics are by no means absent from these sources, their overall thrust is toward articulating a theological and pastoral framework designed to be helpful to families and particularly to parents, trying to find a “formula for a successful family” (Hindson’s title for the tape series).

The LaHayes open the book by stating flatly that “the family is the most important factor in our lives” (1978: 18). Without fulfillment through the family, “nothing else in life really matters” (1978: 18). Those attaining success in business, the professions, or the arts in later life, only “to spend their final years in despair,” are in such a state because “they become alienated from their families a n d . . . [have] sacrificed family to gain notoriety (1978: 18). The family, too, “is easily the most important single influence” in a child’s life. If a child is raised in a family in which “the father rebels against authority,” the child will grow up “taking advantage of his fellow man.” By contrast, a child growing up “in a loving home, where values are communicated, and laws are respected,” will become a productive adult “who makes a significant contribution to society” (1978: 19). On the other hand, a “child-centered home” is an aberration. The primary love relationship in the home must be that of husband and wife, from which will emerge an atmosphere in which “any child will flourish” (1978: 24).

Supportive relationships in the family are particularly essential today because of the “eight causes for today’s family breakdown.” These “causes” will sound familiar to many readers because they are elements of the more publicized and discussed polemical literature and may be briefly stated as follows: dominance of atheistic, anti-Christian humanism in schools and the media; sexual immorality and promiscuity; legalization of pornography; divorce made too easy; the permissive philosophy of child-rearing promoted in the last generation by Dr. Spock; women in the labor force; the morality of women’s liberation; and urbanized living, which makes for uprootedness and is inimical to development of solid community-supported moral norms.

Discussion of these “causes,” however, occupies only the book’s opening three chapters. The remaining seven concentrate on pastoral theology and counseling themes. In these themes can be seen most clearly the distinctive presuppositions of NCR family ideology. The LaHayes cite six “basic enemies” of home and marriage: (a) anger, hostility, and bitterness as a first cluster; (b) worry and anxiety; (c) selfishness; (d) infidelity; (e) self-rejection; and (f) depression. These enemies of Christian family living “grieve or quench the Holy Spirit and limit His use of our lives” (1978: 79). Husband and wife are urged to discuss these when they arise in family life. For each problem area, the basic formula of Spirit-filled family living is to be applied: facing the problem as a sinful area, confessing it, asking God to remove the problem or habit, asking for the filling of the Spirit in one’s life, thanking God for assistance and whatever success is achieved, repeating the formula when the problem arises again. Supportive biblical quotations illustrate each discussion of a problem area, together with examples of persons who have achieved success in overcoming these difficulties. (1978: 40–46.)

The first of two major presuppositions informs all of the proposed strategies offered for handling these problems: (a) By exercising personal agency and so choosing, one can change his/her life by seeking spiritual input. The worldview so portrayed describes the human condition as peopled with responsible agents and a social and/or “spiritual” reality which includes influences other than those attributed to a materialistic this-world view limited to matter-in-motion conceptualizations.

The second presupposition is illustrated by Beverly LaHaye as she discusses the “roles of the wife” within the governing evangelical norm of submission of wife to husband and submission of both to God. Submission, she insists, does not mean reduction to slavery or an inferior or unequal status. “She is a subordinate, a vice-president, who serves directly under the head of the household or the president, who is her husband” (1978: 82). Yet,

submission does not involve closing her mouth, shutting off her brain, and surrendering her individuality. The loving husband who is wise will seek the insights of his wife before he makes the final decision. We have found in our own marriage that we repeatedly see things differently and frequently do not agree on how to approach difficult circumstances. Because Tim has allowed me to develop my own thoughts and feelings, thus retaining my uniqueness, he listens respectfully to my counsel and considers it carefully before making the final decision. (1978: 83.)

Within the LaHayes’ framework the believing wife can develop multiple roles of home manager, lover, attentive mother, and teacher. Unity of husband and wife results in unity “on the teaching and disciplining of their children,” with the book of Proverbs—a chapter from which should be read daily by parents—a principal guide (1978: 104). An example of the latter is provided by the LaHayes: “And have joy of the wife of your youth. Her love will invigorate you always; through her love you will flourish continually.” (Proverbs 5:17–19.)

Tim LaHaye’s chapter on “the roles of the husband” emphasizes the headship of the husband and the husband’s obligation to assume the role of leader in the home. Decisions are not, however, to be made without hearing and evaluating the wife’s views nor without scrutinizing one’s motivation. “Always pray for the decision-making wisdom which God promises to provide” (1978: 110). In a section entitled “Handling Spirit-filled Disagreements,” LaHaye proposes a negotiatory process in settling differences, recommending prayer by both husband and wife, and stating that God “will cause one of us to acquiesce joyfully with the other’s point of view, or many times He will lead us to an entirely different decision” (1978: 114). Respect for the wife by the husband is essential to maintaining a love relationship in any decision-making context. A lengthy subsection is devoted to discussion and illustration of the major virtues of love found in 1 Corinthians 13: the husband is to be unselfish, gracious, trusting, sincere, polite, generous, humble, kind, and patient. Love that has “sputtered” is to be countered by mutual discussion of the problems, or “walking together in the Spirit”; by refusing to dwell on “insults, hurts, or weaknesses of your partner” (1978: 129) and by “thanking God for ten things about your partner, twice daily for three weeks” (1978: 130). The husband as “family priest” will strive to be a “Spirit-controlled man” who regularly reads the Bible, shares his reading with the children and discusses the reading with them, and leads family devotions.

Hindson’s tapes, Formula for a Successful Family (1978), while stressing the hierarchical structure of the family—obedience of wife to husband and of children to parents—contain much the same kind of practical pastoral advice for mothers and fathers in a context of mutual prayer and reading of the Bible. Hindson urges fathers to be fully and undistractedly present to their wives and children since they will be judged on their performance of these responsibilities rather than on success in their careers.

The same scriptural passages that command the wife to obey her husband command the husband to love his wive! Being a leader is not being a dictator, but a loving motivator who, in turn, is appreciated and respected by his family. Dad, God wants you to be the loving heartbeat of your home by building the lives of your family through teaching and discipline. (Tape 2; emphasis in the original.)

“Teenage rebellion” and a child’s self-image are subjects of two tape sides, with parental responsibility stressed again and love urged as the enveloping context in which children must be raised and disciplined. In the final tape, “Learning to Love,” Hindson attacks the “myth of perfect compatibility” and urges virtues of forbearance and forgiveness of spouse by spouse; he places this exhortation in the framework, once again, of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s celebration of love—which is a gift and must be sought in prayer for the benefit of husband and wife and for the sake of the children.

This discussion continues the emphasis identified in the first presupposition—namely, the reality of the Spirit’s influence on the human condition—and outlines the basic nature of the second presupposition: The highest form of love will emerge in relationships in which one willingly submits to true values held by another. Just as families are to look to the father as head, so too are fathers to look to Christ as head, and all are to be fundamentally concerned about the well-being of one another. Love of others as well as self can flourish only in service to others. The often-cited advice concerning charity by Paul (1 Corinthians 13), applied to fathers, identifies as necessary characteristics of a loving relationship such dimensions as being polite, kind, gracious, and patient. Traditionally the latter have been linked with female roles rather than with the mastery and dominance dimensions typical in masculine roles. Love is not antithetical to dominance. Submissive relations in the family and the Pauline characteristics of Christian love eventually ought to be found in all family members.


The foregoing brief overview of conservative evangelical pastoral theology demonstrates the cogency of Warner’s argument that social scientists tend to be blinded by their own presuppositions to central aspects of evangelical spirituality—in this case, the spirituality of the family. Thus, the verstehen mode of grasping the inner Welt of NCR believers is short-circuited. To be more specific, the primacy of individual choice and the centrality of Western participatory democracy define and illuminate the social scientist’s advocacy of a nonhierarchical universe or, at least, the assumption that binding decisions should be a result of the full participation in decision making of all persons affected. Any social institution that allocates decision making to some members and subordination to others is “out of phase” or “out of sync,” at the least and, at the worst, an instrument of oppression vis-à-vis classes of persons (women, children) who have a long history of being subordinated.

These suppositions tend to keep social scientists from considering the possibility that hierarchical structures and “external regulation” may be integrated with loving consideration by each spouse toward the other, in which negotiation of conflicting interests frequently occurs. Also obscured is the combining of firm discipline of children with manifestations of love toward them and the fact that this very combination is the condition under which children will develop self-esteem as well as respect for the rights and for the welfare of other persons. In other words NCR advocates seem fully supportive of the democratic ethos in the larger political arena (the polis) but believe firmly that rearing children disciplined in love produces the very kind of adult best prepared (because they respect the rights of others) to participate fully in a democratic society.

Second, social scientists focusing on the macrostructures of modern society and the impact of these structures on the family (a bureaucratized work world, and inflationary economy, a consumer society, etc.) fail to understand NCR’s focus on those macrostructures they consider as having inimical effects: the school system, the media, “secular” universities, the ERA movement, the Supreme Court, to name but a few. In addition, NCR advocates do not consider these developments as “inexorable” or incapable of being combatted. As the LaHayes have indicated, resistance takes place on two levels—that of counterinstitutions, such as Christian schools and media networks, and a family life imbued with the devotional and pastoral supports cited above.

Third, to the extent that social scientists and other modern commentators are convinced that “commitments” and “self-sacrifice,” “attachment” and “restraint” inhibit full individual growth, development, and emotional expression and simply perpetuate subordinate relationships, they are incapable of appreciating the conservative Christian insistence (an ethos shared by many “more liberal” Christians, as well as non-Christians) that love, particularly as it focuses on rearing children, per se involves subordination of one’s desires and inclinations; and that this is the case in a loving spousal relationship as well. Individuals can grow and find fulfillment through lifelong attachment to one spouse, a process that indeed may involve resistance to temptations to “find love elsewhere”; but the very resistance is seen as an expression and condition of love and not as a forgoing of possible further growth and development.

Certainly, some social scientists are re-evaluating the “modern conception of love” as stated by Swidler. Yankelovich (1981), quoted approvingly by Scanzoni (1983), strongly criticizes a “me-first, satisfy-all-my-desires attitude” as leading to “relationships that are superficial, transitory, and ultimately unsatisfying” (1981: 248). He proposes an “ethic of commitment” which shifts the focus away from self-concern with growth and development “toward connectedness with the world . . . commitment to people, institutions, objects, beliefs, ideas, places, nature, projects, experiences, adventures, and callings” (1981: 247). To the extent that this conception gains favor or becomes a “presupposition” of increasing numbers of analysts and commentators, it may well help build a bridge of understanding to the fulfillment-through-commitment orientation of conservative Christians.

Fourth, viewed from the “inside,” NCR’s vision of the family indeed involves a primary emphasis upon love; upon loving negotiation where conflict is present; and upon a conviction that human nature indeed requires “controls” because human beings, wounded through Original Sin, are easily susceptible to “going astray.” Viewed from the inside, again, a major presupposition not shared by “outsiders” is that scripture, being divinely inspired, is the major reliable guide for human living; furthermore, the hierarchical framework and the differing “natures” of men and women and their consequent asymmetrical relationship are precisely the conditions of human fulfillment, of order and stability in the family, and are maximally conducive to a nurturing, caring atmosphere in which children can be reared with proper values and secure identities intact. Once again, the pastoral sources cited (not the polemical on which social scientists have so heavily relied) make it clear that, even within the evangelical hierarchical framework, compromise, negotiation, and mutual adjustment can take place in husband-wife relationships precisely because the compromise and negotiation take place in a context emphasizing love of God, neighbor, and self (see LaHaye and LaHaye, 1978: chapters 5 and 6). From the “insider” viewpoint terms such as authoritarian, rigid, conformist distort a reality that allows for much more flexibility than the strictly normative expressions of scripture would suggest.

None of the foregoing should be taken to mean that social science criticism of NCR family worldviews is without insight or value. The observers cited above point to NCR ideological “blind spots,” too. D’Antonio’s (1983) strictures concerning NCR support of a free enterprise system, which has given rise to the very forces that undermine the traditional family, deserve serious consideration. This liberal critique, however, can be turned around by NCR advocates who can readily reply that inconsistency is not confined only to conservatives: liberals support “free enterprise” in gender relationships and decry any imposition of authority in this sphere as damaging to individual autonomy, yet are quick to call for government (that is, authority) controls on the free enterprise system within the economy.

Hadden’s contention that cause-and-effect relationships are obscured in NCR analysis seems cogent when one considers the LaHayes’ lament that so many married women are in the work force, because temptations to infidelity multiply. Furthermore, it is difficult not to agree with critics who see in NCR’s definition of the man-woman relationship a sacred legitimation of the continuing relegation of women to second-class personhood and of the cementing of male domination throughout society’s institutions.

Thus, whatever “foundations of consensus” the “scientific community” may develop concerning how to view the “social reality” of the family (Thomas and Edmondson, 1986: 62), that consensus must include explicit awareness of presuppositions and how to deal creatively with them so that analytical distortion is identified and caricatures avoided. There are woefully few social scientific studies of NCR families from “the inside”; and to this extent our understanding of how they actually work, as contrasted with ideal portraits painted by pastoral theologians on the one hand and critical commentary from social scientists on the other, is severely limited. One sociologist (Thomas, 1983) has attempted such an analysis in an “insider’s” portrait of the Mormon family experience. One theologian (Cox, 1984) recently has attempted to state the concerns of evangelical and fundamentalist preachers in a sympathetic fashion, yet without forgoing critical comment, making clear his own presuppositions. While the foregoing cannot be offered as ideal models, they are at least initial steps in the right direction. Family theorists are challenged to “go forth and do likewise” in their future studies of the New Christian Right. It is hoped that these studies will allow social scientists and religiously committed family members to understand better their own and each other’s presuppositions about familial and religious reality, better aware of the relative strengths and distortions inherent in the viewpoint one espouses. Perhaps then we will understand better how family and religion combine to meet the individual’s social, emotional, and even eschatological needs in a world not only threatening to families, but whose continued existence may be in doubt.


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