The Knot

Whenever I try to incorporate Christian thought into the course on family law I teach at a Catholic law school, I meet two kinds of resistance from my students. First, many will dismiss religious tradition as irrelevant to our legal regime; they presume that the separation of church and state means that all lessons originating in such traditions are out of bounds. Second, my students increasingly view marriage and the family as a private affair to be governed by the personal moral visions of the participants. On this view, the state’s only job is to guard against the most egregious harms to family members.

My students’ skepticism is not altogether surprising. Much of our public discourse nourishes these attitudes by treating religious voices as if they were incapable of reasoned debate about individual liberty, the common good, and the evolving concept of the family. Regrettably, many of the loudest religious voices have conformed to this caricature. That it is, after all, only a caricature is demonstrated by the formidable body of work produced by Don Browning, a longtime professor of ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Over the past several years, Browning has been exploring the postmodern understanding of family from an unabashedly Christian perspective. A new collection of his essays, Equality and the Family, provides reason for hope that Christians can still engage with the larger culture in a productive discussion about issues having to do with the family. To capture concisely the significance of Browning’s wide-ranging thought is no easy task, but the essays exhibit several common strengths.

First, Browning is not afraid to speak hard truths to both ends of the political spectrum. He accuses mainline Protestantism of falling into “easy talk about the new family pluralism” and failing to recognize that “not all family forms are equal for the task of raising children.” Too often, he argues, the Left’s relentless focus on tolerance has “meant exempting men from their responsibilities in raising children, leaving women to do the job.” Even in an ideal world of widely available daycare, better-paying jobs for single mothers, and adequate government support, “it would be unhealthy for both men and society to have increasing numbers of single men adrift without connections to families.”

At the same time, Browning is not satisfied with the approach to family issues taken by many Christian conservatives, who seem more concerned with defining the family than with supporting it. Browning proposes several practical measures that would protect families and help them flourish. For example, he argues for a combined sixty-hour work week for couples with children and a thirty-hour work week for single parents. Rather than emphasize traditional gender roles and paternal authority, Browning espouses a “love ethic of equal regard” that calls for husbands and wives to “treat each other as equals, work for each other’s well-being, and in principle give each other equal access to privileges and responsibilities of both domestic and public life.”

Second, Browning makes theology relevant to public policy by emphasizing its practical implications. Traditional theological ethics, in his view, has focused almost exclusively on formulating norms and has not adequately described the real-world situations in which its norms must be applied. For example, it is pointless to insist that a Christian ethic of caregiving should govern family relationships without also noting that market forces make it increasingly difficult for many parents to practice that ethic at home. The practical orientation of Browning’s theology demands that “the concrete rules that should order the life of families” be informed by the changing social context of families.

Third, Browning’s theological method of cultural engagement does not require religion to dominate public policy-the fear of those who cry “theocracy” whenever Christian views are presented in debates about the family, and marriage in particular. Instead, theology is one source with which to “create a public philosophy about marriage.” For example, the religious ideas of covenant and sacrament can help us to understand the importance of marriage for personal identity and the social order. Our public philosophy, according to Browning, must also recognize marriage as a natural institution that satisfies and directs a wide range of natural human inclinations: it is a contractual institution between two consenting adults, a social institution that contributes to the public welfare, and a communicative relationship that requires sensitivity and patience. To understand all of marriage’s purposes, one must draw from a broad set of historical, religious, and social-scientific sources. It is hard to achieve such an understanding, but the easy alternative is to conceive of marriage as no more than a private contract, and that reductionistic conception can do enormous damage, both to individuals and to society.

Finally, the theological thrust of Browning’s analysis is accessible to those who do not share his religious beliefs. In this respect, his arguments are heavily indebted to the work of Thomas Aquinas, who recognized the natural inclination of human beings “to exert special energy on behalf of their own offspring.” To explain the family’s role in overcoming “men’s reluctance to bond with their children and wives,” Aquinas presents Christ’s sacrificial love for the church as a model for male behavior, echoing Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The two-parent family encourages fathers to love in this way since “paternal investment in children, paternal certainty, and mo¬nog¬amy tend to go together.” Browning sees today’s challenge as making sure “that in the process of stripping away the patriarchal power of the male we do not rob the male-the husband and father-of [this] servant responsibility.”

It would be naive to presume that Browning’s analysis will be embraced by every culture warrior. Some may find the profamily policies he calls for-such as shorter workweeks for parents-to be impractical, or to require too much state intervention. Others may find his prescriptions about healthy family structures to be too moralistic. And he may face criticism for not addressing same-sex marriage in this book. His silence on that subject is certainly not an oversight; he has, after all, written about same-sex marriage in other places. But Browning understands how this particular controversy tends to hinder and distort the larger discussion he is interested in here. He believes that much of the spadework needed to develop a robust public philosophy of marriage and the family can be done without mentioning this conversation stopper, though the topic cannot be put off indefinitely. In the meantime, Browning’s work bears powerful testimony to the value of the Christian tradition’s insights on the family, and introduces these insights in a way that expands our public discourse rather than narrowing it.

Published in the 2007-12-21 issue: 

Robert K. Vischer is the dean and Mengler Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

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