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Why families are critical for human flourishing

Research reveals high priority of intact families in California’s progressive culture

Last week a new study about the state of the family from researchers Wendy Wang and Bradford Wilcox caught my eye. The study was titled, “State of Contradiction: Progressive Family Culture, Traditional Family Structure in California,” and as the title indicates, the research focused on trends related to families in California. Wang and Wilcox studied trends in the state because “California has been at the vanguard of family change in America.” And it’s true. Home to both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, for nearly a century the state of California has exercised an outsized influence on the patterns and trends of American life. 

Because California is known for exporting its culturally liberal values, one might assume that the conclusions of such a study are easily predicted. But on the contrary, the research Wang and Wilcox present is noteworthy specifically because of its unexpected conclusions. Far from revealing what one might assume about family life in one of the most deeply progressive regions of the country, the results of the study reveal the stunning degree to which intact families, especially among California’s elites, are a high priority. 

In their report, the researchers conclude that California has “a higher share of stable, married families than the nation as a whole.” Indeed, the percentages are striking. As Wang and Wilcox demonstrate, roughly 67% of “California parents are in intact marriages, compared to 63% of American parents . . . Likewise, 65% of children ages 0-17 in California reside with their married, biological parents, compared to 62% of children in the United States.” 

When it comes to the best-educated portion of California’s parents, the numbers are even more staggering. 80% of California’s parents holding at least a college degree are presently in intact marriages compared to only 61% of non college-educated parents. And despite the fact that the best-educated Californians overwhelmingly affirm the idea that diverse family structures should be celebrated and welcomed by society, the same group is also most likely to affirm the importance of the traditional family structure in their own lives. Moreover, the researchers found that in some of California’s wealthiest zip codes, the rate of divorce was effectively zero. As Wang and Wilcox stated, “It turns out that some of the most elite neighborhoods in the state—including several in Hollywood and San Francisco—have virtually no single parents.”

Recognizing that marriage works

So while there is no shortage of elites in California and elsewhere rhetorically defending progressive views on the family, there is in fact a notable contrast between their words and their actions. But why do these elites not practice as they preach? Simply put, they recognize a very basic truth about the family: marriage works. In terms of family stability, financial security, and raising healthy and successful children, stable marriages make for stable families—and stable families lead to flourishing.

And if we pause to consider it for a moment, it is little wonder that the best prescription for success in life is simply to do as the Bible says. Today we tend to think of “family values” as quaint or backward or, at the very least, tired. Our culture has moved beyond the traditional family structure as something essential to American life. That’s why talking about family values conjures mental images of the ‘50s television show “Leave it to Beaver” or culture wars of the late 20th century. 

Frankly, that which we typically associate with “family values” are things we’d rather forget. For many reasons, some deserved and other less so, those words and ideas are politically charged and evoke memories of overbearing religion in American life, of an attempt to impose moral order on a nation desperate for liberty. But that notwithstanding, there is something about the idea of an intact family, where a mom and a dad seek to raise their children in a loving and supportive home that touches directly upon the cravings of the human soul.

At root, every one of us wants to be loved and accepted. From birth, we are in need of nurture and care. And as we grow, we need love and support. Making our way in this sinful and fallen world is difficult under the best of circumstances. And that is why the Bible’s teaching about the family has such deep resonance.

Biblically speaking, the ideal of the family is not perfection but love and commitment. Instead of the dad-as-ignoramus caricature of the modern father portrayed in sitcoms, the Bible depicts the father as the provider, protector, and leader of his household. Likewise, the Bible’s picture of the Christian wife and mother stands in stark relief to the images we’re accustomed to seeing in pop culture. A wife and mother is presented as a wise, tender, compassionate nurturer, caregiver, and (to quote Jen Wilkin) indispensable helpmate. In the Scriptures, marriage is a picture of mutual commitment, of shared sacrifice, of lifelong partnership and devotion. 

And there is an important lesson here. The Bible’s teaching on marriage works because in practice, even marriages which fall short of the biblical ideal—as every marriage does—are still powerful. Stable, intact families lead to flourishing because they go with the grain of God’s design for humanity.

Christians should be encouraged by the results of this study. What we are seeing play out here is at least an implicit endorsement of the truths from God’s Word about the family. It demonstrates that biblical values are not arcane relics of the past, but the blueprints of God’s design. Seeing the results of this study should remind us of Paul’s language from Romans 2, where he speaks of the Gentiles who are without the law living in accordance with the law because it is written on their hearts. 

Sexual libertinism and the eschewal of cultural norms are not a recipe for success or fulfillment. Elites in California may think diversity in family structures is fine for others, but there is a reason they choose not to practice these alternative family structures themselves. So at the risk of sounding judgmental or outdated, perhaps it would be best for these so-called elites to preach as they practice. Because it turns out that there is still something valuable and compelling—indeed eminently practical—about close-knit, intact families. They work.

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