Volume > Issue > The Church as the Context for the Family

The Church as the Context for the Family


By Robert N. Bellah | December 1987
Robert N. Bellah is Ford Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and co-author of the award-winning Habits of the Heart. His latest book is Uncivil Religion, edited with Frederick E. Greenspahn.

Ed. Note: In our March issue, we published a symposium on Roman Catholicism and “American Exceptionalism.” Among the 11 contributions, some views were expressed that were not in harmony with the editorial stance of the New Oxford Review, as might be expected in any symposium. For example, Robert N. Bellah, an Episcopalian, wrote approvingly of practicing homosexuals living together when they sustain a “stable, permanent, and faithful” – i.e., non-promiscuous – relationship. In our June issue, we printed four letters – the substance of which we agree with – critiquing Bellah’s position. In response, Bellah, an NOR Contributing Editor and esteemed colleague, sent us the article printed below in the interests of clarifying his views on marriage, sex, and family in general. We believe that it is a marvelous defense and explication of the Christian view of the family, although we continue to disagree with his position – very briefly restated – on homosexuality. The article is adapted from a talk given to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission Seminar on the Family in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 24, 1987. Prof. Bellah wishes to note that some issues discussed, such as the question of the teaching office of the church, would have been phrased differently for a Roman Catholic or an Episcopalian audience, but that the issues are nonetheless faced by all Christians.

In this audience I think I can take it for granted that we believe in the family. We see it as a basic unit in both social life and spiritual life. We can say this without any nostalgia for an allegedly perfect “traditional family,” knowing that the family, like all other human institutions, is subject to sin and corruption and always in need of thoughtful reform. But just the simple idea of a man and a woman vowing to stay with each other “till death do us part” and trying to raise children together seems daunting. Marriage is difficult. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a clergyman celebrating the marriage service and saying to the couple, “till death do you part or the going gets hairy.” And how is one to bring children into a world such as ours? How can we transmit to them a sense of moral responsibility and a religious understanding of life? How can we create within the family a moral and religious atmosphere that can withstand the pressures of the larger world in which we live?

It is bad enough that television programs like Dallas and Dynasty come into our homes with their sordid tales of ambition, corruption, and cruelty. But these days the newspapers and television news bring into our homes real stories that make Dallas and Dynasty seem like fairytales. We read about Ivan Boesky and other inside traders in the top investment banking firms on Wall Street. And we read about the National Security Advisor and the Director of the CIA undertaking or condoning actions Congress had not authorized and which are at variance with our expressed policy. And we read about officials all the way up to the President trying to deny what has plainly happened. The family seems like a very fragile institution if it is expected to adhere to a higher morality than that of our central economic and political institutions.

Let me say at once that I believe the family, or to give it a physical location, the home, is too small and too vulnerable to sustain the moral life of its members unassisted. If it is to succeed over time in providing meaning and coherence it will have to be included in and supported by larger social structures. I want to emphasize the church in particular as a context for family life, but it is not the only institution that is necessary for the immediate support of the family. We must include the school, the neighborhood, and the larger public realm as well. What all these institutions have in common, if I may borrow some terminology from Jurgen Habermas, is that they are part of what he calls the life-world. What is distinctive about the life-world is that its medium of communication, what he sometimes calls its steering mechanism, is language.

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