SOCIETY: by Eric J. HutchinsonNews Weekly
An interview with Allan Carlson
, July 20, 2013
Dr Allan A. Carlson, in addition to his roles as president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Illinois, and as international secretary of the World Congress of Families, is also professor of history and politics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. A few weeks ago one of his colleagues there, Dr Eric J. Hutchinson, an assistant professor of classics, hosted a forum of people who put questions to Dr Carlson about his background, ethics, politics and economics, and how these relate to the natural family and man as Homo religiosus.
How has your Lutheran formation influenced your views on politics and economics, or do you view yourself as working against the grain of your tradition in some respects? In other words, how do you view your work as situated in your own theological tradition?
As a “cradle Lutheran”, I grew up in a parish that I loved, was an enthusiastic “teenage acolyte”, attended a Lutheran College (Augustana-Illinois) when it still tried to be “Lutheran”, seriously considered entering the seminary, and worked for a time (1975–79) in the government affairs office of the Lutheran Council in the USA.
By the 1970s, the Lutheran Church in America was certainly veering leftward in a variety of ways, abandoning in reckless fashion fairly clear Lutheran doctrines and practices. I found my own ideas compatible with “orthodox Lutheranism” (if I might use that awkward phrase).
Could you tell us a bit about your view of how the Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) influences your project? [N.B: Kuyper was a pastor and theologian, who later founded his own daily paper, De Standaard. In 1880, he was a co-founder of the Amsterdam Free University. He later entered parliament and served as prime minister of the Netherlands (1901-1905), heading a coalition that included conservative Catholics, whom he regarded as natural allies].
I came across Abraham Kuyper fairly late, but was delighted to discover such a strong communitarianism within the modern Reformed/Calvinist tradition. Calvinism has too often been associated, of late, with individualism, modernism and capitalism. Such “-isms” certainly do not fit Calvin’s Geneva, nor 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts.
Kuyper’s warnings about “the power of capital” and the ways in which commercialism undermines family bonds translate the authentic Calvinist socio-political heritage into modern circumstances.
I also love the name of his political association: The Anti-Revolutionary Party. It drives home the point that all Christians — not just Roman Catholics — were threatened by the Jacobins of 1789.
You include Kuyper as a pro-family and “Third Way” thinker. In America, are there any notable writers who manage to hold together Kuyper’s own brand of Christian Democracy? If so, what are their primary emphases?
I am not qualified to analyse the Kuyperian tradition in America with any authority. Yet I would point to an American writer in the conservative Reformed tradition who ably understood the “family” and “life” questions: the late Harold O.J. “Joe” Brown, who was close to Francis Schaeffer, an editor at Christianity Today, and a professor of theology at several Reformed seminaries. He was instrumental in pulling American Evangelicalism back from its flirtation with abortion rights in the late 1960s/early ’70s.
And, related to the foregoing, in what respect can Protestants appropriate the social thought of, say, Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891)?
Perhaps my theological antennae are damaged in some way, but I find nothing in Rerum Novarum that is incompatible with important tenets of Protestantism. Neither Luther nor Calvin witnessed the Industrial Revolution or modern finance capitalism. Leo XIII, in contrast, did face a “New Age”. In this encyclical, he offers a theory of history to explain the growing concentration of wealth in a few hands and the concurrent loss of autonomy and dignity among the working class. He also presents, in broad strokes, a program of reform, focused on responsible ways to restore property to workers and their families, to make them owners of homesteads and productive land. I find both his historical analysis and his proposed response to be sound.
If you could name three thinkers (excluding Kuyper, Leo XIII, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton) with which pro-family Protestants should familiarise themselves, who would they be?
1. Carle Zimmerman (born a Lutheran in Missouri), professor of sociology at Harvard, a co-founder of the discipline of rural sociology, and author (among other volumes) of Family and Civilization (1947; a much edited-down edition came from ISI Books in 2007, for which I wrote an introduction).
2. Pitirim Sorokin (born in Russia and lifelong Russian Orthodox), expelled by the Bolsheviks in 1921 (his alternative was execution), a colleague of Zimmerman’s at Harvard, also a co-founder of rural sociology, and author (among others) of The Crisis of Our Age (1941) and The American Sex Revolution (1956).
3. Robert Nisbet (in some respects a mentor to me; he never quite became a believer), professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, and Columbia University, author (among others) of the classic Quest for Community (1953) and Twilight of Authority (1975).
What is the “natural family” and why is it important?
In 1998 a group that I helped organise — including conservative/traditionalist Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, Jews, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and even a Unitarian — met in Rome and came up with this definition:
“The natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centred 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 centre for social, educational, economic, and spiritual life; building strong bonds among the generations to pass on a way of life that has transcendent meaning; extending a hand of compassion to individuals and households whose circumstances fall short of these ideals.”
If I had drafted this statement alone, I would have put more emphasis on procreation and the home economy; alas, compromise was necessary. All the same, the statement was important — in practice — because a new campaign had been launched at the United Nations to alter international law in ways deeply hostile to marriage, family, and children. A term was needed that would convey a “natural order” to family structures that cut across national divides and cultures.
How should a pro-family position be “grounded”? Do you prefer natural-law arguments that take as their starting-point man’s inherent teleology, or do you think that the case is better made by statistics and various findings of social science?
Both, depending on the audience. In my mind, the two are wholly compatible. Despite the leftist lean of the social sciences over the last 60 years, the overwhelming consensus of honest research in sociology, psychology, medicine and even anthropology affirms that the family — as defined above — enhances liberty and social order, creates wealth and well-being, and maximises positive outcomes for children and adults alike. All alternatives produce lesser, or negative, results. The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, where I sometimes hang my hat, has a database containing the abstracts of over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles from the social sciences since 1985, which back up these conclusions.
Are you a “conservative”? Is that nomenclature helpful at the present hour?
Yes, as defined by French author Louis de Bonald (On Divorce, 1801 — available from News Weekly Books: see page 21) and other “Reactionaries” opposed to the French Revolution: Our task is “to conserve” the healthy aspects of Western Christian civilisation, most especially those involving what he called “domestic society”. The battle against the swarm of ideologies unleashed by the Jacobins in the 1790s continues to our day.
You both recommend a “family wage”, a coercive state policy regarding the allocation of property and a top-down method of income distribution, and also urge decentralisation and the private possession of property. Many people would see these ideas as fundamentally contradictory. How do you reconcile them? And what are the limits of state intervention in the name of “the family”?
To begin with, a “family wage” system need not require coercive state policy. In fact, the system which prevailed in the United States from 1942 to 1967 ran counter to public policy. It relied on a culturally (not legally) determined division of labour, which reserved by custom the higher-paying jobs (in both factories and the professions) to men in their capacity as heads of households; “women’s jobs” were for unmarried singles or supplemental to a husband’s wage. This system, widely understood and affirmed at the time, was undone only by state action through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order #11357, both adopted in service to feminist ideology and despite popular opposition.
More broadly, “industrial capitalism” is a recent and still novel innovation. Alongside its material gifts, it puts heavy strains on family life. Sometimes, state action is the only possible corrective; even then, though, one must clearly understand the risks involved. Appropriate projects of “property redistribution” in the American experience include the Homestead Act of 1862, the Subsistence Homestead project of 1933–40 and the Housing Act of 1934.
You seem to oppose both socialism and corporatism. Is the “third way” a modified form of capitalism, or is it a foundationally different form of economic organisation?
A true Third Way understands that both capitalism and communism share a common materialism at their core. One of the more remarkable — but barely noticed — events of 2002 came when the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China invited capitalists to join its ranks!
Instead of “Economic Man” (Homo œconomicus), a Third Way posits “Religious Man” (Homo religiosus), or man created in the image of God. As German economist Wilhelm Röpke put it, the “first precept of ethical and humane behaviour, no less than of political wisdom”, is “to adapt economic policy to man, not man to economic policy”. The health of small communities and families — grounded firmly in productive, private property — is the imperative.
Though the Christian Democracy movement flourished for a time in Western Europe, Western Europe itself is now almost entirely secularised and in steep demographic decline. Does the Christian Democracy movement bear any responsibility for the bureaucratisation of life and shrinking family size in Western Europe? And how could it be different in the U.S.?
Alas, it is true that the generation of Christian Democrats who rebuilt Western Europe after the disasters of 1914–45 were not immediately replaced. Members of the “Generation of 1968”, as they are known in Europe, were intensely secular and hostile to the natural family.
Hope on that continent now lies, in Western Europe, among a new generation of young Christians currently emerging (Spanish and French organisations of this sort recently put over a million people [each] in the streets of Madrid and Paris protesting same-sex “marriage”), and in Eastern Europe, where a similar new generation of Catholic and Orthodox young adults are advancing a creative “pro-family” politics in the post-communist nations of Hungary, Croatia, Rumania, Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria and Russia.
You have written in many places that a chief cause of the downfall of the family in the modern economy is that the home has shifted from being a place of production as well as consumption, to being wholly a place of consumption. What practical steps can families take to make their homes more of a centre of production?
That’s easy: home-school your children; cultivate a vegetable garden; raise chickens for eggs and meat; start a home-based enterprise; find other ways to bring your work or profession home; gather in community with others doing the same things.
The complete version of this interview appeared in The Calvinist International online forum, May 29, 2013.