Confronting the Latchkey Culture: Work, Family, and American Individualism

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“The child care crisis is so acute that child care workers in many areas of the country are unable to find adequate day care for their own children,” complains Patty Siegel, a child care consultant in California.  Now, let’s stop for a moment to diagram that sentence.  The absurdity in Siegel’s complaint is cited by scholar Brian Robertson as precisely the reason why Americans need to rethink the American pressure to “balance” work and family.

Brian Robertson’s new book, Forced Labor: What’s Wrong with Balancing Work and Family, is a revision and update of his earlier volume, There’s No Place Like Work: How Business, Government, and Our Obsession with Work Have Driven Parents from Home. Robertson’s conclusions challenge traditional orthodoxies of the left and the right—and call Americans to rethink an incoherent family policy.

Robertson argues compellingly that the child care “crisis” debate is part of a larger framework of family policies encouraged by an unusual “alliance of careerist mothers and business interests worried about global competitiveness.” Thus, Robertson contends, the daycare debate is a pointer to some discouraging trends for the future.  “The child care debate illustrates well that family issues in the future will not break down along typical liberal pro-government vs. conservative anti-government lines,” he writes. “The divide, rather, is between those who believe parental care of children is of vital importance and those who do not.”

For Robertson, the contemporary disintegration of the family is partially due to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  Indeed, Robertson argues that the drive for women in the workplace has not only driven women from the home, but the men as well.  Men are working later and later hours, supplemented by time-consuming hobbies outside of the home, a trend that has accelerated right along with the declining number of full-time moms. “If the demands of the workplace have begun to take precedence over the demands of home, it is often because there is no one at home to make demands,” he writes. “The ‘home’ becomes a boarding house where the occupants leave for jobs or day care centers in the morning and check in for food and sleep at night.  It could just be that the ‘5 o’clock Dad’ of yore used to have a home to which he looked forward to returning.”

But, Robertson warns, the problem for the family is not simply the cultural left.  All will not be well with American families if everyone simply starts voting Republican and replacing MTV with “Veggie Tales” videos. Robertson indicts economic policies—supported by conservatives as well as liberals—that place economic growth as the preeminent social good—even over the welfare of the basic human social unit, the family.  Thus, “almost three hundred American employers, including Aetna, Eastman Kodak, Cigna, and Home Depot, now offer ‘lactation support rooms’ where female employees can take regular breaks to attach electric pumps to their breasts in order to collect the milk in bottles for their infants in day care.”   Something is wrong with this scenario.

The picture is not all gloomy for the author, however.  Robertson sees some hope in, among other things, the home-schooling movements that have emerged both among evangelical Christians on the right and leftover hippies on the left. Home-schooling is a threat to the prevailing orthodoxy of the priority of economic growth over the family, Robertson notes, so one might wonder why the left/right economic coalition has not been successful in marginalizing it out of existence by court order.  The opponents are held back, Robertson argues, by—of all things—Roe v. Wade.

“The only reason that court challenges to home schooling did not prevail is that limiting home schooling would have required reversing a series of Supreme Court decisions from the 1920s—decisions that have become the foundation of the modern ‘right to privacy’,” Robertson writes.  “The fact that privacy rights form the basis of subsequent rulings such as Roe vs. Wade has so far prevented a direct attack on parent’s right to educate in the home.”

While not everyone will agree with every specific policy recommendation in this book, Forced Labor is an excellent discussion-starter toward a new paradigm of family policy, one that sees matters such as tax laws and fiscal regulations in light of how they impact not just individuals but families. But, more importantly, this book may serve as a vehicle for evangelical reflection on the ways that we are all shaped—sometimes unconsciously—by an American individualism that knows no tidy partisan categories.

The antidote to this problem is more than just the policy changes Robertson has in mind.  It is instead the recovery of biblical ecclesiology. Evangelical families are looking more and more like the rest of American culture—and with the same devastating results.  At the root of this is the simple fact that too often we share the same assumptions as the feminists and materialists in the culture around us—namely, that “success” is defined, for both men and women, by a high-powered career and conspicuous consumption.

For too long, evangelicals have pretended that “family values” can be supported by evangelicals who care little about the church.  And yet it is the New Testament understanding of the church as the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15) that reminds us that God is creating not just a life-raft of individuals, but a “kingdom of priests” (Rev 1:6).  It is only through the church—as the colony of the coming Kingdom—that Christians
can catch a glimpse of what is ultimately more meaningful than a two-car garage and a Disneyworld vacation.  This will be all the more important as evangelical families find themselves increasingly estranged from the “mainstream” of an evolving American definition of family life.

Forced Labor might be an uncomfortable read for thoroughly Americanized evangelicals.  It leaves few assumptions unchallenged and few consciences unturned.  But if evangelicals are going to have a conversation about the future of our families, it is a good place to start.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).