The Countercultural Family

In a Culture that Prizes Autonomy, Family and Church Connections Offer the Superior Freedom

In 2023, Pew Research Center released a study on Parenting in America Today. Some trends are no surprise. Parents are concerned about their children’s mental health and consider it very important that their children find a job they enjoy. Valid concerns to be sure. However, what was most surprising—and honestly, discouraging—were findings about parents’ hopes for their children’s own family formation and religious commitment.

According to this representative survey of thousands of U.S. parents across the nation with children under 18, nearly 90 percent of parents surveyed found it extremely important that their children be financially independent and have careers they enjoy, while only 20 percent said it was important that their children marry and have children. Furthermore, just 35 percent found it very important that their children have similar religious beliefs to their own. Where is all this coming from? What does it mean, and what can we do about it?

Understanding the Data

Pew’s findings are not an anomaly. Another survey of even more families done later in 2023 found almost identical results on questions of marriage, family formation, and their importance and meaning for life. This later survey also found that about twice as many Americans felt pessimistic about the institution of marriage and the family, rather than optimistic. When we drill down into the data on these surveys, we find a range of parental answers. Rachel Minkin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz unpack the results on the religious questions: 

About four-in-ten Black (40%) and Hispanic (39%) parents say it’s extremely or very important to them that their children share their religious beliefs; 32% each among White and Asian parents say the same. White evangelical Protestant parents (70%) are more likely than White non-evangelical Protestant (29%) and Black Protestant parents (53%) to say it’s very or extremely important to them that their children have religious beliefs that are similar to their own as adults. About a third (35%) of Catholic parents and just 8% of those who are religiously unaffiliated say this.

But even these results for those who self-identify as religious are disappointing. This reveals just how pervasive and persuasive the cultural narratives of careerism, consumerism, personal fulfillment, and the pursuit of happiness truly are. Declining birth and marriage rates, as well as high de-churching rates, are further evidence that we have been catechized into the American creed of autonomy. We consume the information, take in the images, absorb the ideas, and form the habits towards such things every day—we are being catechized. And survey results reveal that parents are receiving the messages loud and clear.

Autonomy’s Dominion

I would suggest that a major explanatory factor in these survey results is the glorification of autonomy in our cultural scripts and in our daily lives. We praise the self-made man, the independent woman, the ones who are free to be themselves—no strings attached. The family is the exact opposite of these things, as it is an interdependent whole, where everyone contributes, sacrifices, and participates in something larger than themselves, giving up some measure of autonomy in the process for the greater good.

But it is not just our cultural scripts that exalt autonomy. Our life habits and daily routines ingrain autonomy into the very fabric of our being. We choose everything: flavor of soda, type of cereal, brand of shoes, shows to watch, who to “friend” or “follow.” We are in control, or so it seems. But the reign of autonomy goes deeper. Our daily lives are structured around school, work, and entertainment, which treat us all as individuals where we are frequently isolated and cut off from our families.

The effects of autonomy are quite striking in the decline of ultimate commitments and the skepticism of authority and institutions evident today. Trends noted years ago in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and by many authors since then confirm that individuals are hesitant to barter away any of their autonomy in exchange for becoming a member of an organization, community group, or religious body. Joining such groups requires commitment, assent to certain ideas, and compliance to specific rules—the very things the autonomous self has been trained to avoid. And, what “group” requires the deepest level of commitment? The family, with its unending string of duties and responsibilities.

The concept of autonomy also makes it difficult to create community in the workplace. Autonomy teaches the worker in search of promotion to have little regard for fellow workers. When a better opportunity is found elsewhere, autonomous workers feel little sense of duty or loyalty to the company, but move on to another that pays more. This kind of workplace fosters “an economic philosophy of atomistic individualism,” Nancy Pearcey explains in Total Truth, where workers are “treated as so many interchangeable units…each struggling to advance himself at the expense of others.”

All these ways of thinking and habits of living function as accelerants towards individualism and family fragmentation, ushering in a new ideal of the atomized autonomous self. The lone human being—the rugged individual, the one who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps—replaces the family as the basic unit of society. Autonomy has ascended the ladder of sacred order in the American psyche and is now enthroned on high. The freedom to make one’s own choices surpasses all other considerations as the self becomes both law and lawgiver.

Autonomy’s Defeat

But there is a way out of this. First, this overload of autonomy ironically ends up creating a paradox. Despite so much individual freedom to choose in all realms of life, popular culture endorses only a certain set of choices: those deemed progressive and tolerant; and so it is that progressive “values” are absorbed by the populace through education, media, music, movies, and more.

Without most of us realizing it, our actual freedom to choose is steamrolled by the momentum of the cultural machine, which provides the proper choices one should make, thus overriding autonomy. The process quickens with the frenetic pace of the social media swarm, where choices made by one person drive the choices of the next person via the digital echo chambers of the internet.

Consumerism functions in parallel, as the products available to “express yourself” happen to be the same products that countless other people also purchase to express what just so happens to be the same exact individuality. Not only that, buyers then become advertisers for the product, paradoxically representing the brand, not their true selves. All of this is part and parcel of what Vincent Miller calls the “commodification of culture,” in which products, places, and people are stripped of their broader contexts and webs of meaning, leaving us all isolated people buying isolated products in isolated places. As he puts it in his book Consuming Religion, “we nourish ourselves on food from nowhere and dress in clothes made by no one.”

When autonomy is absolutized as a principle for everything, with no reference to anything beyond the self—whether God, truth, family or otherwise—it becomes debilitating with its array of choices, and demoralizing with its evisceration of deeper purpose for such choices anyway. The sovereignty of choice creates a new bondage to the self. But it is a bondage that can be defeated bit by bit. Consider the following suggestions to help us dethrone autonomy.

Reflect Upon the Ordered Freedom of the Family: Ironically, real freedom is found within limits. Contrary to the autonomous freedom prized in modern society, the family demonstrates a different sort of freedom: an ordered freedom of limits and interdependent coherence. Not freedom in the sense of untethering individuals from responsibility and commitment, but freedom from the vulnerability and loneliness of isolation through meaningful contributions to the lives of others.

Matthew Crawford unpacks this concept of the freedom of limits more broadly in his book, The World Beyond Your Head, paradoxically calling it “empowerment through submission.” Crawford posits that “human agency . . . arises only within concrete limits” and illustrates his point with several examples, including music. Without submitting to the external order and authoritative structure of scales, notes, time signatures, and musical notation, one cannot play music in any meaningful way at all. Freedom is not found in abolishing music’s rules, but in creatively working within them.

Similarly, the experiences of life within the family structure foster human freedom in ways that self-referential absolute autonomy cannot. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han concludes similarly, “to be free does not simply mean to be un-tied or un-committed. It is not the ‘release from’ something or dis-embeddedness which makes us free, but inclusion and embeddedness…One feels free in relationships of love and friendship. It is not the absence of ties, but ties themselves which set us free” (31). Pondering the necessity of ties and commitments for meaning and purpose helps us resist the shiny allure of autonomy.

Embrace Countercultural Habits and Catechesis: In an environment where everyone is constantly going their own way to school, work, or sport, there must be intentional effort to foster family togetherness. A great place to start is in the kitchen, or on a house project in which everyone can participate and contribute. Small steps like these can lead to further efforts as each attempt builds on itself. Marcia Barlow summarizes the inherent, creative power of the family structure aptly: “the family unit is able to do more when it combines its abilities, rather than an individual, alone, endeavoring to tackle various challenges…The nature of family allows it to intimately know the people involved and allow the resources to go to their highest and best use. Being the most efficient, a family would be more likely to produce a surplus of financial, human, and social resources that could flow to the society at large.”

Be Countercultural

In addition to the habits and patterns of living that can help us resist autonomy, parents should provide direct counter-cultural catechesis. By that I mean we should teach our children why autonomy doesn’t work, and we should let our children know that the most important things we want for them are about more than money or career. We want them to remain in the one true faith until life everlasting, and we want them to experience the deep joys and challenges of family life. There are many ways that this can be done, but the important thing is that it is intentionally done over time; that you create the structures and environment within your home to facilitate these conversations through things like devotions, reading books together, praying together, and more.

Despite the discouraging results of these recent parenting surveys, we can provide a compelling and beautiful alternative to what is becoming the norm. Embracing the external ordering of the family is difficult and counter-cultural, but it carries with it deeper purpose and fulfillment. It is within these structures that humans best thrive. Much of contemporary society, based as it is on autonomous individualism and practices that tend toward fragmentation, is at odds with such flourishing. Embracing the natural family is hard work these days, but such work carries with it possibilities for individual and social renewal one family at a time. And while there is no place to hide from human brokenness and failures in the close quarters of the family, there is also salve for the wounds present there in the bonds of blood and self-giving love.

On the heels of the Christmas season, I am reminded of how the Nativity provides its own countercultural familial claim—that God became man within a family. Though born of a virgin, Jesus was not an isolated individual on a journey of self-fulfillment. In the family he grew “in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). The family is one of God’s primary frameworks for human flourishing, in which God grants us the privilege to witness his miraculous workings of creation and redemption through natural birth and spiritual rebirth. The creational order of family is not only upheld and honored in the Nativity, but is elevated in Christ who unites around himself the eschatological family where we are made children of God, birthed of our mother the church and into new life in Christ our elder brother, who shares with us his communion with the Father through the Spirit.

For Further Reading

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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