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An Interview with Allan Carlson

We are delighted to be able to share with you an interview recently conducted with Allan Carlson,1 whose book Third Ways was reviewed in this space in January. You can also see a survey of Dr. Carlson’s political and economic thought here. We are deeply grateful to Dr. Carlson for taking the time to respond to these questions about his background, ethics, politics, and economics, and how these relate to the natural family and man as homo religiosus.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the contributors to TCI, but represent a set of ideas worthy of rumination; and in any case it is hoped that they sharpen our own reflections, even – or especially – where we or others might phrase things in a different way.

Allan Carlson is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois, and has taught History and Politics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

Theological Background and Influences

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 (a now vanished consortium of the old ALC, LCA, and Missouri Synod).  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. Still, as my own views on politics took form in the years 1970–85, I never saw myself as an “alien.” I found my own ideas compatible with “orthodox Lutheranism” (if I might use that awkward phrase). On occasions, stalwart “Missouri” has been something of a lifeline.

Could you tell us a bit about your view of how the Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper influences your project?

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. However, in America the Kuyperian tradition has tended to split between two extremes: a left wing and a right wing. 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 analyze 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. Brown. A convert to Calvinism from Catholicism, “Joe” Brown 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. His book-length commentary on Pitirim Sorokin [see below], The Sensate Culture [1996], is particularly relevant.

And, related to the foregoing, in what respect can Protestants appropriate the social thought of, say, Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum while remaining faithful to Protestant principles?

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, and the Chesterbelloc) with which pro-family Protestants should familiarize 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);

  1. 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);

  2. 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).

Contraception and the Family

And speaking of Roman Catholics: you’ve worked in the past with a number of Roman Catholics and Roman Catholic organizations, and you have also written against what has become the mainstream Protestant settlement on contraception. Is it possible to hold to a principled yet moderate Protestant position on that issue and still be properly supportive of “the natural family”?

Well, neither Luther nor Calvin thought so. For Luther, in particular, opposition to birth control and abortion – practices quite alive and well in his time – was not some side issue, but central and integral to his theology of marriage and family. Moreover, while it is possible – I think – for individuals to hold to a “moderate Protestant position” on contraception (e.g., only for married couples and only for valid reasons), I challenge anyone to identify a society or nation which has held true to that mainstream “Protestant settlement”; as far as I know, every place that accepts the “moderate” settlement soon extends the practice to the unmarried, then to teenagers, and then must have abortion and pornography, as well. Once you separate marital sexuality from procreation, it seems, there is no stable cultural and political ground, until Eros rules.

The Family and the Economy

What is the “natural family” anyway, and why is it important?

In 1998 a group that I helped organize – 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 centered 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 center 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. Moreover, the term “natural family” avoids other alternatives: “nuclear family,” which sounds like a bomb; or “traditional family” which is excessively backward looking. In addition, the “natural family” is a positive expression, which does not require a discussion of negative incompatibilities in order to gain recognition.

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 sixty 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 maximizes 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 2000 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) and other “Reactionaries” opposed to the French Revolution: Our task is “to conserve” the healthy aspects of Western Christian Civilization, 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 decentralization and the private possession of property. Many people would see these ideas as fundamentally contradictory. How you do 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 labor, 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 organization?

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 economist Wilhelm Röpke put it, the “first precept of ethical and humane behavior, 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 secularized and in steep demographic decline. Does the Christian Democracy movement bear any responsibility for the bureaucratization 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 organizations 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.

Practical Strategy

You have written in many places that a chief cause in 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 center 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.

What about people who live in cities or struggle with the costs and demands of modern corporate lifestyle? Is “New Urbanism” an answer? Are there certain methods or measures they can take to develop a local urbanism?

Cities, too, provide ample opportunities to rebuild functional families: home births, home schools, home-based businesses (of a certain kind), urban gardens (whether on a scrap of ground, a vacant lot, or a balcony), and even “urban chickens” in a growing number of “progressive” cities. The better expressions of the “New Urbanism” also provide openings for a more humane way of life; however, unless bound together by something more than mere residence in the same place (such as shared religious sentiments), these will usually be fairly frail communities.

In most cases, the “modern corporate lifestyle” works to the detriment of autonomous families. Those with “family-friendly policies” often feature some form of corporate socialism, such as the corporate day care center. All the same, authentic régimes of flex time, work-at-home, and generous “family leave” policies are to be welcomed.

It seems that the culture of the U.S. is more hostile to the philosophical principles of the family than ever before. What is the best practical strategy that you can see for going forward?

Ironically, the best practical political strategy at the time may be “libertarian.” Within the United States, there are numerous and growing subcultures that are deeply familial: the Old Order Amish now in two dozen states; Hutterites in Montana and the Dakotas; the Mormons in the inter-mountain West; Hassidic Jews in Cleveland, New York, and other cities; intentional Catholic and Protestant communities in many states; homeschoolers everywhere. The current Federal government and most state “family services” and “education” agencies despise these communities. The first political priority must be to protect them from intervention and harm, allowing them to expand and change the demography of the American future. And that’s a libertarian task, rightly understood.

  1. Questions were solicited from a number of readers familiar with Dr. Carlson’s work.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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