Friday, August 22, 2008

A Nation in Miniature

The United Nations of Orloff, Copeland and Rice

God willing today my wife and I will close on our first single-family home in preparation for the arrival of our first child. It's been four and half years since we exchanged our simple Baha'i vows in the presence of God, family and friends "We will all verily abide by the will of God." Since then we've been building a Baha'i life together, striving however imperfectly, to embody this beautiful prayer:

"Glory be unto Thee, O my God! Verily, this thy servant and this Thy maidservant have gathered under the shadow of Thy mercy and they are united through Thy favor and generosity. O Lord! Assist them in this Thy world and Thy kingdom and destine for them every good through Thy bounty and grace. O Lord! Confirm them in Thy servitude and assist them in Thy service. Suffer them to become the signs of Thy Name in Thy world and protect them through Thy bestowals which are inexhaustible in this world and the world to come. O Lord! They are supplicating the kingdom of Thy mercifulness and invoking the realm of Thy singleness. Verily, they are married in obedience to Thy command. Cause them to become the signs of harmony and unity until the end of time. Verily, Thou art the Omnipotent, the Omnipresent and the Almighty!"
(Compilations, Baha'i Prayers, p. 105)

As we go about the seemingly mundane business today of signing lots of legal documents, I'll be thinking about the words of 'Abdu'l-Baha regarding the spiritual and social significance of family life:

"Today the human world is in need of a great power by which these glorious principles and purposes may be executed. The cause of peace is a very great cause; it is the cause of God, and all the forces of the world are opposed to it. Governments for instance, consider militarism as the step to human progress, that division among men and nations is the cause of patriotism and honor, that if one nation attack and conquer another, gaining wealth, territory and glory thereby, this warfare and conquest, this bloodshed and cruelty are the cause of that victorious nation's advancement and prosperity. This is an utter mistake. Compare the nations of the world to the members of a family. A family is a nation in miniature. Simply enlarge the circle of the household and you have the nation. Enlarge the circle of nations and you have all humanity. The conditions surrounding the family surround the nation. The happenings in the family are the happenings in the life of the nation. Would it add to the progress and advancement of a family if dissensions should arise among its members, fighting, pillaging each other, jealous and revengeful of injury, seeking selfish advantage? Nay, this would be the cause of the effacement of progress and advancement. So it is in the great family of nations, for nations are but an aggregate of families. Therefore as strife and dissension destroy a family and prevent its progress, so nations are destroyed and advancement hindered."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 100)

I've always found it interesting that Abdu'l-Baha tells us that "nations are but an aggregate of families" rather than "individuals". I wonder how different American society would be right now if more of us conceptualized our nation in this way. This question is especially poignant if you consider the current trend regarding families in our society, at least according to some researchers:

"The far-reaching detrimental effects of family decline, especially on children, were long denied in many leading intellectual circles. Divorce was often seen as liberating for adults, and unwed births were viewed as a new freedom for women, both without a serious downside. A 1992 front-page article in the Washington Post, for example, announced that according to “a searching reevaluation by social scientists” the “conventional two-parent household may be far less critical to the healthy development of children than previously believed.”

A heated national debate on this topic was triggered by Dan Quayle’s now-famous speech, given when he was running for reelection with President George H. W. Bush in 1992, which criticized the TV program Murphy Brown for glorifying unwed motherhood. The debate rapidly accelerated when the Atlantic Monthly published an April 1993 cover story titled “Dan Quayle Was Right.” The article by the prominent family expert Barbara Dafoe Whitehead was an extensive review of the empirical data relating family structure to child well-being. The accumulated empirical data she reviewed were irrefutable: Family breakup hurts children.

From that point public debate about the family loosely proceeded along the following lines: Children are being hurt, fathers are important, and marriage is essential. In 1992 a group of leading scholars and intellectuals from all shades of the political spectrum formed the Council on Families in America, sponsored by the Institute for American Values, to analyze, evaluate, and weigh in on the issues. Its pioneering 1995 report Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation had a wide influence, being among the first to single out the weakening of marriage as the key to family decline. The executive summary read: “The divorce revolution . . . has failed. It has created terrible hardships for children, incurred unsupportable social costs, and failed to deliver on its promise of greater adult happiness. The time has come to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage.”

The loss of fathers from the family via the decline of marriage, which was particularly severe in the African American community, began to take on a central role in the debate. By the mid-1990s, marriage and fatherhood “movements” had begun to blossom with many new organizations set up specifically to promote marriage and responsible fatherhood and to try to halt family breakup and its negative effects, especially on children. The groups included Smart Marriages; the National Fatherhood Initiative; Marriage Savers; the Religion, Culture, and Family Project at the University of Chicago; the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University; and numerous national and state-level family policy organizations. By the late 1990s, a very different climate of opinion about the effects of family change came to prevail among journalists, family experts, and other opinion leaders. Symptomatic of this change was an August 12, 2001, front-page article in the New York Times reporting that “a powerful consensus has emerged in recent years among social scientists, as well as state and federal policy makers. It sees single-parent families as the dismal foundries that produced decades of child poverty, delinquency and crime. And it views the rise of such families . . . as a singularly important indicator of child pathology.”

The climate of opinion had changed so much, in fact, that by the late 1990s even Candice Bergen, who played Murphy Brown in the TV series, was able to say what she really thought about the TV episode that triggered the debate. “I didn’t think that it was a good message to be sending out,” she told the Los Angeles Times. And in 2002 she said to the Television Critics Association, “I think all of us feel that family values have to sort of come back front and center.”" (Read the whole thing here)

I'll close with the final paragraph the research brief from the Center for Marriage and Families that I've referenced in this post. I think it echoes closely the teachings of the Baha'i Faith on the importance of families:

"Strong families remain essential for a strong and healthy society and irreplaceable for successful child rearing and for satisfying the deeper social-emotional needs of both adults and children. This fact leads one to think that perhaps future generations of Americans will want to make a cultural shift back in the direction of two-parent families held together by lifelong marriage. It is hard to envision this scenario in the very near future, but over the course of the next twenty years signs of this change could become evident. And the scenario will surely become more likely if the nation becomes better educated about the evidence relating family weakening to the host of problems that ail modern societies, especially those concerning our children."