Although there are five basic institutions in society, only three of them are what I call “person-forming”. The marketplace and government function to protect individuals and to provide for goods and services, but they do not function to directly form the individual. It is the family, the church, and the school that shape character, instill moral principles (which are universal and timeless), and which develop the person as a whole. Thus these three institutions serve society in this, the most foundational and critical of its long range tasks. They each play a direct role in the formation of a person as he moves toward adulthood—additionally, the marketplace and government rely on the primacy of these three person-forming institutions in order to have people capable of serving in their economic and citizen roles.
Why are the institutions of family, church, and school able to form an individual while the institutions of marketplace and government are not? The answer profoundly impacts our national discussion about policies and their implications. Even more importantly, as we delve deeply into this question, we can see more clearly what it means to be human.
There is something foundational to human life that the institutions of marketplace and government simply cannot provide: it is the intimate relational formation of a person. People’s deepest need is relational—love, care, affection, and personalized guidance. In the family, a child finds the nurturing intimacy he needs. In the church, he finds the relational intimacy with the divine that speaks to his soul’s questions. In the school, through good relationships with his teachers, he learns how to understand the world in which he will soon act. The marketplace and the government are the institutions through which he can later exercise who he has become through the shaping of his family, church, and school. When it comes to directly forming who he is, however, marketplace and government have significantly less direct impact—though, in their proper context, laws can teach a great deal, and services from the dark side of the economy can corrupt (e.g. pornography).
As we will explore in future blog postings, the consequences are grave if we misunderstand the distinct nature of the person-forming institutions. To return to our farming analogy: it is ignorant and futile for a farmer to expect abundant crops and sustainable returns without first preparing the soil for harvest, planting good seeds, and caring for the land. Failure to do so results in stunted crop growth and insufficient income for the farmer.
Similarly, we must protect the “three sacred spaces” of family, church and school to permit the harmonizing of the person-forming tasks: the family, where the child most deeply develops as a relating and belonging person; the church, where he orients himself to life and its big issues; and the school, where he learns about the world around him and how to make sense of it. As the farming analogy shows, a child’s future productivity and stability depend on the person-forming institutions’ foundational actions. Giving improper weight to the instrumental institutions—or disconnecting the person-forming ones from each other—will lead to societal destabilization (indeed, this is already happening). When families are treasured and intact, when those families worship God weekly, and when schools aid the work of parents in teaching children according to their worldviews: children from such families thrive, and a society made of these families grows in well-being. Such is the task of each generation—of all societies, across the globe. These are universal truths.