1. Trickle-Down Family Destruction
By Bryce J. Christensen and William C. Duncan
An important new report, written by professor Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia and published by the Institute for American Values, outlines a tragic trend toward family breakdown in Middle America. This document, When Marriage Disappears, reports that “in the last four decades, moderately educated Americans have seen their rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing rise, while their odds of wedded bliss have fallen, to the point where their family lives look more and more like those of the least-educated Americans (defined here as having no high-school degree) who make up 12 percent of the adult population ages 25-60.”1 By contrast, the most educated Americans have experienced a leveling off in rates of marital breakdown. The editors of National Review note that the trends described in the report “represent the slow-motion social evisceration of a swath of Middle America.”2
The report explains that the impact of “cultural forces on marriage … has been augmented and abetted by the rise in recent years of a new model of what marriage should be.” The “institutional” understanding of marriage “which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy into a permanent union” has been replaced by a “soul mate” model that defines marriage as “primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses.” This new model “sets a high financial and emotional bar for marriage.” The new model also “disconnects the normative links among sex, parenthood and marriage.” While this “more laissez-faire approach to sex and parenthood generally works well for highly educated Americans, who tend to focus first on education and work, then marriage and then children, and who see early parenthood as an obstacle to their bourgeois success sequence,” it “does not work out so well for less-educated Americans, who greatly value children, do not have bright educational and professional prospects, and also do not believe their romantic relationships or marriages meet society’s new bar for a capstone marriage.” This latter group is thus “much more likely to have children outside of marriage, to cohabit, or to divorce when their relationship or their financial situation fails to measure up to expectations.”3
The trickle-down of elite attitudes about marriage and family and their disastrous effects have been remarked upon by others. In 1998, Christopher Jencks observed:
“Single parenthood began its rapid spread during the 1960s, when elite attitudes toward sex, marriage, divorce, and parenthood were undergoing a dramatic change. This change was obvious in the mass media, in the law, and in the widely publicized activities of celebrities. In the space of a decade we moved from thinking that society ought to discourage extramarital sex, and especially out-of-wedlock births, to thinking that such efforts were an unwarranted infringement on personal liberty. Instead of feeling morally superior to anyone who had a baby without marrying, the young began to feel morally superior to anyone who disapproved of unwed mothers.”
Many of these cultural changes “almost certainly improved the lives of the educated elite,” but “[f]or less privileged couples, however, the demise of traditional norms about marriage and divorce posed more serious problems.” Specifically, “[o]nce the two parent norm loses its moral sanctity, the selfish considerations that always pulled poor parents apart often become overwhelming.”4
Similarly, Theodore Dalrymple has remarked on an irony in the uproar over clergy-abuse scandals. He notes: “The problem is not only, or even mainly, that of the church, quite the contrary. It is universally accepted that step-fathers, for example, are many times more likely to commit both physical and sexual abuse against children than biological fathers; and since step-fatherhood has now become a very much more common relationship than it once was, thanks to the social reforms of the last fifty years or so, it is likely that the great majority of child abuse that occurs in this country is committed by them. Moreover, it is a matter of common knowledge that many mothers connive at such abuse because they wish to retain the favours of the step-fathers.” He also points out that the logic of those who would prosecute church leaders for alleged complicity in abuse by those they supervised would require the prosecution of, among others: “Feminists and all other proponents of lax marriage and easy divorce, including journalists; All legislators who have eased divorce laws and all government ministers who have either failed to support marriage by fiscal means or have actually weakened it by those means; All judges and other lawyers who have administered easy divorce laws instead of having refused to do so; All social workers and social security officials who have sought advantages for or administered payments to non-widowed single parents and no doubt many others.”5
One could be heartened, of course, that trends in family breakdown are leveling out among some of the groups most supportive of the cultural trends that have fueled the breakdown. It ought not be forgotten, however, that the trends set in motion by elites decades ago are now wreaking havoc in real lives.
All of this is worth remembering when we hear various novel proposals for restructuring family life coming from elites in our nation. Surely, gay marriage, surrogacy contracts, cohabitation and the rest will have their social costs as well. Mary Eberstadt has plausibly compared the credulity of today’s intellectuals when opining on alternatives to traditional family life to the Political Pilgrims of the 1920s and 1930s who returned to the West to enthuse that they had seen the future.6
Is there any reason to believe the cultural signals inherent in these trendy ideas (particularly the primacy of adult interests and the commodification of children) will not be taken seriously and their influence will be felt, including by those least equipped to absorb the consequences?
Co-author Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues inSociety, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals.
Co-author William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.
1. W. Bradford Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America (NY: Institute for American Values, 2010), 18.
2. “The Week,” National Review (December 31, 2010): 11.
3. Wilcox, 38-40.
4. Christopher Jencks, “Deadly Neighborhoods,” New Republic (June 13, 1998): 28-30 (review ofThe Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, by William Julius Wilson).
5. Theodore Dalrymple, “The Pope Strikes Back,” Salisbury Review,http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0371.htm.
6. Mary Eberstadt, “The Will to Disbelieve,” First Things (February 2009): 29.
2. Immigration Accountability Bill Gains House Republican Co-Sponsor
Sutherland has published a number of essays in the past month about various aspects of undocumented immigration in Utah:
3. Upcoming Citizen Lobbying Class
Join us at the Utah State Capitol, where we’ll show you the rhyme and reason behind what happens there. In this class we will discuss the legislative process, give you a tour of the Capitol, and examine the important role that you as a citizen can, and should, play in influencing that process. It may surprise you how easy it is to make your voice heard.
Click here to register.
This class will be held in Room 130 of the Capitol. It costs $10 for the public but is free for those who join the Responsible Citizen Exchange.
If you have any questions, please contact Keven Stratton at 801-355-1272 or by email at RCE@sutherlandinstitute.org.
4. Happy 100th, President Reagan
Feb. 6 will mark 100 years since the birth of President Ronald Reagan.
In his honor, here is a four-minute clip of a stirring speech in 1964 in which he speaks of a “rendezvous with destiny.”