I did not grow up thinking of myself as one of a disappearing vanguard of moral traditionalists but apparently that is what I am. A sobering new report by the National Marriage Project chronicles what the authors call a "retreat from marriage." Apparently the nation has been pushing deviancy up; that is, divorce and single motherhood is making its way up from the underclass to the "moderately educated" middle class, which constitutes 59 percent of the American population. A staid and happy married life of the kind I live, meanwhile, is increasingly becoming the "private playground of those already blessed with abundance." A Ferrari, a vacation home and til death do us part.
Ross Douthat writes interestingly about the political implications of this marriage shift in his New York Times column today. For forty years the culture war has divided Americans into the educated permissive children of the sexual revolution and the undereducated, religious conservatives who were horrified by the sexual revolution. Now those roles are scrambled. The educated classes are becoming the defenders of traditional marriage, both in actions and in attitudes. And middle and under class Americans are living lives which make them the true heirs to the sexual revolution.
The part I am uncomfortable with is the patrician solution. If it was wrong to impose the values of the sexual revolution on the pious underclass is it not wrong now to impose our love of marriage? The National Marriage Project is concerned with rescuing traditional marriage, and they partner with the Center for Marriage and Families which is concerned with reducing the percentage of children born to single parents. Both groups make the assumption that the retreat from marriage is not the result of but the cause of our troubles.
But I’m not so sure. I read report after report about the decline of marriage and it feels more like a symptom: of female independence, economic disaster, the declining status of men. Encouraging marriage among a group of people who have given up on it is fairly difficult, as the Clinton administration found out during the welfare reform era. By contrast other social policies – better child care options for single mothers, support for out of work dads who need to pay child support – are relatively easy.
Image of rings from Wikimedia Commons.