Ross Douthat today is touting a new study from the University of Virginia bemoaning the decline of marriage in Middle America. OMG, the educated elite is now more committed to family values and religion than Sarah Palin’s flyover majority–i.e. they go to church more, get married more, and divorced less. What’s the country coming to?
Douthat speculates that at least some of the explanation may lie in the influx of religious conservatives into the educated elite. (Jeez, who let them in?) On the other hand, he (like the authors of the study) think the country’s in big trouble:
The reinforcing bonds of strong families and strong religious
communities have been crucial to working-class prosperity in America.
Yet today, no religious body seems equipped to play the kind of
stabilizing role in the lives of the “moderately educated middle” (let
alone among high school dropouts) that the early-20th-century Catholic
Church played among the ethnic working class.
Far be it from me, as a card-carrying member of the educated elite, to disparage the bonds of kirche und kin. I do, however, think that working-class prosperity in the 20th-century owed a bit more to unions and New Deal social welfare policies.
Still, what to do about marriage? A few weeks ago, Pew came out with its own study on the institution’s decline (which most Americans seem to regard as an increase in divorce, though divorce is also in unlamented decline). Perhaps the problem is that these days the most important reason Americans give for getting married (93 percent of the married and 84 percent of the unmarried) is “love,” and love is getting harder to find. Having children ranks a lot lower: Only 59 percent of the married and 44 percent of the unmarried cite it as a “very important” reason.
Yet if you ask what makes a family, children outrank love. That is to say, Americans consider even situations of which they disapprove–single moms and child-raising same-sex couples–to be families, but not same-sex or unmarried heterosexual couples living together without children. The UVa study stays entirely away from same-sex marriage, but the data it offers makes clear that the decline in the marriage rate has nothing to do with the recent appearance of SSM as a public issue (as some opponents would have you believe).
So here’s the deal. If we believe that marriage is A Good Thing, we need to tie it more closely to the family as we now understand it–which is to say, to adults raising children. And that means, if nothing else, moving forward with SSM as quickly as possible.