“This hollowing out of marriage in mainstream America is among the most consequential social facts of our era,” declares A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage, just released by the Institute for American Values. “It’s contributing to the growth of inequality, harming countless children, and weakening, perhaps fatally, our formerly strong middle class. And amazingly, if you listen to political leaders of both parties and opinion leaders from both the left and right, you’ll discover that very few of them appear even to have noticed what’s happening.”
Making a point our editor has made several times, the Call notes that “marriage is rapidly dividing along class lines, splitting the country that it used to unite. While marriage is stable or strengthening among our college-educated elites, much larger numbers of Americans, particularly in middle and working-class America, are abandoning the institution entirely, with harmful social and personal consequences.”
The current conversation, it explains, focuses on the question of gay marriage, thinks of the problem as one of welfare and of the young, treats the problems of middle-class marriage as a therapeutic matter, and assumes that nothing can be done. The new conversation asks who (regardless of their position on gay marriage) wants to strengthen marriage, thinks of the problem as one of inequality and one affecting people of every age, treats marriage as a practical matter, in particular associating marriage and thrift, and insists that something can and must be done.
The 74 signatories include Jean Bethke Elshtain, this year’s Erasmus Lecturer, and Amy Wax, who recently wrote for us. Other signers are David Blankenhorn, who runs the IAV, gay-marriage activist Jonathan Rauch, popular Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, the Catholic writer Peter Steinfels, marriage scholars Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Kay Hymnowitz, and David Popenoe, and Commentary’s editor John Podhoretz.
Bravo, in general, I think. The signers offer a bolder and more substantial defense of marriage than one hears from many of its public advocates, who have often—and I fully understand the temptation—narrowed their interest to opposing gay marriage and limited their concern to the problems of the marginalized and not those of the affluent. It’s easier to complain about homosexual couples or poor men fathering children by several mothers than to confront the upper-middle-class friends divorcing and remarrying with insouciance.
Though the Call’s not completely bold: In its third point, for example, it asks questions rather than giving answers. It says: “If unwed child bearing is not good for teens”—it’s firm about that—“is it good for twenty-somethings? Thirty-somethings with good jobs? As the huge Baby Boom generation (the generation that led the divorce revolution) heads toward retirement and old age, does marriage matter for older and empty-nest Americans, and if so, why?” Not a ringing assertion of the importance of marriage for anyone but the young. I would have thought, given the Call’s overt commitments, it would have said something more definite, like “don’t divorce and remarry with insouciance.”
But still, bravo in general. Yet it’s not something I would sign. Much, admittedly, can be done by this kind of alliance, like pressing for laws making divorce more difficult, and this kind of effort has long been David Blankenhorn’s often lonely work. He is due much thanks.
But the result, and perhaps in some cases the intent, is to reduce or deflate opposition to the reinvention of marriage through the inclusion of same-sex couples, by the seductive call to do something more important and more effective. It’s not just a call to defend marriage, it’s a call to give up working for marriage as traditionally understood. More fundamentally, some of us believe that the effort to strengthen marriage while redefining it is ultimately pointless—that, to put it another way, gay marriage is itself one of the problems the Call ought to engage.
I’m all for pragmatic alliances, and dislike the partisan’s habit of rejecting anything not up to his standards, but this is an alliance I think more idealistic than pragmatic. Even while saying bravo.