For most of the last century, we have been concerned about the alienation of the cultural and intellectual elites from the institution of marriage. Starting at least as far back as the 1920s, the most highly educated Americans moved away from commitment to marriage. In contrast, the middle class held tenaciously to marriage in both institutional and moral terms. Middle-class Americans and those even lower on the economic scales tended to get married, to stay married, and to have children only within the institution of marriage.
Yet, in a stunning reversal of these commitments, more educated and more wealthy Americans are now more likely to be married, to stay married, and to have children only within marriage. In one of the great tragic and unpredicted developments of our times, less educated Americans are now far less committed to marriage than in the recent past and even less committed to marriage than the educated elites.
As researchers now explain, the “moderately educated” (high school graduates who may have some college but no baccalaureate degree) are now increasingly alienated from marriage. This massive shift in moral and institutional commitment to marriage is a tragedy of epic proportions unfolding before our eyes, yet it is now well underway.
Decades of punditry, pop sociology and prejudice have been premised on this neat division — from the religious right’s Reagan-era claim to be a “Moral Majority” oppressed by a secular elite, to Barack Obama’s unfortunate description of heartland America “clinging” to religion. Like any binary, it oversimplified a complicated picture. But as a beginner’s guide to the culture war, the vision of white-collar social liberals and blue-collar cultural conservatives was, for a substantial period, more accurate than not.
That may no longer be the case. This week, the National Marriage Project is releasing a study charting the decline of the two-parent family among what it calls the “moderately educated middle” — the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree.
This decline is depressing, but it isn’t surprising. We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.
Having grown up in the upper reaches of this society and ended up being a part of and working for a Pentecostal church, I have seen this from both ends. The rot in our social mores started at the top, but has trickled down to the bottom. It’s ironic that liberals whine about “trickle down” economics, but are now faced with trickle down immorality! And the two are related: the lack of stable family structure at the bottom is a major reason our income inequality is increasing, all of the bawling and squalling about “tax cuts for the rich” notwithstanding.
It’s an elitist snob’s dream come true, in many ways. Those who are left with stable families run the show.
The prescription for this malady is that we need to “strengthen marriage”, while attempting to defend marriage by heading off same sex civil marriage. One reason I think why the LGBT community has pushed so hard for same sex civil marriage is because this group is, on the whole, economically well heeled, and it just wants what every other well heeled group has. For both sides, however, the debate over civil marriage is an “upstairs” game; everyone else has bailed on civil marriage.
Instead of a knee-jerk call for “strengthening marriage”, we need to pause and ask why have Americans with less education and income abandoned civil marriage. There are two possibilities.
The first is that our culture–what comes out of our media centres–has extolled the virtues of unrestricted sex and trashed people who oppose this idea (just think of the griping we hear every time abstinence education comes up). Obviously the lower reaches have accepted this proposition.
The second is that civil marriage, as currently configured, doesn’t work for people of lower incomes. Why enter into civil marriage, for example, when conjugal relations outside of it are legal anyway? Or why worry whether children are born out of wedlock when their legal status is no different than those born inside? And, if a relationship doesn’t work out, why line the pockets of a divorce lawyer when you can just split? Finally, on the whole those on the dole in one form or another can get more from the state if they are unmarried, and that can make the difference between eating and not.
It’s unlikely–especially with the legal trends going they way they are–that these deficiencies are going to be fixed in anyone’s lifetime. Instead on waiting for the state to get around to fixing these problems, it’s time for the church–or at least churches that are still serious about lower income people, and Pentecostal churches surely need to be–to offer marriage under God as an alternative to the state kind, and to do the hard work of discipleship and spiritual and personal growth necessary to make stable relationships in this life, to say nothing of what is to come.