Archives: December 2012

Some thoughts of Singleness, Friendship, and the Church

12.31.2012 3:34 PM

First off – a happy Christmas and Hanukkah, pleasant holiday festivities, and merry New Year to all!  I hope all our Family Scholars readers are enjoying the season (or at least have had better luck than I in avoiding the stomach flu).

Secondly, a belated shout out to Amy for all her hard work in bringing the Symposium together for State of Our Unions – I really liked the way it allowed multiple conversations to flourish simultaneously, and the wonderful voices of our guest bloggers, who each brought something different and fresh to the conversations happening on the blog.  Hopefully this is a sign of things to come and the “scholar” aspect of the blog will be more present (although I appreciate the opportunity to bring my voice as a lay person and novice researcher).

I’ve been ruminating on all the various discussions that came out of the symposium, but had not found anything I wanted to chime in on until this morning when I ran across  this short piece by Wesley Hill at FirstThings on the importance of friendships for celibate gay Christians.    It called to mind Katelyn Beaty’s symposium piece.  Hill, who writes for the blog Spiritual Friendship, explores how single celibate individuals form friendships, and if these relationships are satisfying and fulfilling of their emotional needs, and then relates his reflections to the mission of the Church as a communion of strangers.

Read More

2012 Year in Review at FamilyScholars

12.31.2012 10:23 AM

Happy New Year’s Eve, all!

If you follow FamilyScholars or The Institute for American Values on Twitter or Facebook–if you don’t, let’s make that happen!-then you know we’ve been counting down both the most impactful posts on FamilyScholars in terms of views as well as several editor’s picks for 2012.

For a little sample of our editor’s picks, check out these posts from early in 2012 from Amber Lapp, John Culhane, Fannie, me, Stephanie Blessing, Christelyn D. Karazin, David Blankenhorn, Alana S., Stephanie Lind, or Matt N.

In terms of page views, several of our recent FamilyScholars Symposium pieces topped the list as well as several pieces by State of our Union’s co-author and blogger W. Bradford Wilcox.  In looking at the numbers, I found it appropriate that the top viewed piece is a one-sentence post from David Blankenhorn–a popularity that shows the strength of the FamilyScholars commenting community.  Granted, no blogger or commenter is perfect, but overall, the tenor and intellectual rigor of the comments is consistently high.

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to support FamilyScholars!

Litigation versus Health Care Reform

12.31.2012 9:36 AM

Wow. It will be interesting to watch how this new law in China unfolds.  Truth be told, I thought that the US was the most litigious place to live, but in terms of filial piety perhaps I was wrong.

“State media say the new clause will allow elderly parents who feel neglected by their children to take them to court. The move comes as reports abound of elderly parents being abandoned or ignored by their children.

A rapidly developing China is facing increasing difficulty in caring for its aging population. Three decades of market reforms have accelerated the breakup of the traditional extended family in China, and there are few affordable alternatives, such as retirement or care homes, for the elderly or others unable to live on their own.”

‘Love is romantic but marriage is a contract’

12.30.2012 4:00 PM

In a bizarre mashup of fiction promoted as social policy intervention via press release, a new novel apparently features the idea of the 7 1/2 year marriage license (a similar idea of termed, renewable marriage contracts was floated not long ago by real-life legislators in Mexico).

‘Long term marriages are the real love stories of our time’

12.30.2012 3:55 PM

Jill Brooke writing at HuffPo:

…I last saw Nora Ephron earlier this year at the memorial for best-selling author Charla Krupp, who shocked her circle of loyal devoted friends by never divulging her terminal illness. While Nora was behind me as we signed our names on the guest book, a few friends, with tear rimmed eyes, came up to us questioning how anyone could keep a terminal illness secret or would want to make that choice. “We live in the age of the Internet where everyone tells everyone everything,” cried one friend.

“The credit should go to a good marriage,” I said, referring to Charla’s partnership to Time magazine’s theater critic Richard Zoglin. “How lucky was she that her husband’s love was enough that she didn’t need anyone else.”

I then turned to Nora and for some inexplicable reason said, “Don’t you agree?” In owl-like black sunglasses, the celebrated writer of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally nodded her head and whispered, “That is so true.” Only now I realize she most likely was thinking of her own husband, writer Nick Pileggi, whose quiet unwavering support gave her the protective cocoon to keep her secret intact — even from her children…

All I Want for Christmas

12.30.2012 3:50 PM

Tim Stanley writing in the Telegraph:

A British consumer agency released a survey that showed that the tenth most requested gift from Father Christmas was “a dad” (coming in just behind “snow”).

The M.Guy Tweet

12.29.2012 6:42 AM

Marriage Media
Week of December 23, 2011
Courtesy of Bill Coffin

1. 2012: The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent, The State of Our Unions, Institute for American Values

“Marriage in Middle America is at a tipping point, with unwed childbearing threatening to become a new norm,” said report co-author W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a professor of sociology at U.Va.

See replies from 14 scholars and opinion leaders across the country here.

2. Understanding How Children Develop Empathy, New York Times

Don’t offer material rewards for prosocial behavior, but do offer opportunities to do good — opportunities that the child will see as voluntary. And help children see themselves and frame their own behavior as generous, kind, helpful, as the mother in my exam room did.

3. Skills That Make Us a Good Partner Make Us a Good Parent, ScienceDaily

Being a good partner may make you a better parent, according to a new study. The same set of skills that we tap to be caring toward our partners is what we use to nurture our children, researchers found.

4. Dangers of Cohabitation, Religion and Ethics Column

The National Crime Victimization Survey of the Justice Department over 9 years reported that 65% of violent crimes against women were committed by a boyfriend or an ex-husband with only 9% caused by a husband.

5. Marriage Advice: Pre-marital Check List Helps Build a Successful Marriage, News Sentinel

Researcher Scott Stanley has found that couples who cohabitat tend to “slide” into marriage rather than actually deciding on it. . . The result: One party often sees it as a step toward marriage; the other sees it as simply “roommates with benefits.”

6. Marriage Culture Called Key to Stable Middle Class, Washington Times

“The plight of this population who once married in high proportions and formed families within marriage — and who still aspire to marriage, but increasingly are unable to achieve it — is the social challenge for our times.”

7. 10 Steps for Arguing Instead of Fighting, Psychology Today


  • Raising voices
  • Bringing up the past
  • Name-calling
  • Problem-focused


  • Calm voices
  • Mutual respect
  • Focused on one issue
  • Solution-focused

So how do you move from fighting to arguing? . . .

For more, see here.

Mary: Modern Inspiration for Modern Times

12.24.2012 5:40 PM

You can also read this piece from me at HuffPost but I thought I would post it here in entirety as well:

Every Christmas brings the ancient story of Jesus’ birth into conversation with modern times, and this year, as in many years, I look to Mary for how to navigate extraordinary joy and extraordinary pain in the midst of everyday life.  As a Protestant Christian I do not venerate Mary as Theotokos, but Mary always stands at the center of the nativity story alongside her family: her husband and fellow dreamer Joseph and son Jesus.  In the reading of Luke’s Gospel nativity story, I find inspiration in her teen-aged candor, her heart for the outsider, and her quiet reactions to both moments of wonder and moments of tragic loss.

I love that Mary is a teenager.  Most of my life in congregations has been spent with teenagers, and so I always look at Mary through the tempestuous and dramatic temperament of Shakespeare’s Juliet in modern skinny jeans and Ugg boots. For the past several Advents, I wrote and prepared a Christmas skit to modernize the Christmas story using pop culture as a lens.  We had a ball brainstorming and enacting ideas.  One year, we imagined the angelic chorus that sings to the shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth as an episode of heavenly Glee.  We re-wrote the lyrics to the show-stopper “Don’t Stop Believin’with a faithful twist: “Just a city boy, born and raised in South Galilee…he took a lowly donkey to Bethlehem…”  One year we imagined potential nativity characters from Elizabeth to the stable’s donkey auditioning to sing for the Christ child a la Bethlehem Idol.  But my favorite remains one called Nativity News.  As reporters break the news of Jesus’ birth we catch an imaginative, modern glimpse of the teenage Mary as a field reporter at the Bethlehem Holiday Inn stable interviews her:

In Studio Anchor: By the way, who are the parents of the baby?

Field Reporter: You won’t believe it but its Joe from right here in Bethlehem.  He had recently moved to Nazareth to open an Ace Hardware store—he’s a gifted carpenter as many of us know–but he had to come back home for the census and he brought with him his pregnant fiancée, Mary.  They’re planning a June wedding, and I think they should push the Holiday Inn for a discount on the reception hall for this whole stable debacle.  Oh, wait, here’s Mary now.  Excuse me, Mary, it’s Nativity News, can we have a word?

Mary: Um…okay, but I, like, just had a baby.

Field Reporter: Yes, of course, you must be exhausted.

Mary: (rolls her eyes) Duh.

Field Report: So, what was it like traveling all this distance and then having to give birth in a barn?

Mary:  The trip was not cool.  I needed to stop, like, every 5 minutes to make a pit stop.  Joseph never wanted to stop, he’d be, all, “Come on, Mary, can’t you make it to the rest area?”  And I was like, “Uh, no, I have to go now. If I could, like, wait, I wouldn’t have said, like, I need to go now.”

Field Reporter: So, how was Joseph in the delivery room?

Mary: Oh, he rocked; it was the animals that were a pain.  I kept telling the donkey, “Look, donkey, I, like, need that manger.  And the donkey was all, “Hee-haw, no,” and I was all, “Hee-Haw, yeah.”

Field Reporter:  Wow, so much drama!  How are YOU doing through all this?

Mary:  I look fine on the outside, but I am like, totally pondering all this in my heart.

This last line never ceases to inspire me as Mary turns to introspection in the midst of all the action.  Women in scripture can be prayerful like Hannah, laughing like Sara, taking action like Tamar or Judith or Ruth, but I’ve struggled to find a passage noting a faithful woman as introspective. But here, as shepherds gather in and the star still shines, after his birth and before their exile to Egypt, while the death of countless children lies on the unforeseen horizon, Mary ponders all these things in her heart.  Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates: “Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.”   

Mary’s ability to carve out sacred space to behold and ponder deeply resonated with me first over sixteen years ago when a dear friend died a few days before Christmas.  Up to that point I had been sheltered from the inevitable dissonance of celebrating the holidays while carrying loss, sadness and questions.  As every hymn sounded in a minor key and I struggled to live my favorite traditions with a heavy heart, I began to notice Mary.  I first noticed how when we move past her initial trusting response, she immediately seeks support from her relative Elizabeth and then turns her heart to those overlooked, cast out, and suffering.  When extraordinary, life-changing events happen, Mary teaches us to turn to another who can support us, and then to take actions that remind us that no matter how wonderful or wretched our current circumstances, we are not the center of the universe.  Turning our hearts and minds to the plight of others, can help alleviate the pain in our lives by in part distracting us, in part giving us control over some small corner of an out of control world, but most of all, helping us re-frame.  After living through the aftermath and recovery of Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Gustav, and serving countless families in hospice care, I saw first-hand how healing the act of reaching out to help a neighbor or loved one in need can be, both to commiserate as well as work together to take baby steps towards a new expression of life.

Especially this year, as many across our nation continue to reel from the tragic deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary, as children of all ages are missed acutely this Christmas, I look again to Mary.  As we hear in the Gospel of John, at the foot of the cross, Mary beholds her son, suffering and dying.  Again, she first turns to another for personal support, this time named by her son who asks John to care for his mother. But eventually, she will re-frame.  After his death and resurrection, she will join the Christian movement, still thinking of outsiders and serving those cast out or suffering.  And yet, I find it hard to imagine that as a mother she will ever forget the human suffering of her son, even while she finds new expressions of life.

Mary believes, Mary ponders, Mary grieves—an inspiration to modern people, ever experiencing extraordinary joy and extraordinary loss in the midst of ordinary life.

When Marriage Also Means Gay Marriage—A Proposed Research Agenda Related to Family Structure and Child Well-Being

12.24.2012 1:32 PM

I now support gay marriage.

Recognizing that children raised by same-sex couples are also always at least one of the following—children of divorce or parental breakup, adopted, donor conceived, or foster—I would like to posit what I see currently with regard to gay marriage as two potential positives, two potential negatives, and two unknowns when it comes to child well-being. My hope is that articulating these points could help to shape questions and research going forward.

Potential positives:

1)     With marriage re-centered as a norm for all, perhaps renewed strength of the norm will shore up or at least forestall the hollowing out of marriage in Middle America.

2)     Marriage may increase family stability for children of same-sex couples. Research is showing that on average the more family transitions a child experiences, the higher risks a child faces. Children of same-sex couples will always have had at least one family transition (the divorce, break up, relinquishment or removal that separated them from daily life with either or both their mother and father), but if marriage helps stabilize the union of the parents raising them that is on average likely to be good. From heterosexual experience we know that stepfamilies are less optimal for children than intact families, but stepfamilies appear nevertheless to be better for children (somewhat more stable, and less risky) than cohabiting unions.

Potential negatives:

1)     Jurisdictions where same-sex marriage has been legalized typically see a call for broader access to (and in some cases state support of) technologies that deliberately separate children from their biological father or mother (via sperm or egg donation or surrogacy). These practices raise troubling concerns for persons conceived this way, and social acceptance of these practices seem to go in tandem with acceptance of other practices (father abandonment, for example) that result in children not being raised by their mother and father.

2)     There is a risk of an adult-centered view of marriage as about equality for sexual minorities overshadowing the always necessarily complex family experience of persons raised by same-sex couples. Will the children (young or grown) of an historically oppressed minority be able to tell their own stories?


1)     What degree of effect will same sex marriage have on relationship stability for same sex couples?

2)     What degrees of distress that children of same-sex couples may have experienced or do experience are due to social stigma versus losses inherent in their family structures? Will same-sex marriage reduce (or reflect reduced) social stigma for LGBT persons/same sex couples? If yes, will that social change ameliorate at least part of the potential suffering felt by children raised by same-sex couples, and if so, by how much?

New Story at Anonymous Us: “I’m Wanted”

12.24.2012 12:50 PM

This one just in. Reminds me of when I had plans to use a donor to conceive my children because I had such low expectations of men. I wish her good luck.

Merry Christmas everybody.


First off, I should start with the fact that my “donor” was not anonymous. My conception was not what you’d call a normal donation. My mother wanted a child, she new what she wanted, and she found a man that fit the bill. I have never met my father, and I (hopefully) never will.

I’m writing my story, because I am now choosing to do what she did, and I’m going into it knowing how it felt for me.

I think I first started asking questions when I was 5 or 6. My mother was my world, but eventually the kids at school, well they wanted to know why I was different. Being different, that is a horrible horrible thing. Or at least that’s what the world seems to teach us. It’s wrong by the way.

When I turned 10 or 11, we got the internet at my house. That’s when I decided I REALLY wanted to know. My mom had told me a bit here and there. I don’t think she had given me any important information at that time. No name, nothing like that. Christmas was upon us, and my mom found me in my room crying.

“What’s wrong honey?”

Well, it was Christmas, a time for family, to be with the people who love you and care about you. I was the only family I knew who only had 2. I had no siblings, no father, just me and Mom. I felt like I was missing my family at Christmas. When I told her I wanted to find my dad and have more info, her face fell. It makes me cry now even thinking about it, like I thought she wasn’t good enough. That wasn’t it at all! But she didn’t know that. As a matter of fact, were it not for my peers, I never would have cared, nor asked in the first place.

We found him. I even got to talk to him on the phone. This contact was followed by years of empty promises and lies from him. Every time I talked to him, in email, on the phone, it seemed like he was a different person. My senior year I told him I was graduating. I’ve never heard from him again.

The thing is, I don’t blame him. I don’t LIKE him, but I don’t blame him. He had a family of his own, a life of his own, other children of his own. I was not HIS. He didn’t know me, he didn’t raise me, I didn’t reflect his values.

I have his complexion, his eye color, I even have his hair, but he’s not my father. He’s not my family. Thousands of people around the world have this complexion, this hair color, these eyes. Thousands of people have bits and pieces of DNA that match mine.

I may have gotten my DNA from him, but that DNA isn’t just his. It’s now mine, and it will be my children’s. It’s also shared in parts and pieces among people all over the world whom I claim no relation to. I am NOT the sum of my genetics, I am the sum of my morals, my values, my loves and my dislikes.

WHO I am is more important than WHAT I am.

Lets face it, genetics determine WHAT we are. What color we are, what gender we are, what height we are, even sometimes what weight we are.

WHAT we are isn’t what matters, WHO we are is.

I am the the daughter of a mother who loved me enough to go through the trials and tribulations of raising me alone. I am happy with who I am and I would NOT be this person if I HAD known my father. I might have been a good person then, but I am quite happy not risking it, and staying the person I am now. Now I am going to do the same thing when I have my child, and I’m going hopefully teach them the same things my mother taught me. I’m going to teach my child that I love them enough for everyone!

Is Gay Marriage, Marriage? (cont.)

12.23.2012 1:45 PM

In our Family Scholars symposium last week, in connection with the 2012 issue of State of Our Unions and its lead essay (of which I’m a co-author), “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation and the Witherspoon Institute offered a contribution called “Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda Without Talking about What Marriage Is?”  Anderson’s piece drew many comments from readers, including a fairly breezy and highly critical one from me. Anderson didn’t like the tone or substance of my comments, as he explained the other day on the First Things blog in a post called “Let’s Reason Together About Marriage, Mr. Blankenhorn.”  Then David Mills, the executive editor of First Things, joined the discussion with a blog post on “Blankenhorn’s Boxes.”  And the discussion over there continues.   

Because I think Anderson is a serious man, and because I think the new book of which he is a co-author (What is Marriage?  Man and Woman: A Defense) is a serious book, and because I regret the breezy and patronizing tone of my original comment, and because I’m deeply interested in some of the questions raised by Anderson’s symposium essay and the commentary surrounding it, I want to pull together some of my own current thoughts, and open up a fresh conversation here, for those who may be interested. 

In his opening paragraph, Ryan states what seems to me to be his main point, which is that “you can’t advance a marriage agenda without knowing what marriage is and why it matters for public policy.”  He then poses for us what he views as the core question we face:  “What is the truth about marriage?”  And the “truth,” for Ryan, is that marriage has a specific definition and set of purposes, none of which are compatible with the idea of same-sex relations.

He then goes down the list of some of the main policy recommendations in the “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” and, one by one, points out that, absent a clear societal rejection of gay marriage – absent, that is, agreement with Ryan and his colleagues that marriage must have a clear definition and that “gay” is not a legitimate part of that definition – we as a society can hardly expect to make much progress when it comes to strengthening marriage.  As he puts it in the final sentence of his contribution, referring to my and other Institute for American Values leaders’ call for a “new conversation” on marriage:  “How successful can a ‘new conversation on marriage’ be when its leaders can’t even say what marriage is?”

To me, the core implication of Anderson’s argument is that meaningful support for marriage in America must, by definition, be premised in opposition to gay marriage.

At First Things, both Anderson himself and David Mills seem to take umbrage with this description of whatAnderson is saying, but I cannot see why.  To me it seems quite clear that this is what Anderson is saying.  (Maybe it was my dismissive tone that they are objecting to; and for that tone I again apologize.) 

So here is my first and in some way main query for us all: Is it true, or not true, that the main implication of Ryan’s argument – using the very terminology adopted by him and his colleagues, let’s call it the argument that “gay marriage is not marriage” – is that in order effectively to be for marriage, Americans by definition must be against gay marriage.  If that is not exactly what Anderson and his colleagues are saying, then I’m at a loss. 

David Mills in his comments, and several readers in offline emails to me, chastise me for failing to offer a specific, empirical, point-by-point rebuttal to the argument that “gay marriage is not marriage.”  And honestly, this challenge is what here interests me most.  What is a person of good will to make of the thesis that marriage has a true definition, and that same-sex relations are simply not a part of that true definition?  Is an empirical rebuttal to this assertion possible?  Is any such rebuttal likely to be persuasive to those who hold that gay marriage is not marriage? Is even the best of such rebuttals likely to be persuasive to anyone? 

As I say, this is the question that has grabbed me, and that won’t let go. 

My current thinking is that an empirical, inductive, point-by-point disproval of Anderson’s thesis is probably not possible, and almost certainly would be unlikely to be very persuasive, either to Ryan and his colleagues or, for that matter, to anyone else.  As someone who disagrees with the thesis, let me try to explain what I mean.   

To start with, I like definitions as much as the next guy, and several years ago I wrote an entire book basically trying to answer the question, What is marriage?  So anyone who’s interested in how I approach that question can read that book. Right now, I’ll just say that my approach was historical and anthropological, and I was mainly interested in the question of origins — how did marriage come to be in human groups? — and in the role of institutions in social life.

In my view, Anderson’s approach is quite different from my own — to me it’s much more philosophical and much more formal. In Anderson’s epistemology, as I understand it, based on reading his symposium contribution and his book, there are certain questions about the goods and goals of human sexuality. Each of these questions has one correct or true answer. And all of these true answers, in turn, like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, fit together into one picture, one harmonious whole — one large structure of objective truth.

Now, as a part of putting together and appreciating the beauty of this jig-saw puzzle, Anderson (like many others working out of this particular tradition) has discovered, by way of definitional fact, that gay marriage is not marriage. There is one and only one true answer to the philosophical question, What is marriage?, and the entire issue of same-sex relations violates and degrades the integrity of that true answer.

Now, the main reason that I don’t believe in this thesis is that I don’t believe in this epistemology. I don’t believe that every question about human sexuality has one and only one true answer; I don’t believe that all of these objectively true answers fit together, like a jig-saw puzzle, into one harmonious whole; I don’t believe (to put it slightly differently) that all values can be defined and rank-ordered in a way that makes each value an ally of all the others;  and I further believe that people who do think this way tend to be, as I believe Anderson is in this case, far, far too aggressive in their demand that all of the rest of us line up behind their true definitions of things.

This is why I think that the Anderson-and-colleagues thesis that “gay marriage by definition is not marriage” must ultimately be challenged at the level of epistemology, rather than (as Mills and Ryan seem to ask for) at the level of a specific, empirical counter-argument.

Permit me to say a bit more about why I reach this conclusion.  

As I’ve tried to make clear, I take Anderson and his book co-authors to be the proponents of a totalistic explanation of human sexuality, or of what Rawls called a comprehensive system – a fully worked out framework for determining what is objectively and permanently true in the area of human sexuality, all built (largely deductively) upon a few core concepts (“truths”) about the definition and destiny of the human person, and characterized by a thick, rich web of interlocking definitions, premises, and conclusions, all of which fit together into one harmonious whole.

I have noticed, in my own experience, two things about attempts critically to probe or challenge this way of thinking. The first is that such systems of thought can rarely be upset or called into question on a piecemeal basis, through the presentation of empirical evidence. There are two reasons for this. Not only is more and new empirical evidence always available, but more importantly, any particular challenge of this nature is simply swallowed up, digested, and rendered harmless by the larger system. You got a problem with my knee bone? Well, what you might not know, is that the knee bone is connected to the shin bone, and the shin bone is connected to the foot bone.  All of the bones work together perfectly and each one perfectly reinforces all the others.  So, you wanna ask me, why do I think homosexual conduct is intrinsically disordered and sinful? Well, glad you asked, because what you might not fully appreciate, is that it all has to do with the goods and goals of marriage and with the telos of human sexuality. The shin bone is connected to the foot bone.  And so it goes.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that a system of thought founded on principles of deductive reasoning – if this true, then this also is true – cannot often be challenged or probed on the basis of inductive reasoning. These two ways of figuring out what is true ultimately do not go together, and the latter way of investigating the world (induction) can only very rarely successfully overturn the former (deduction) in the minds of those who adhere to the formulations and teachings of the deductively arrived at system of thought. It’s like throwing a few grains of sand at a cannon. The sand may be real enough, and meaningful enough, but it hardly bothers the cannon. The cannon hardly even notices.

That is why, in my view, this Anderson-and-colleagues way of knowing about sexuality must ultimately be probed, if it’s going to be probed at all, primarily at the systemic or epistemological level, rather than primarily at the point-by-point, show-me-your-data level.  And that’s what I’m trying (in a very rough and tentative way; I’m open to being corrected) to do here.  

 Meanwhile, I’m still like the guy in Reagan’s old joke, waiting for my two dollars — I’m still waiting for someone to tell me why my explanation of the main implication of Ryan’s argument is not an accurate one.

More from Professor Linda McClain on the Constitutional Misconceptions about Same-Sex Marriage

12.22.2012 3:32 PM

If you enjoyed reading Professor McClain’s FamilyScholars Symposium response, “Putting the “Other” Marriage Equality Problem on the Agenda,” where she addresses directly the piece submitted by Ryan Anderson, you might want to check out her and Professor James E. Fleming’s HuffPost piece, “Five Constitutional Misconceptions About Same-Sex Marriage” published today.

Our FamilyScholars Symposium in February will highlight co-editors Professors McClain and Daniel Cere’s soon to be released book, What is Parenthood?: Contemporary Debates About the Family.” You may want to pre-order the book so you can read up before February!

Thank You & Support Us!

12.22.2012 8:00 AM

Dear Friends,

This community of conversation called “FamilyScholars” depends almost entirely on you. Without your involvement, we don’t exist. As you know, every day, we depend on your commentary and your intellectual engagement.

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12.21.2012 11:47 PM

Today Cheyenne, a twenty-five year old mom who lives with her boyfriend a couple streets over from me, and I shared a couple hour car ride. We were going to Cheyenne’s six year old son’s aunt’s house—located in a small town of modest hundred year old homes, dirty and sagging but potentially full of charm and character—to drop him off for the weekend so that he could see his dad and join in that side of the family’s Christmas festivities. “I HATE how he does that,”Cheyenne said, talking about Chance’s dad. “He just drops in his life when it’s convenient for him. Chance knows Mike’s his dad, but Mike doesn’t really know him. Chance just knows he’s his dad from other people saying, ‘That’s your dad.’”

Chance and Cheyenne both overslept today. Cheyenne couldn’t fall asleep the night before, and had stayed up watching a movie. As the first snow fall of winter fell outside, and Cheyenne’s boyfriend went off to his first day at work doing hospitality at a local resort, Cheyenne and her kids slept until almost noon. In the car, Chance told me that he missed the bus, so he couldn’t go to school. He was very excited to go to Aunt Patty’s house instead.

On the way,Cheyenne commented, “Well, I guess the world isn’t going to end after all.” She and her boyfriend had been a little bit concerned about the end of the Mayan calendar, and have been talking about it for months. Lately,Cheyenne’s been building a 72 hour emergency kit with extra clothes and trash bags that could be used as ponchos and Sternos and emergency candles, and maybe some cans of food. She can’t decide if that would make the bag too heavy in case she has to evacuate quickly. “I’d have to put the backpack on, and then grab my two year old, and then hold Chance’s hand. If it were a flood, I’d be booking it up the hill to my mom’s, so I don’t want it to be too heavy.”

About this time we crossed a large bridge over top a brown rippling river, not quite frozen. “I’m afraid we’re going to get frozen in an iceberg!” Chance screamed, genuinely frightened. “We’ve been watching Iceberg Hunters,” Cheyenne explains. She then goes on to talk about how there was a tornado in one of the Dakotas, and a 25 car pile-up inI owa. “And do you know how many tornadoes and earthquakes there were in March of this year?” she asks. The implication is that the end of the world may be near, even if it wasn’t today.

In other news, Cheyenne’s doomsday view of the world is not that out of line with the relational doomsdays that she has experienced: with her parents’ marriage, with her relationship with her dad and step-mom, with her many boyfriends, with the fathers of her children.

Because she lives in a community with very little social trust and a lot of instability, Cheyenne tells me that she used to say that marriage is “just a piece of paper” because that’s kind of all it seems to be when you see more divorces than successful marriages. But she adds that when people say that it’s just a piece of paper, she isn’t so sure that they actually mean it. She thinks it might have more to do with a fear of the bad things that can happen if you get married:  “I think it’s just because they don’t want to make that commitment. Well, they want that commitment, but they don’t want to be legally bound. If something happens, they don’t want to lose half their stuff, and have to go through a divorce and all that.”

And “something” will probably happen, because anything can happen, and you should always expect the worse. That’s a common motto of those who have suffered family breakdowns and relationship breakups. And it sometimes seems to affect their entire worldview. Because even if the world hasn’t ended yet, marriages face their apocalypses regularly. And in a world in which no one can be trusted—in a world in which the only life a child knows can be pulled out from him like a rug—the end of little “worlds” happens all the time.  And if life as you know it can change in an instant, and if that has been proven to you over and over throughout childhood and young adulthood, the thought that the entire world might end at any moment doesn’t really seem all that farfetched. At least not for Cheyenne, as she packs up her emergency kit and braces for the worst.



Welcome to Our First FamilyScholars Symposium

12.20.2012 8:31 AM

As Editor of the new FamilyScholars Symposium Series, I am delighted to invite you to enjoy and participate in our first FamilyScholars Symposium.

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, we will be highlighting the expert analysis of 14 scholars and opinion leaders from across the country as they respond to the recently released report titled “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” featured in this year’s issue of State of Our Unions, a journal published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

By clicking here you can read all the essays in one place or by clicking on each author’s essay title you can read each piece on its own. Comments will be accepted on this post, on the symposium welcome page where you can read all the essays in one place, or at each essay’s page.

Each writer brings a unique perspective that builds on elements of the report’s argument and recommendations, pinpoints gaps, critiques all or part of the report’s thesis, or makes suggestions for further study.

Check in here throughout the two days and follow us on Twitter (@FamScholars or me @RevAmyZ or Elizabeth Marquardt @newmetaphor70) for live-tweeting throughout the two days.

We welcome rigorous, critical engagement in a context of civility.

Welcome to the conversation.

Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda without Talking about What Marriage Is?
Ryan Anderson, William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and Editor of Public Discourse

Why Middle-Class Marriages Need the Church
Katelyn Beaty, Managing Editor of Christianity Today

Marriage Success: The Value of Apprenticeships and Education
Kevin Bullard, Co-founder of MarriageWorks!

Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?
Naomi Cahn, Professor of Law at George Washington University

Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?
June Carbone, Professor of Law at University of Missouri–Kansas City

Sometimes a Great Notion: Panning for Gold in The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent
John Culhane, Professor of Law at Widener University

What Are the Program and Policy Implications of Cohabitation?
Robert Hughes, Jr., Professor and Head of Human and Community Development at the Univeristy of Illinois

Marriage Shores Up Hispanic Families
Alicia La Hoz, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Founder and Executive Director of Family Bridges

Marriage Reports Preach to the Choir?
Kevin Noble Maillard, Professor of Law at Syracuse University

Putting the “Other” Marriage Equality Problem on the Agenda
Linda McClain, Professor of Law at Boston University

A Wrap on a New Hollywood Rap
Mitch Pearlstein, Founder and President of Center of the American Experiment

Restoring Marriage Will Be Difficult
Isabel Sawhill, Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at Brookings

Why Marriage-Strengthening Belongs On the Middle Class Agenda
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Director of Civil Society Initiatives at the Institute for American Values

The Sex Crisis Behind the Marriage Crisis
Anna Williams, Junior Fellow at FirstThings

Welcome to State of Our Unions 2012 Online Symposium

12.20.2012 8:29 AM

Amy ZiettlowAmy Ziettlow is host of FamilyScholars Conversations and edits the FamilyScholars Symposium Series. She is co-investigator of a study on caregiving and grief funded by the Lilly Endowment and co-author of the forthcoming The Gen X Caregiver.

As Editor of the new FamilyScholars Symposium Series, I am delighted to invite you to enjoy and participate in our first ever Family Scholars Symposium.

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, we will be highlighting the expert analysis of 14 scholars and opinion leaders from across the country as they respond to the recently released report titled “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” featured in this year’s issue of State of Our Unions, a journal published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

A quick note about reading and commenting: All of the essays are listed in this welcome post. Feel free to scroll down this page to read them all, comment on each one individually, or comment on them as a whole in the comment section of this welcome post. Clicking on each author’s title will also direct you to a page for that essay on its own and you can comment on the individual piece there as well.

Each writer brings a unique perspective that builds on elements of the report’s argument and recommendations, pinpoints gaps, critiques all or part of the report’s thesis, or makes suggestions for further study. Check in here throughout the two days and follow us on Twitter (@FamScholars or me @RevAmyZ or Elizabeth Marquardt @newmetaphor70) for live-tweeting throughout the two days.

We welcome rigorous, critical engagement in a context of civility.

Welcome to the conversation.

Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda without Talking about What Marriage Is?
Ryan Anderson, Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and Editor of Public Discourse

Why Middle-Class Marriages Need the Church
Katelyn Beaty, Managing Editor of Christianity Today

Marriage Success: The Value of Apprenticeships and Education
Kevin Bullard, Co-founder of MarriageWorks!

Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?
Naomi Cahn, Professor of Law at George Washington University

Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?
June Carbone, Professor of Law at University of Missouri–Kansas City

Sometimes a Great Notion: Panning for Gold in The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent
John Culhane, Professor of Law at Widener University

What Are the Program and Policy Implications of Cohabitation?
Robert Hughes, Jr., Professor and Head of Human and Community Development at the Univeristy of Illinois

Marriage Shores Up Hispanic Families
Alicia La Hoz, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Founder and Executive Director of Family Bridges

Marriage Reports Preach to the Choir?
Kevin Noble Maillard, Professor of Law at Syracuse University

Putting the “Other” Marriage Equality Problem on the Agenda
Linda McClain, Professor of Law at Boston University

A Wrap on a New Hollywood Rap
Mitch Pearlstein, Founder and President of Center of the American Experiment

Restoring Marriage Will Be Difficult
Isabel Sawhill, Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at Brookings

Why Marriage-Strengthening Belongs On the Middle Class Agenda
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Director of Civil Society Initiatives at the Institute for American Values

The Sex Crisis Behind the Marriage Crisis
Anna Williams, Junior Fellow at FirstThings

Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda Without Talking about What Marriage Is?

12.20.2012 8:28 AM

Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and Editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good. With Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George he is author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense 

“The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” is a timely, compelling and important report, but falls short in a basic way: It never once even attempts to say what marriage is. But you can’t advance a marriage agenda without knowing what marriage is and why it matters for public policy, as my co-authors and I argue in our new book, What Is Marriage?

The report’s authors hope to launch “a new conversation on marriage,” and urge political leaders to encourage “community-based and focused public service announcements that convey the truth about marriage, stability and child wellbeing to the next generation of parents.”

Well, what is the truth about marriage?

The report rightly notes that “marriage is not merely a private arrangement; it is also a complex social institution.” But the report never says what this complex institution is, or why it ought to be governed by the standard marital norms of monogamy, sexual exclusivity and a pledge of permanence—norms that many leading defenders of redefining marriage explicitly reject. Yet without these norms—and the intelligible basis that grounds them—marriage can’t do the work that the authors want it to do.

That is important work indeed, as the report explains. It helpfully documents the retreat from marriage afflicting today’s middle class and how fixing this “is the social challenge for our times.” While in the 1980s “only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage,” today that figure has “risen to a whopping 44 percent.” Indeed, the majority of births for women under 30 “now occur outside of marriage.”

Although some have tried to characterize the disappearance of marriage as a problem facing only lower-class America or the black community, the report notes that “family instability can now be found in Middle America almost as frequently as it is among the least educated sector of the population.” And the disappearance of marriage has social costs, especially increased poverty and decreased social mobility, as “researchers are now finding that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities. … This decline of marriage in Middle America imperils the middle class and fosters a society of winners and losers.”

As a result, more children grow up without the care and support of their mother and father—and it’s costing everyone: “The loss of social opportunity for these children and their families, and the national cost to taxpayers when stable families fail to form—about $112 billion annually, or more than $1 trillion per decade, by one cautious estimate—are significant.” As the report notes, economist Ben Scafidi and his team of researchers found that “if family fragmentation were reduced by just 1 percent, U.S. taxpayers would save an estimated $1.1 billion annually.”

The authors of the report don’t suggest giving up on policy, writing that “it is only with respect to marriage formation that the policy world seems to have decided that very little or nothing can be done.” This isn’t true, as my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation and others have promoted policies to strengthen marriage for quite some time, most recently Robert Rector’s Special Report, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.”

The various policy proposals in “The President’s Marriage Agenda” deserve more sustained attention and consideration than is allowed here. But a few comments are in order. The authors encourage President Obama to embrace his position as “a cultural leader who can inspire citizens, especially young people,” because “if we are to strengthen marriage and families in America, ultimately this will happen because young people want to bond with one another and give their children the gift of their father and mother in a lasting marriage.” But how can President Obama stress the importance of fathers and mothers while supporting the redefinition of marriage to exclude sexual complementarity?

The report’s fourth recommendation, “End Anonymous Fatherhood,” notes that “the anonymous man who provided his sperm walks away with no obligation.” Although a relatively small percentage of parents “use sperm donation or similar technologies to get pregnant, the cultural power of the idea that it’s acceptable deliberately to create a fatherless child and for biological fathers to walk away from their children is real.”

The authors propose that the U.S. ban anonymity in sperm donation “and reinforce the consistent message that fathers matter.” But how does marriage policy reinforce that message if it redefines marriage to say that mothers and fathers—one of each—are optional for marriage? How does redefining marriage to include lesbian relationships not further incentivize the type of anonymous sperm donation and resulting fatherless children that the authors protest?

Regardless of your stance on redefining marriage, the report argues, you can “talk about gay marriage—and then talk about why marriage is important for the vast majority of people who identify as heterosexual and whose sexual lives quite often produce children.” But is this really true?

After all, it isn’t just the legal title of marriage that encourages adherence to marital norms. There is nothing magical about the word “marriage.” Instead, marriage laws work by embodying and promoting a true vision of what marriage is that makes sense of those norms as a coherent whole.

Redefining marriage would abandon the norm of male-female sexual complementarity as an essential characteristic of marriage. Making that optional would also make other essential characteristics—such as monogamy, exclusivity and permanency—optional, as my co-authors and I argue in What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. We show how this is increasingly confirmed by the rhetoric and arguments of those who would redefine marriage, and by the policies that their more candid leaders embrace.

I should note that I presented some of this evidence in this post last week at Ricochet, quoting LGBT leaders Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, Victoria Brownworth, Michelangelo Signorile, New York University professor Judith Stacey and University of Calgary professor Elizabeth Brake as they explicitly rejected traditional norms of marriage.

Indeed, the most interesting—and revealing—comments during my week at Ricochet were those that said marriage is simply whatever sort of interpersonal relationship consenting adults—be they two or 10 in number—want it to be: sexual or platonic, sexually exclusive or open, temporary or permanent.

That idea sounds like the abolition of marriage. Marriage is left with no essential features, no fixed core as a social reality—it is simply whatever consenting adults want it to be. Some who see this logic, thinking that marriage has no form and serves no social purpose, conclude that the government should get out of the marriage business.

If so, how will society protect the needs of children—the prime victims of our non-marital sexual culture—without government growing more intrusive and more expensive?

Separating the bearing and rearing of children from marriage burdens children first and foremost, as well as the whole community. It’s the community that often must step in to provide (more or less directly) for their wellbeing and upbringing. A child born and raised outside marriage is six times more likely to experience poverty than a child in an intact family—and therefore welfare expenditures grow. So by encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence—the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role.

But marital norms make no sense—as matters of principle—if marriage is redefined. There is no reason of principle why emotional union should be permanent. Or limited to two persons, rather than larger ensembles. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive. Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

If marriage isn’t founded on a comprehensive union made possible by the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman, then why can’t it occur among more than two people? If marital union isn’t founded on such sexual acts, then why ought it be sexually exclusive? If marriage isn’t a comprehensive union and has no intrinsic connection to children, then why ought it be permanent?

This isn’t to say that couples couldn’t decide to live out these norms where temperament or taste so motivated them; but that there is no reason of principle to demand it of them. So legally enshrining this alternate view of marriage would undermine the norms whose link to the common good justifies state action in the first place.

This highlights the central questions in this debate: what marriage is and why the state recognizes it. It’s not that the state shouldn’t achieve its basic purpose while obscuring what marriage is. Rather, it can’t. Only when policy gets the nature of marriage right do we reap the civil society benefits of recognizing marriage.

The future of our country, then, relies upon the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends on citizens’ understanding of what it is and why it matters—and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage. Unfortunately, “The President’s Marriage Agenda” overlooks these questions. How successful can a “new conversation on marriage” be when its leaders can’t even say what marriage is?

Why Middle-Class Marriages Need the Church

12.20.2012 8:27 AM

Katelyn Beaty is Managing Editor of Christianity Today.

There’s a crisis in marriage equality in this country. And it has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

That’s one major finding of the newest State of Our Unions report, published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families. Released this week, the 2012 report spotlights the segment of America where marriage is drying up: the middle class.

Once the icon of solid marriages and two-parent families, the middle class is starting to resemble the poor’s relationship patterns: cohabitation, serial partnerships, divorce, and single parenting aided by welfare. Meanwhile, marriage is “becoming the preserve of the well-educated,” note the report’s authors (Elizabeth Marquardt, David Blankenhorn, Robert I. Lerman, Linda Malone-Colón, and W. Bradford Wilcox). And this, they assert, signals nothing less than “the social challenge for our times.”

Middle America, which composes 60 percent of the U.S. population, is defined as citizens between ages 25 to 60 with a high school but not a college education. In the 1980s, only 13 percent of children in this population were born out of wedlock. By the end of the 2000s, that number rose to 44 percent—nearly half. Many of today’s middle-class children are born to cohabitating couples or to parents who regularly switch partners. Research indicates that these children face more economic instability, see more partner conflict, and are more likely to be abused than children in married or single-parent families. And they are more likely to repeat their parents’ behaviors, barring from them the economic and relational stability crucial to a healthy person and, indeed, a healthy society.

To promote strong marriages, give children a better start—and also, consequently, cut taxpayer costs—the report’s authors present to President Obama and other top policymakers 10 directives. Ranging from “triple the tax credit for children under age 3” to “help young men become marriageable” to “engage Hollywood,” the list addresses marriage from many important angles: economic, social, and attitudinal. But one angle conspicuously absent is religious. What’s the role of communities of faith in strengthening marriage?

At it turns out, Middle America’s marriage crisis overlaps with its religious crisis. As Wilcox notes in his forthcoming study “No Money, No Honey, No Church” and in his 2010 State of Our Unions, fewer white working-class Americans participate in church life than they did even 20 years ago—a striking reality given how churches have historically provided solidarity for the working class. According to the General Social Survey, level of church attendance decreased among all three educational groups from the 1980s to the 2000s, but the middle class showed the greatest decline. And because religious institutions so strongly perpetuate a “familistic” way of life—as well as give to members social support and civic skills—the dearth of religious activity also means fewer marriages and more economic strife.

What does this all mean for religious institutions? I believe they can do more to engage middle-class Americans in both pastoral and practical ways, which in turn will lay better foundations for marriage among middle-class attendees. Local church leaders might ask:

  • Is our teaching accessible to attendees without a college degree?
  • Are our pews filled with people from the same tax bracket, or do we strive for economic diversity?
  • Are we encouraging cohabitating couples, especially those with children, toward marriage (at the appropriate time and in sensitive ways)?
  • Are we providing job training and/or childcare, or partnering with nonprofit or government agencies that do, in order to ensure greater economic stability for middle-class couples?
  • Do we teach the goodness and benefits of marriage, for individuals as well as society?

The list could go on. Certainly churches can’t alone turn the tide on Middle America’s marriage crisis; they, for example, can’t offer economic incentives in the form of tax credits or make anonymous fatherhood via sperm donation illegal (another of the 10 directives). The state plays a crucial (if at times bloated) role in shoring up marriage, as we see among many successful state-level marriage projects. But the state can’t do it alone. And with an institution like marriage, so laden with spiritual meaning and history, the church can’t excuse itself from the conversation. Church-state separation is wise and good for many public issues, but marriage may be one where church and state enjoy a happy union after all.

Marriage Success: The Value of Apprenticeships and Education

12.20.2012 8:26 AM

Kevin Bullard is co-founder of MarriageWorks!

Throughout the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the view towards marriage and religiosity evolved drastically as society became more individualistic, and saw divorce as an acceptable way to end a challenging marriage.  In fact, of the 8.75 million additional households since 1970, one-parent homes account for 8.4 million of the total (96 percent), while the number of two-parent households increased by a mere 330,000. Despite the rise, then eventual plateau of the divorce rate in the United States, Americans are still more optimistic about the future of marriage. Numerous studies have consistently cited the numerous benefits of marriage for both men and women, including higher income, better health, more sex, and stable employment (for men).  Still, recent demographic trends have revealed a rise in the age of first marriage. It is for these reasons that I support The National Marriage Project’s President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent.

Of the ten recommendations offered, three of them are of particular interest to me: 1) help young men become marriageable, 2) enact the second chances act to prevent unnecessary divorce, and 3) require premarital education for persons forming stepfamilies.

Help Young Men Become Marriageable

I recently attended a conference that awakened me to the sad state of marriage and family in the African American community. As statistics in the recommendations revealed, of the African American males born since the mid-1960s, more than 20 percent will go to prison. It is sad and shocking that this number is twice as many as the number of African American males who will attend college.

The apprenticeship concept is one that has lost meaning in our society, yet offers a wonderful opportunity for men who have successfully navigated life and gained sure footing to help another young man do the same. While it easy to dismiss today’s generation of African American males and categorize them as uninterested and un-teachable, it is unwise to cast such a large net. Apprenticeships can help separate the truly uninterested and un-teachable from those who simply need a guiding hand, and someone who takes interest in them and their future.

Enact the Second Chances Act to Prevent Unnecessary Divorce

My wife and I spend considerable time offering marriage education, and we sometimes receive messages on our Facebook page from men and women who write lamenting the fact that they have filed for divorce. While a couple may need to spend some structured time apart aimed at rebuilding the marriage, the marriage does not have to end in divorce. Having high-quality education centers or university-based centers of excellence for couples at risk of divorce would offer a reconciliatory voice in the midst of the chorus that advises divorce at the slightest sense of personal displeasure.

Require Premarital Education for Persons Forming Stepfamilies

As I read the recommendation for required premarital education for budding stepfamilies, I thought about friends who are finishing their required coursework before they are allowed to adopt a child. Bringing an adopted child into a new family and culture is no different than bringing stepchildren into a new family. This education could go a long way in highlighting common problems in stepfamilies, and offer best practices that will help the couple and family be successful at building a new family.

Over the years as my wife and I have offered pre-marital education to couples, the number of stepfamilies has overtaken the number of couples who have never been married. Being able to talk about hazards, and how the couple can address them as a team, has been instrumental to those couples.

I support the recommendations offered in this agenda, and appreciate the work of The National Marriage Project to protect marriage and offer commonsense ideas for the President to consider. Marriage has proven to be a boon to individuals, families, and society; so preserving the union is noble and important work.

Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?

12.20.2012 8:24 AM

June Carbone is Professor of Law at University of Missouri–Kansas City and

Naomi Cahn is Professor of Law at George Washington University.

For years, we have applauded the efforts of the annual State of Our Unions reports to focus on the growing class divide in family stability and to propose policies designed to improve the “state of our unions.” But, this year, as in past years, the report states that the decline of marriage “imperils the middle class” without fully exploring the ways in which the destruction of the economic foundation of the middle class undermines family stability more generally. As a result, while we approve of many of the Project’s proposed policies, we doubt that these policies, good or bad, can fully address the issue.  Instead, we need to place greater attention on the creation of good jobs, the relationship between employment stability and family health, and the societal responsibility to ensure that the next generation of children is not left behind. While the class-based decline in marriage is a symptom of growing inequality and economic privation, an exclusive focus on marriage cannot by itself restore family health.

Over the last thirty years, greater economic inequality has done something very unusual: it has shifted the cultural strategies at the top and the bottom of the economic order in different directions.   At the top, the dedication to stable two, parent families has come not just from a cultural commitment to marriage, but from the fact that the gendered wage gap for college graduates has increased.  As a result, high-earning men outnumber high-earning women to a greater degree today than in 1990, and all but the wealthiest men need high-income women to afford middle class life in the fastest growing and most expensive metropolitan areas. Today, executives no longer marry their secretaries; they marry fellow executives. And in these dual-earner families, the maid cleans the toilets while the parents trade-off homework supervision and Little League attendance.

At the bottom of the economic order, every scholar since Moynihan has documented the link between the disappearance of stable blue collar jobs and the decline of marriage. What receives less attention is that with the increase in the number of men at the top and the bottom of the economic order, there are fewer men in the middle. The women who work as secretaries and cashiers have a much harder time finding a man with a reliable job and increasingly distrust men who spend their earnings, help out less when they are laid off than when they are working, and respond to a request for child support with insistence on custody equal to half the child’s time.

To deal with the emerging class differences that underlie family change, therefore, will ultimately require dealing with the issue of economic inequality directly, the mismatch between marriageable men and marriageable women, and the role of family unfriendly workplaces in exacerbating family instability. Accordingly, we:

  1. Applaud the emphasis on reducing imprisonment and increasing apprenticeships, but believe that these efforts cannot be a substitute for increasing the number of stable jobs. It is time to recognize that a true pro-family agenda must emphasize job creation and promote counter-cyclical fiscal policies that target unemployment and employment pathways not just into the first job but also over the course of the life cycle. Employment instability may have just as pernicious an effect on family well-being as unemployment, and a society in which job growth comes primarily from small businesses needs to have a stronger social safety net that fills in the gaps between jobs, provides universal health care coverage, and facilitates retraining and job market re-entry.
  2. Agree with the efforts to end marriage penalties and increase financial assistance for children. The financial disincentives associated with marriage, however, come not only from third parties such as government, but from the obligations at the core of marriage. Marriage may make sense for breadwinners and dependent caretakers. It may succeed for interdependent dual-earners.  It is fraught for risk for individuals who are both the more reliable wage-earners and the primary caretakers. We would therefore supplement the efforts to increase marriage incentives by ending counterproductive child support enforcement efforts, which often discourage paternal involvement, and providing greater recognition for those who assume an unequal share of family obligations.
  3. Approve of efforts to increase education about intimate relationships, and favor supplementing these efforts with greater attention to early childhood development and parental education.  The most successful programs help couples adjust to new economic realities by discouraging early marriage, encouraging financial responsibility, promoting communication and mutual respect, recognizing that effective birth control is an important component of managing marital and non-marital relationships, and learning to spot the warning signs of domestic violence. In contrast, we find little evidence that after-the-marriage divorce prevention works.

We believe, however, that while some of these steps may be useful, family stability will not improve without greater economic security for families and greater support for children.