I found the conversation with Larry Mead and David Blankenhorn last night at the Center for Public Conversation extremely helpful in terms of how to talk about strengthening marriage. (The video should be up in the next few days.) Larry talked about how for so long, academics and politicians emphasized the rights of poor people, and social barriers to their thriving. However, while completely acknowledging that these are important, he also emphasizes that poor people, like everyone else, have obligations as citizens to fulfill. In order to have rights, you have to be a participant in society.
Then he started talking about rights and obligations in terms of marriage. He suggested that our society should be more insistent about upholding marriage as a common obligation. (I would specify here that it should be an obligation for those who aspire to lifelong love, and to have a family. We must honor those people who wish to remain single, or to take on a vow of celibacy. Marriage is not the only ticket to the good life.)
But, Larry insisted, we can’t just uphold marriage as a common obligation–we can’t just have high standards. We have to help people to fulfill the obligation, to live up to the standard. This, he suggested, means ”honoring the struggle” that comes with marriage: the struggle of two selfish human being trying to love each other for life. Sometimes, he noted, a marriage is effectively destroyed before death does them part. For that reason, not all couples will, or should, remain together.
But, marriage is a struggle, and he suggested, we as a society need to be more candid about that struggle. He suggested that in the not-so-distant past, we did have a strong marriage culture that upheld the obligations of marriage–but that did a poor job of honoring the struggle of marriage. Just as a teacher sets high standards for his students ,and then seeks to help them meet those high standards, so we as a society need high standards for marriage, and we need to help people to meet those standards. (I’m not sure what that looks like–but the idea sounds promising.) We need to be open as a society about the difficulties of marriage. Larry suggested that we need biographies of married couples that show the struggle and the reward. I would add that we also need movies that show this.
Finally, Larry said, in addition to honoring the struggle of marriage, it’s important to “remember the reward” of marriage, ”the pearl of great price”: enduring love–and I would add, an enduring family. This, Larry suggested, is “the good news about marriage”: it really is possible for love to endure. And, again, I would add, it really is possible for a family to remain intact and endure as a touchstone down through the generations as a rock of love and stability.
As Larry noted, the good fruit that comes from marriage is not magical. You don’t automatically get it as a result of getting married. Marriage is not magic. Marriage is a “school of love,” to use a favorite phrase of Catholic theologians.
But in order to get the fruit, you have to participate in marriage.
I would add that participating in marriage also requires confidence; confidence in the character of the other person, and confidence that, if two people of good will and character give it a shot, love can endure.
This confidence is what many poor and working class people, for good reason, lack. There is a low stock of trust capital. Helping people to fulfill the obligation of marriage will require helping young adults to rebuild trust in each other, and in marriage as a capable guide to enduring love, and to an enduring family.
Thanks, David and Larry, for a thought-provoking conversation.