Thinking in Public Interview with Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
Thinking in Public
October 22, 2012
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Charles Murray is a man of ideas and those ideas are sometimes controversial. He is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a graduate of Harvard University with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also a widely-quoted author, whose latest book is, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.
Charles Murray, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Murray: Thanks very much. I’m pleased to be talking with you.
Mohler: I have been following many of the concerns of your book for a long time, and your book in one sense does not come along making arguments that have never been made before, but you are certainly making them on a scale and with a pointed attention to statistical research that I don’t believe has ever existed before. But your book also tells a narrative, and I would just like for you to encapsulate that narrative. Just summarize the story you tell us in Coming Apart.
Murray: The thesis is very simple. It says that there has been a divergence in American classes that is different in kind from anything we’ve ever had before. We’ve always had people who were rich people and poor people. We’ve always had people who’ve lived in somewhat different parts of town and the rest of it. But what’s happened in the last fifty years is that one group—what I call the new lower class—has ceased to participate in America’s civic culture and it’s a large group of people. And, at the other end of the scale, you have a new upper class that is increasingly isolated from and ignorant about mainstream America. And the book consists of, as you suggest, a long, detailed laying out of this because I’m not trying to make the case with opinions; I’m trying to make the case with numbers.
Mohler: Well and you are a numbers man when it comes down to the way you use these statistics, and anyone who has read your work before, in terms of previous works, will not be surprised by that. I’ll tell you that at some point you can almost be overwhelmed by the numbers, but they really do tell a story, and especially the first part of the story which has to do with the rise of this elite. I think almost everyone knows there is an elite. We understand that, but you define it in very unique terms in this work.
Murray: The first thing I do is I don’t use income as a criterion because I think the more important thing than income inequality or income differences are cultural differences. So I talk about the new upper class as consisting of a broad elite and a narrow elite. The broad elite are the most successful five percent of people in managerial positions and in the professions, so the broad elite in Louisville are the people in the local TV station and the newspaper, the most successful lawyers in town, and the most successful businessmen, and so forth. The narrow elite consists of those people who have an impact on the nation, in terms of its culture or politics or economy, so that would include the people who do constitutional jurisprudence. It includes the people who own the television networks, who write the screen plays for major pictures. It includes major federal government officers, elected officials, and so forth. That’s a much smaller group. And with regard to the new elite, the new upper class, I’m really saying that over the last fifty years, we’ve had two great big trends that have changed. One is we have had a good thing happen which is the colleges have gotten very skilled at finding talent wherever it is and shipping it off to good colleges. This really started in the 1950s and it’s been going on for half a century. There’s never been a time to be academically really talented than right now because you’ll get a free-ride to a top school. That’s great, but what it also means is that we’ve turned these universities into kind of breeding grounds, as it were, for people who are all very smart, very ambitious. They hang out together, they’re socialized together, and they pick up distinctive tastes and preferences that basically make a distinctive culture, whether it’s the television they watch, the movies they watch, how much they weigh (the new elite is very skinny—most of them), the cars they drive, the beer they drink. In all sorts of ways there is a very distinctive lifestyle. Then what happened, in addition to getting smart kids to good colleges, is the brains became worth a lot more money over the course of the 20th century. So this group of people who are very smart, educated largely at elite schools, they are also affluent, and so you have zip codes around the country, clusters of zip codes, which are very homogenous, in terms of everybody being very well-educated, very affluent, and sharing similar tastes and cultures.
Mohler: I’ve been following your research for a very long time, and I knew of this research before it came out in book form. When the book came out, I devoured it, and, quite honestly, I’ve been devouring also the responses to it. And I’ve been surprised, at least in one sense. For one thing, in reading your book, and I’ll admit I’m a cultural conservative, I’m a political conservative, in terms of thinking through those issues from my own worldview, but I share many of the same concerns, I believe, that the liberals have, both politically and culturally, and if I were to put myself on the other side of the equation, I think I would like your book, but a lot of folks don’t like your book. And I’ve tried to grapple with these different reviews and so, even before me right now, I have a review from the Left and a review from the Right that are arguing the same thing. And here’s the point I would make: they’re both from the same zip code.
Murray: (Laughter). What’s the zip code?
Mohler: Well it’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then another pairing I saw was also, basically, around Columbia University in Manhattan. In other words, they in their own way are making your point, and, if I could summarize it, it seems to me that one of the points you are making is that there is an increasing class divide in America, and it’s a class divide that is not just based on income nor predictable, just in terms of income, but it is on terms of some other issues, especially cognitive realities, and the fact that what you have are two Americas. One that lives in ideas and dominates in ideas; they are what Richard Florida would call the creative class. They are the people who control the symbolic process. In fact, you quote Robert Reich, and I appreciated very much, years ago, when he coined his phrase, “symbolic analyst,” as the wave of the new idea and intelligence future. And, on the other hand—and we’ll get to this in a moment—you have the other America that is not just left out, but increasingly left out and devastating left out and structurally left out.
Murray: We haven’t talked about them yet either.
Mohler: Right, but that is how you begin your book in terms of talking about the elite because you really don’t see the elite as the problem. You see the elite as part of the structure, but your main concern to me seems to be those who are not in the elite.
Murray: Well I have problems with the elite too, in terms of their role in contemporary society and its real simple. These people in effect run the nation, in terms of shaping the culture and the politics and the economy, and, increasingly, they don’t have a clue about what ordinary American life is like. They don’t encounter it. In the current generation the problem is not too bad because you have an awful lot of people in important positions now who grew up in the working class or the middle class, and now they live in the North Shore Chicago or they live in Northwest Washington or the Upper East Side of New York, but they still remember what it’s like in Louisville or they remember what it’s like in Des Moines or other ordinary places in America. They’re kids don’t, and increasingly we now have another generation coming to influence who were born into affluence; they went to the best schools; they went from there to the best colleges; they went from there to their nice graduate schools and professions. They haven’t any idea what life in Des Moines or Louisville among ordinary people is like and they are shaping the economy and the politics and the culture, so I’m worried about the new upper class too.
Mohler: No; the sense in which I was setting that up is where you are arguing in your book that in terms of public policy the elite will take care of itself. In other words, the elites, by the very fact that they are members of that elite, are not, as you might say, in trouble. Now they have a pathology and you and David Brooks and others have well-skewered the pathologies there and the lack of responsibility that they take, but, in terms of public policy, the fact is that this elite tends to support itself, to enrich itself. And, again, not just economically, but it’s that other America that is further and further left behind.
Murray: Yeah; you know marriage is the classic indicator here of this divergence we’re talking about because the new upper class and the upper middle class in general is still pretty much married and, for that matter, divorce has gone down too, so that if you look at the new upper-middle class—you know, college-educated people and managerial positions or the professions—as of 2010, 84 percent are married, which is not much lower than it was in 1960 among those who are ages 30 to 49. But you look at the working class, meaning high school diploma and blue-collar job or low-level service job, they were up around 84 percent in 1960 married. It was the norm; now it’s 48 percent. That is a divergence in cultural classes, in social classes, that, as far as I know, has almost no precedent. And, of course, once marriage goes down, the bottom falls out of the social capital that’s in a community, the kind of glue that enables the community to solve problems. It affects men because men don’t do very well economically when they’re single, and they do a whole lot better when they’re married. So you have the nature of life in white, working-class America—all of working class America, actually—which has been transformed for the worse over the last fifty years.
Mohler: I want to get to that part of the equation, which is labeled “fish town” in your book, but, before we leave Belmont, which is indicative of what you call the “super zips,” these zip codes that become so self-reinforcing. And you talk about such things as “marital homogamy,” a phrase I had not come across before, in which people marry folks just like themselves and so to a greater degree than ever before, you’re having people who marry one another who have similar IQs because they ended up at that strategic point of life when they were at the same university campus or you have a Harvard graduate marrying a Yale graduate. In any sense, it’s very much a homogamy, as you label it.
Murray: Yeah; it’s not just that they’re both likely to be real smart; they also have been socialized in the same kind of milieu. They come to that marriage with a lot of assets which are good, in terms of the way they raise their children and so forth, but they also come there with a common worldview and then they move into towns where the other people are all like them. You know, with all of these things I’m describing, I’m describing people doing what comes naturally. Look, when we get married, we want to marry someone who gets our jokes. We want to marry someone who we don’t have to explain what we mean, who understands what we say.
Mohler: Who shares our tastes.
Murray: And so that’s perfectly natural, but what we’ve done is make it much easier for the people of the new elite to marry other people who are so much like them that, in effect, their neighbors are cut off from everybody else.
Mohler: Well you make that point very convincingly and you use some real life examples. For instance, the developments in a city like Austin, Texas, where you demonstrate it was a fairly small university or college town a matter of a few generations ago, and now it’s this megalopolis of the idea and knowledge economy, Dell computers, and all the rest. And you really demonstrate that those zip codes matter.
Murray: Yeah; and there’s also—you can contrast it with 1960. And something that I did here is I took the elite places to live in 1960, like the Upper East Side of New York and North Shore Chicago, you know, these are places that are considered really elite and, yet, in 1960, the median family income in such neighborhoods was $83,000, and that’s expressed in today’s dollars. So, whereas rich people did live in those neighborhoods, there were a lot of people who weren’t rich who lived in them too.
Mohler: Well you point out that a school teacher’s salary, in terms of continuous dollars, would afford an opportunity to live on the Upper East Side.
Murray: Yeah; actually the median income on the Upper East Side was even lower than that. It was something like $59,000, but here’s the kicker, which is that in 1960, only 26 percent of the adults had college degrees. So the typical family unit was the guy had a college degree and the wife had a high school diploma, and there were all sorts of heterogeneity, of variation in the socialization that people brought to that. Now you compare it: the guy has an MBA and the woman has a law degree, and they have both gone through a different kind of process and they have had very different kinds of experiences from the typical members of elite neighborhoods.
Mohler: And I don’t want to leave these elite neighborhoods yet because there’s so much there to be gained by looking a bit more closely. For instance, what is taken for granted in those neighborhoods is a certain set of cultural preferences, consumer goods, and all the rest, that people who shared that same basic kind of elite status generations ago really didn’t expect. I mean, I think one of the most interesting parts of your book is where you document such things as the fact that rich and the poor drink the same coffee fifty years ago and that’s not at all the case now.
Murray: (Laughter). No, it’s not. And they also—one of my favorite examples is this. Fifty years ago, you had lots of executives who made really good money and they bought Buicks instead of Cadillacs (Cadillac was the only, you know, fancy car there was just about, except for Lincolns), and why’d they do that? Because to buy a Cadillac was too flashy; it was too show-offy; it was getting too big for your britches. And so there was a strong sense among the elite fifty years ago of that they wanted to act as if they were members of the middle class, even though they had lots more money than the middle class and their lifestyle reflected that. They did not build 20,000 square-foot homes, even though they could afford to. All that’s gone, so that you now have increasingly a new upper class, which is very happy thinking of itself as an upper class. That is way out of whack with America’s civic tradition.
Mohler: And the statistics are easy to document there. For instance, just looking at housing statistics, the growth in the number of these massive homes, in which there would have been none of such homes in most communities and now there are enclaves, in which there may be any numbers of these mega-mansions that basically create entirely separated communities. I fear, Dr. Murray, we’re headed in the direction, in terms of the documentation in your book, of something like Brazil.
Murray: That’s what scares me too. It’s just too obvious, as you drive around, just visually, with these mega-mansions that you will have in the really wealthy parts of the country. Sometimes it’s more subtle that that. If you go to Northwest Washington, for example, most of the housing stock there was built 50, 60, 70 years ago, so what’s happened is you don’t have room for mega-mansions; instead, they have renovated these houses to fill up every inch of lot space in many cases. But it’s not so easily visible, it’s the lifestyle that’s distinctive in this case. T.V. is an example. The average American T.V. is on for 35 hours a week. Now you can say that is too much, but you can also say that most American get a huge dose of the popular culture that is going on. Compare that to that to the television view habits of the new-upper class. They watch hardly any television at all. And if they do watch anything, it is probably Downton Abbey, or DVD movies, that they watch on their T.V. screen. They have almost no contact with the reality shows that constitute so much of the popular culture these days. They don’t have any contact with the ambiance with the rest of the country. “Why is this bad?” They don’t know what the show “Breaking Bad” is all about. There is nothing terrible all by itself, but it is part of the ignorance that they bring when they are exercising their careers, which in turn affect the lives of the rest of Americans; Americans who they don’t understand.
Mohler: Well it is fascinating that you mention Downtown Abbey, because the ideal of the Victorian British experiment was that the nobility in the upper classes had to live in a certain way so that they would be emulated by those described as the lower classes. In other words there was what you could call the “noblesse oblige,” but there was certainly this sense, not just of entitlement, but of great responsibility to model marital fidelity, the care for children, the proper way of maintaining a moral structure an even a religious structure that even the elites you document in our context just seem not to even have as a concern.
Murray: Yea, the American elites are the same thing. David Brooks, is working on a new book that I have heard him talk about and the topic is, in part, about the sense of responsibility that American elites used to feel. They were given much, and to whom much is given, much is expected. They felt that they were stewards, and their positions were one of stewardship. That was very much a conscious part of the education you got at a place like Princeton, Harvard, or Yale. That’s all gone. Trust me, I’ve been there with Harvard specifically and the others, but you do not get indoctrinated at those schools now with the sense of stewardship on the level of personal behavior you may get indoctrinated with liberal political values, which means you are going to vote in favor of lots of money given to the poor, but not indoctrinated with the need to live a virtuous life.
Mohler: And yet they have moved, as a class, towards a great commitment to marriage. You document, even a greater participation in church services as you document by means of statistical data and also in terms of the kind of things available from the G.S.S., General Social Survey, and other things, it’s clear that the more wealthy you are, certainly as you move closer to this elite you are less likely to be divorced, you are less likely to have children with only one parent in the home, you are far less likely to have illegitimacy, it is almost statistically insignificant that you would have a lot of the behaviors for instance if you are in that elite, you work hard, as you point out. These kids in these colleges you don’t get in an 18-year old, into one of these universities without working hard to get there. So they are working hard, they are going to church, and we won’t even deal with the theological aspect of that yet, but they are participating in the community, they are doing all the things that, you don’t really point to, but I wanted to ask you this, it seems to me that the elites at least pioneered the breaking of those norms before they re-embraced them.
Murray: That’s the sad part, in the 60’, 70’s, and into the 80’s when they were young, and I am thinking about my generation now, I am 69 years old, at that time they experimented with drugs, they’ve experimented with serial monogamy they did all that stuff and then they got older and buckled down and went to work. Well unfortunately, the lower you are on the socio-economic latter, the less leeway you have to fool around for a decade and straighten up and fly right. For those towards the bottom making those kinds of decisions in their late teens or early twenties meant that they were going to be stuck for the rest of their lives were they were. In that regard then there is an aspect that the new upper class that irritates me a lot, which is that they indulge themselves and they are able to recover and don’t recognize the harm they do by setting that example.
Mohler: The elites can then achieve a course correction of sorts they have the resources; they have a safety net often called parents, in order to do that. They operate from a position of protection and security that those with less advantage simply don’t have and just to take one issue such as divorce, they did pioneer divorce. I looked this up. In terms of the statistics of divorce, the most likely person to divorce in terms of the 1970’s was someone from a professional class, and yet they are now the least likely to divorce.
Murray: Meanwhile down in the working class which was slower to start divorce, those numbers have just continued to rise along the with the more troubling phenomenon of people not getting married. People not getting married, is not a problem. People not getting married when they have children is a problem. At this point there is a statistic for you, among white working class women, roughly half of all the children, half are born out of wedlock.
Mohler: In the recent American context, there have been several authors and thinkers who have tried to describe this emerging elite. Who they are how they got there, how they think, how they live, and how they influence the rest of the society. Charles Murray’s distinctive contribution in this book Coming Apart, is to demonstrate how this elite is no longer established merely on the basis of income. That is not unrelated but it is not the central issue. The central issue is culture and that is where we as Christians have a basic understanding of why that is right.
Mohler: When you look to the second half of your book, or at least the portion there that deals most specifically with the community you call “Fish Town” representing the dispossessed and certainly those who have been left behind in terms of white America and this sociological development, you are really painting a picture of pathologies that are shocking on their face the statistics you cite and document in this book are impossible to refute. Just the documentation of them is an incredible moral experience. Let’s just talk about that for a moment. You mentioned illegitimacy but you are also talking about people who never marry and those who get divorced. From the marital statistics to the educational statistics going on down, this is an America that is truly falling apart.
Murray: I will tell you one the really surprising statistics has to do with men and work. Historically American males in a working age worked, or they looked for work. If you did not do that you were a bum. I mean you were looked down upon, your parents were disappointed in you, your neighbors looked upon you as being a slacker, women didn’t want to hang out with you because you were a low-life. Well, we are now at a point, and this is before the recession hit, I am talking about 2008 still had low unemployment overall, you are now at a point where in the white working class among males about 1 out of 8 isn’t even looking for work. And in their 30’s and 40’s they are not looking for work. They are living off their girlfriends, living off their parents, they are scrapping money off the grey market, they are engaged with crime, but they aren’t even in the labor force. And that is a kind of change of what is expected in a man, which goes to the very heart of American exceptionalism actually. Our industriousness was one of the things that has made us the wonder of the world in the past and in one particular part of society, namely the working class, that norm has been changing.
Mohler: During my own lifetime, I am fifty-three, you document in other words, I was alive in 1960, you document that back in 1960, and in that period of the early 60’s, young women, even college women, women who were in college indicated by about a percentage of 86% that they intended to be married and that they believed to be married and that the ideal age for a woman to be married was 21!
Murray: Yeah, that’s changed, well it’s changed everywhere, just not marriage for a great number of many women in the working class and for women in the upper-middle class it’s in their late 20’s by the time they get married.
Mohler: You talk about the “relentless increase,” those are your words, of those who never marry. You document that and we are looking at the fact that people ages 30- 49 are unmarried. You say for two main reasons they are divorced or they never married in the first place but the most shocking development is in those who never get married, for whom marriage is not on the horizon.
Murray: Apparently, won’t be, in the case of males, again from ages 30-49, a quarter of them in the white- working class have never been married. Just think about that.
Mohler: That doesn’t mean they are not fathers.
Murray: It doesn’t mean they are not fathers, but what that does mean is they aren’t engaged in the life of their community, in the same way that married dads are. If you go out and look at the little league teams you find very, very few unmarried fathers coaching little league teams. You look at the guys who are engaged and trying to get a four-way stop sign at an intersection where kids play- that’s married dads who do that kind of thing it’s not unmarried dads. The people who are engaged in the service clubs in town, who are engaged actively in their churches, overwhelmingly they are married fathers among the men, and so as you get this larger and larger group of ruthless men, you also have a collapse of social capitol in these working class communities, which is the social scientist term for all the things that have traditionally gone into American community life.
Mohler: You write in Coming Apart, from the founding until well into the 20th Century it was unquestioned that children should be born, only within marriage and that failure to maintain that state of affairs, would produce catastrophic consequences for society. You call that a universal understanding. And then you point out that that understanding has now disappeared. You write elsewhere that if the parents re-marry or remain single, while the children are growing up, makes little difference. Never-married women produce the worst outcomes. Then you write this, “all of these statements apply after controlling the family socio-economic status,” you write then, “I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored,” how can that be?
Murray: Because we are embarrassed, meaning the upper-middle class on up, we are embarrassed to say publically that it is a bad thing for women to have babies out of wed-lock. Why are we embarrassed? Well because these days if you say that you are seen as demonizing the women who are in this situation are we trying to punish the children, by making them feel guilty? Are we trying to punish these mothers who are trying to get along without a husband, and trying to make a living? Well the fact is you don’t want to make life more difficult, I don’t want to make life more difficult for women in that situation. But in the course of wanting to be nice, we have ceased to think about what is good in terms of the long-term interests of the children as well as of society. That’s a very important distinction, Al, between being nice and being good.
Murray: Because being nice is a momentary thing whereby the immediate reaction is a nice one is a pleasant one, but what you are being nice about can in the long-term be disastrous. You know my solution to all of this and I impose this on some places, is look- I understand why we don’t want to demonize the mothers and the children. What’s wrong with demonizing the guys? What’s wrong with saying that a man who impregnates a woman with no intention of being a father to that child is a bum, is a low life, is to be despised. I can’t think of a single solitary reason not to dehumanize them. Can we start there?
Mohler: Well, I am ready to join a moral rearmament program here but in order to do that we have to look at another section of your book entitled, “The Founding Virtues.” Something has been lost, that is really prior to that equation. It seems to me you talk about four founding virtues back to the American experiment, you document the fact that our founders and frankly virtually all generations that followed have understood that these virtues were necessary, you list them in your own way as industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. Those are actually collectives that each require even prior or antecedent commitments, but nonetheless you really can’t have the kind of experiment we have in America without those four things.
Murray: This is something that I didn’t pick those four randomly. I went through the writings of the founders dealing with these issues. Something that is made much easier I should say, by the internet where you can search for things, but these four are ones in which all of the founders: Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Washington and others, they all commented on them and they all said essentially the same thing- look- the constitution is all very well but for the constitution to work it requires certain virtues from the people, and without those virtues in the people, the constitution will fail. Adams said very memorably, “It would collapse like a whale going through a net,” if you did not have self-government literally self government of individuals of themselves and the people and then these four were the institutions that were absolutely indispensible. So when we talk about a decline in marriage, a decline in industriousness, honesty, and religiosity these are not just bad things in specific ways they also are deteriorations in the things that make a limited government work, that make freedom work. In that, looking ahead, you see the prospect of the end of the American experiment as we’ve known it.
Mohler: Now that leads me to a very interesting and very ominous question, which way is the middle of this equation moving? In other words, we always talk about America, and you document this and critique it in your own way, but when we talk about this vast middle class, which way is it now moving?
Murray: If you go through the book, I have a whole lot of graphs showing the trends for the upper middle class, and the trend for the working class, and I also calculated all the trends from the middle class which is the middle 50 percent of the population and every single one of those trend lines is somewhere in between, they are in the middle. There are no exceptions to this. So when we talk about the decline in industriousness among working class males there has also been a decline in the middle class, although not as large. But when we talk about the decline of marriage in the middle class there has also been a decline in the middle class although not as large, so in other words that middle 50 percent is not holding the line. The middle fifty percent is also deteriorating.
Mohler: Now your most vocal critics in terms of this most recent book are not some much arguing about the data, some of them will argue about this graph or that graph, and they will characterize in some places as anecdotal data, but Dr. Murray you inundate with so much data it’s really very difficult to crawl out of that argument. But when they argue, when it comes to the end of the book there is no ‘So What’? So what do we do in terms of your understanding?
Murray: That is fascinating. If you don’t supply a government policy as a solution, then you haven’t supplied a solution. In my case in the book, I actually say that there needs to be a cultural shift, especially among the new upper class setting the standard, but a cultural shift throughout the country, and cultural shifts don’t occur because of deliberately sculpted government policies that produce the shift that was intended. What happens, of course, is that we get cultural shifts because of government policy, but the policy makers hadn’t the slightest idea that they were going to achieve those unfortunate cultural shifts when they passed the legislation. Cultural change has to occur family by family, person by person, and that happens because you start a million, and then ten million, and then one hundred million conversations across the dinner table, among coworkers, among parents and children, and you don’t have a neat program for doing that. What you do is just start it, and so what I did in the book is really in the last chapter, I’m really preaching to the new upper class and the upper middle class, and I’m saying think about the way you are living your life. Is this really your self-interest rightly understood? Are you maximizing that? So, my solution is a change in hearts, a change in assessments of our lives, but I don’t think the government can do much to help with that.
Mohler: I have been following the debate about your book, even before the book came out in terms of the way things work in the world of ideas, and I was very hopeful when I saw a review published in the Claremont Review, that is the Claremont Review of Books, summer 2012. It is by Professor Shep Melnick who teaches political science at Boston College, and here is what he says at the end of his review. He says, “How has a man of Charles Murray’s intelligence managed to paint himself into this intellectual corner. Facing the same set of problems the late James Q. Wilson, a man Murray credits of being among his most important teachers, recommended experimental programs and preschools and government efforts to improve the parenting skills of poor, young mothers.” It goes on. I look at that, Dr. Murray, and I have to say, I just want to go to this man and say, “I think your zip code is the problem.” If you think either that James Q. Wilson’s proposals were well summarized in that, or that government can actually fulfill this responsibility, you are just going to dig a deeper hole.
Murray: Yeah, I know all of the data about the effectiveness of preschool programs, which are now being touted as the cure-all and it is a fascinating case of cherry-picking the studies they want to talk about. They find a few, which have had statistically significant results. They haven’t had transformative results. The kids who get the experimental programs still have lots of problems, but there are statistically significant differences. And they ignore all of the other evaluations that don’t show those results, and you end up with the kind of dismissive statement he made, which to me simply reflects wishful thinking on his part, and a refusal to come to grips with what the balance of the data say. As far as I am concerned, we have proven, pretty much beyond a shadow of a doubt at this point, that we do not know how to transform the lives of children who are raised in these environments that give them so many strikes against them.
Mohler: Well, that’s what brings me to the moral part of this, which is my main concern, the worldview implications, and speaking as an evangelical Christian, how Christians should think about this. I am going to let the left and the right, not as if I don’t have a stake in this, but I am going to let the left and the right argue about specific programs, what appears to me to be missing from this particular critique of your work is the understanding that the basic problem here is moral. Maybe these programs can ameliorate, but they can’t replace the father. Maybe these programs can make some incremental gain, and we can argue at what expense and to what cost of other priorities, but at the end of the day, the problem is a deeply moral problem, as you have suggested, it can only have a moral solution.
Murray: Exactly, I have in the past challenged my readers to say, “Look, what are you going to be willing to say that it is wrong – not just a mistake, but it is wrong to bring a child into the world that you are emotionally or intellectually or financially unprepared to care for.” That doesn’t mean we should have laws against it, doesn’t mean we should bring the cops in, but we should start by saying is that the simply word, “wrong” applies.
Mohler: Well, Dr. Murray, you are talking about something that is right in terms of the center of my concern, and that has to do with one of my projects right now, which is the change in moral language. Let me document that just a bit for you. And again, this is going to be anecdotal, but I think it will hit home. You have someone raised in one of your super zips, a young man who is now, well let’s say, in graduate school, or in law school at Harvard, and he has a girlfriend who is a recent graduate of Welsley, and they develop a romantic relationship, and he gets her pregnant. The language that is so often used by his peers and his parents in the social circle is that what he did was “stupid.” Stupid is not the same thing as wrong. And so, what you have, I would argue, and you didn’t go into this a great length, but I am trying to look at it myself, when you start to look at the world of the elites, there are very few moral issues that are not translated into a softer form of moral discourse, and that communicates, it’s a loss of the ought in terms of any kind of theistic ethic. It’s a deontological ethic, a command ethic, and what you are left with is just the idea that it is not that smart. In other words, I’ll be honest, I don’t think rational choice theory in terms of moral argumentation is going to get us out of this.
Murray: No, it is not going to get us out, it is going to have to be a moral reformation. The good news is that the United States actually has a history of doing that occasionally. These great awakenings in American history are classic cases of moral reformation and for the religious base that change national norms quite substantially, or more recently you can take the civil rights revolution, which went essentially from a standing start in the mid 50’s to the Civil Rights Act of 64 in about a decade. So, it is not impossible that such a moral revolution should take place, but it is not going to take the place because of a president standing behind a podium and proposing legislation to congress. It is going to have to take place in American homes. 42:00
Mohler: One of the most frustrating aspects about our current American conversation, especially on controversial and sensitive issues such as these, is that the two polar ideologies in this country, the two political parties, the two opposite sectors of the worldview divide, really are, if we are honest, looking at the same set of facts, or we should be. And secondly, we really should be driven by many of the same concerns, which is to say if you look at the data that is addressed by Charles Murray in his book, Coming Apart, you know that there are Americans who are really stuck in very destructive pathologies. They really are marked by a diminishing place in our society, and dimming hopes for social mobility, as the sociologists describe it. The process whereby they might better their situation, and as Charles Murray points out, find greater happiness in that pursuit. But what you really see in this set of documents, in this data, in this overwhelming avalanche of information, is the fact that America is in big trouble. Now interestingly, if you survey the contemporary political and cultural literature, you will discover that people on the right and on the left share this concern. The polarization of America, the Balkanization of America, the separation of America into two different nations: one very rich and privileged, one very highly educated and elite, and on the other hand one that is increasingly separated from that elite, cut off from access to those cultural authorities and assets, and finding themselves deeper and deeper in a process of destructive pathologies. How in the world did this happen? Well, Charles Murray has an account of how it happened, and it is, I think in large part a very accurate account. But there is more to the story, of course. And even in his book when he deals with the founding virtues that our civilization and the American Experiment require, he deals with religiosity. He deals with marriage, industriousness, and honesty. But what Charles Murray really doesn’t deal with is the source of those very virtues, where they emerge, how they are nurtured, how they are secured in a society.
Those on the left reading this book are likely, if they are honest, to find a great deal of documentation that will help them. After all, the occupy movement talks about the one percent and the ninety nine percent is the rest of us. You have the same kind of critique coming over the last 30 years from the left, sometimes even from the hard left, pointing to economics and to the equation of power as the most important ingredients in this oppression of the rest of America. Along comes Charles Murray to change the equation somewhat, but to argue that the bifurcation really is there. The cultural distance really is there. The polarization is undoubtedly there, and that it is not good for America. The left and the right should agree on that. We have never been a classless society, but the emergence of an elite class cut off and simply reproducing itself, a class in which the children are ever better and better educated with higher and higher aspirations, with greater and greater opportunities, measured over against the vast majority of Americans who are moving away from that into lesser opportunity, lesser mobility, lesser education, lesser marital and home stability. That is not healthy for anyone, left or right. There has to be the consensus that something has to be done.
Now, in generalized terms, what the left wants to say is that government is the solution to the problem. What the right wants to say is that government is more often the source of the problem, or that which makes the problem worse rather than better. There are those who argue over this in terms of reams of statistics and studies, and at the end of the day, there is probably truth in both claims. I am a conservative, I will generally see government as more likely a cause of the problem than the solution, but I am going to be the first to admit, there are problems that the government seems to be at the last resort, the only entity that can make a decisive difference. And at the end of the day, the social safety net is something that we as communities no longer are able to offer, just in terms of a unified community and a stable population, and a network of relationships and mutual obligations that makes such a safety net in previous eras in American life thinkable. It really isn’t so much thinkable now. A bit of honesty on both sides of the political equation would help here, and Charles Murray’s book in spite of all the controversy about it, or maybe even because of all the controversy about it, should be perhaps a meeting place for this conversation to take place.
But as an evangelical Christian, thinking from a Christian worldview, I have to push back far beneath where Charles Murray is addressing these issues. I want to agree with him that pathologies really do matter, but they matter to us to a greater degree than they matter to sociologists. We look at the fact that marriage is disappearing amongst many Americans, not only as a sociological and socioeconomic catastrophe, but as a theological and a spiritual catastrophe as well. We look at the break-up of the idea of marriage and the expectation of marriage and of having children and raising children within the context of intact marriage. We look at that not only as a matter of political influence and concern, but as a matter of deep spiritual consequence as well. That is why you have some of these younger pastors speaking to younger men in their congregation saying, “You need to get married, you need to stay married, you need to have children, and you need to get a mortgage.” In other words, you need to establish the kinds of obligations that mark adulthood, manhood. And the same thing needs to be said to young women. This should be your expectation.
One of the things that wasn’t covered in our conversation today is that one of the reasons why many young women say that marriage has now largely left their expectation is because they do not find men in the community worthy of their trust as husbands and as fathers of their children. But, on the other side of that equation, the eclipse of marriage has led to this massive number of children being born to single mothers, and as Charles Murray said, the odds are increasing to the point that soon half of all children born in America will be born out of wedlock. In some communities, that percentage is already well over 50, 60, and even 70%.
In the midst of our conversation, Charles Murray affirms something that he made very clearly as an argument in his book, and that is that there has to be a moral recovery. But this moral recovery isn’t going to come from just anywhere. It certainly is not going to come from nowhere. It is going to come from some place where morality still has binding authority. That is why as a Christian theologian looking at this, I just have to wonder, if the kind of moral structure with binding moral authority that is needed here can ever be expected to come from a secular source. In other words, are we looking here at the shape of a post-Christian society? Are we looking here at the inevitable result, with all of the horrible pathologies, of a culture that no longer operates even on the basis of the binding morality of a Christian memory? I have to suspect that it just might be so. And yet, with Charles Murray, I have to be very hopeful that there can be a decisive change with those on the right and on the political left who are concerned about these issues. I want to affirm the rightness of that concern, and even amplify the urgency of that concern. But at the end of the day, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, Christians are obligated to stand in terms of fidelity to a Christian worldview that reminds us again and again with incessant urgency that there are prior commitments, even to moral commitments, and there is a binding authority that must be present if there is to be any genuine moral change. In other words, it will not be enough if all Americans come to the conclusion in the shared moral consensus that having a child out of wedlock is stupid. There will be no adequate moral recovery until we understand that having a child out of wedlock is wrong, and that requires a set of moral commitments and shared moral convictions that have evaporated in much of America today. The question is, “How can they be regained?”
I am going to agree with Charles Murray that this moral change, this necessary moral revolution is not going to come as the product merely of a president standing behind a podium, but that would help. It would help to have a clear, moral vision on these issues demonstrated by anyone who stands as president or furthermore, by all cultural authorities. I am going to agree with Charles Murray that this is the kind of conversation that needs to take place around every family table, but I am going to say to you, as I remind myself, this affirms more than anything else why the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the church and why the church at the end of the day may be the only people on earth who understand what these issues mean and why they matter. ]
Many thanks to my guest, Dr. Charles Murray for thinking with me today. You can find his book, Coming Apart, at your local bookstore. Before I close, I want to direct your attention to the release of my upcoming book, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters. My concern is to develop effective leaders who have more than administrative skill, who develop more than vision. Leaders need to be able to change the hearts and minds of those they lead, in other words they need to develop the conviction to lead. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public, and until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.