September 27, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, September 27, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll see a headline telling us that marriage is no longer the default way to form a family in the United States. We will see why international organizations failed to deliver world peace, what the quest for self-fulfillment in the 1970s bequeathed to America today and why some major American newspapers divide Americans into the dead and the pre-dead.
Marriage no longer the default way to form a family in the United States
Since when did marriage become part of privilege? That shocking question was asked yesterday by the New York Times. The headline in the print edition tells us that,
“Marriage Is Valued, but in Decline.”Show Full Transcript
And then this,
“Economics and Culture May Be Culprits.”
Now if we didn’t have the article, all we had was the headline, just consider the set of words we are dealing with here. We’ve got marriage, value, decline, economics, culture and the word culprits. There is clearly a problem here. A problem that now has the attention of no less than the New York Times. That now has the attention of many within what can only be described as the secular elites and now has the attention of many academics as well. There is the understanding in this article that something is happening to the American family. That becomes very clear in the opening paragraph of the article by Claire Cain Miller. She writes,
“Marriage, which used to be the default way to form a family in the United States, regardless of income or education, has become yet another part of American life reserved for those who are most privileged.”
Now let’s just take a closer look at that paragraph. Here we are told that marriage used to be the default way to form a family in the United States but it no longer is. And furthermore, we are told that it used to be the default way to form a family, regardless of education or of income. The clear implication there is that as we read the article those two factors are going to play a very important role. But as we look at the article, it only gets more interesting even in those first few words. Because we are then told that marriage which used to be the default way to form a family and no longer is has instead become a part of American life,
“reserved for those who are most privileged.”
Now the word privilege is fairly recent in terms of its usage in this moral context, but America’s current moral conversation invokes the word over and over again. Privilege has become a very controversial and undeniably moral category. The word reserved here is also very interesting because we are told that now marriage is reserved for those who are most privileged. And of course it turns out in the article that means economically and educationally privileged. But the word reserve at first glance appears to say that people who are more disadvantaged in terms of education and economics are being told they can’t get married. But the article isn’t about that at all. Instead, it is the fact that they are not getting married, and thus there are huge questions.
Now the Christian biblical worldview reminds us that marriage and family will always be central to our human conversation, unavoidably so. Because as the Christian understanding of creation makes very clear, God has given us marriage and the family with marriage as the union of a man and a woman at the very center of the family for his glory and for our good in such a way that we understand that human flourishing and ultimate human happiness in this life cannot happen apart from the honoring of marriage and the family. So this is big news when we are told that marriage is now no longer the default way to form a family in the United States. And we’re looking at an entire flood of data telling us that childbearing is now being increasingly separated and severed from marriage, and we’re told something that even the social scientist seem not to an anticipated. And that is this, that cohabitation between men and women that in decades past used to lead in some form to some degree to marriage now no longer is even operating in that way.
Within the article we’re introduced to several leading figures involved in this research, including W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang. They are the authors of a new report entitled,
“The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working-Class Families Are More Fragile Today.”
The report was issued by the group’s opportunity America and the AEI, the American Enterprise Institute. The point being made by these and other researchers cited in the article is that marriage is in big trouble. And if marriage is in trouble then children are in trouble. And if children are in trouble, the entire society is in trouble. The shocking thing is that this has not developed the way many people, including many academics and researchers would’ve expected back in the 1960s. Back in the 1960s, it was the children of privilege who declared themselves independent of marriage, who declared sexual liberation. But as it turned out over time, those who have a greater economic investment tend to be far more conservative in terms of their actual cultural, moral and lifestyle choices. So the more education and income one has, the argument goes, the more an individual has to lose by making bad choices. Conversely, the argument would go that someone with very little income or wealth and someone who sees very little opportunity in the future effectively has less to lose by making those same bad choices. Quoted in the article Gordon Hanson, an economist at the University of California at San Diego, he said this,
“A bad economy lowers the cost of having bad values — substance abuse, engaging in crime, not looking for a job right away.”
As we seen in previous reports, we see repeated here Americans across the income spectrum,
“still highly value marriage, sociologists have found. But while it used to be a marker of adulthood, now it is something more wait to do until the other pieces of adulthood are in place — especially financial stability.”
The next sentence,
“For people with less education and lower earnings, that might never happen.”
Now the article, of course, raises an alarm, and it makes a great deal of sense. It is entirely written from a secular perspective, and understandably so, appearing in the New York Times. But furthermore, we also come to see that there is a major school of ethics, which is known as rational choice theory, telling us that people eventually make their moral decisions based upon some form of an economic calculus, whether doing something will either cost them or add to them. On The Briefing we’ve also talked about the fact that there has been a great divide amongst intellectuals over these questions. On the one side there have been the structuralists arguing that it is structural inequalities and injustices in the economy and the society that lead to these pathologies. While there are the culturalists arguing that it basically comes down the culture meaning more than anything else moral decisions. We talked about the fact that the structuralists and the culturalists far more than in any previous moment in American history talking to one another and very helpfully so. And that constructive dialogue is very evident in this article. Miller writes and I quote,
“When thinking about how to make families more stable, researchers debate whether the decline in marriage is an economic issue or a cultural one. Those on the left usually say it’s economic — and could be reversed if there were more and better jobs for men without college degrees. Those on the right are more likely to say it’s because of a deterioration of cultural values.”
Miller then goes on to say,
“In reality, economics and culture both play a role…”
Now I don’t want to skip over that. I want to draw attention to it because what we’re noticing here is a major change in the way even the mainstream media are dealing with this question. There is no doubt that in previous decades it would’ve been very difficult to imagine a reporter for the New York Times acknowledging that there are moral issues and lifestyle questions behind this pathology. When it comes to the structural arguments, Miller points out that this would require an economic restructuring or incentives and new programs. But she then shifts to say,
“Changing culture is harder: Government marriage promotion programs haven’t worked well, for example. Yet it’s clear from research that if relationships progressed more slowly, and childbirth came later, families would be more stable.”
Professor Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia cited later in the article, making an argument we have seen him make over and over again, a very important argument about what he calls the success sequence, the sequence – and this is very important – of getting married first then having children. Breaking that success sequence as it turns out is one of the most fundamental problems we now face. But we need to also face the fact that in this article the New York Times acknowledges that changing culture is harder, and then it mentions the relative failure of government marriage promotion programs. Here’s what’s missing: what is missing is not just the is but the ought. This is where the Christian has to understand that morality is going to have to play a far more important role here, or the question is never going to be resolved in honest terms. Because it’s not just an argument in terms of rational choice theory, that one would be better off if one delayed childbearing until one were married, and it’s not enough to say that getting married is an essential part of moving ahead in the society and becoming an adult. If we are unwilling to speak about a moral right and wrong and ought within the society, then we are never actually going to reach the hearts of people, reaching their minds is not enough. This is one of most important articles on marriage to appear in the mainstream media in a very long time. It is very important for what is here, but what’s even more important is to recognize what’s missing.
Why international organizations fail to deliver world peace
Next we shift to the international sphere, continuing discussion, of course, about North Korea. Huge questions about what the United States can do what anyone can do in order to reach North Korea. The Wall Street Journal ran an important argument,
“Kick North Korea Out of the U.N.”
Claudia Rosett writes about the fact that in its experience since 1945 the United Nations has never expelled a single member state. North Korea is a member state, but it never should have been. As she points out,
“North Korea never met the U.N. membership requirements to begin with. The charter says membership is open only to ‘peace-loving states’ that promote ‘respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms.’”
Just to state the obvious North Korea does not now nor has it ever qualified for membership in the United Nations nor does it appear ever to aspire to meet those minimal qualifications for the United Nations. So what does that tell us? It tells us once again about the limitations of international organizations. They are only as good as the determination of all member states to cooperate in terms of moral and political action. The lack of that consensus is telling, and frankly in most cases on most issues, it has been ever since 1945. But for all of that period, the United Nations has given credibility to North Korea despite the fact that it and several other nations throughout the history the U.N. have miserably and publicly failed to meet those minimal expectations. It’s no wonder that the United Nations has very little leverage over North Korea. Once it allowed North Korea to be a member without meeting its qualifications, why should North Korea care what the United Nations might even say, much less what the United Nations might do?
Yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal pointed to yet another international organization, this the Organization of American States, pointing out that it too is now breaking down. The huge question here is Venezuela. It represents a crisis because the organization of American states, which is officially committed to human rights and democratic institutions, now faces the challenge as to whether or not it will do anything about the autocratic totalitarian government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, which is also, of course, a failing government even in economic terms. Why is organization of American states breaking down? It’s because of the 34 member nations. Fourteen of them are tiny islands in the Caribbean. For political reasons decades ago, they were recognized as independent states each deserving a vote. But here’s the problem, many of them are now politically and economically dependent upon, well you guessed it, Venezuela. Benjamin N. Gedan writing for the Wall Street Journal tells us that,
“For the past two years, Caribbean governments, in return for Venezuelan assistance, have held the OAS hostage. These countries, most of which are less populous than Staten Island, control 14 of the organization’s 34 votes. They have wielded their influence to thwart all attempts at defending human rights and democratic institutions.”
All of this would be a shock to those who were the founding fathers and they were fathers of this internationalist movement represented in both the United Nations and the Organization of American States. And it is not to say that neither organization has done good work in terms of its history. It is to say that Christians of all people should not be surprised by the failure of this kind of global international organization to live up to its hopes and promises. That’s because very important to Christian thinking for centuries is what is known as subsidiarity. It is the affirmation rooted in biblical theology especially the doctrine of creation that the good things God has given us in creation subside most effectively in the smallest unit of society. Now this just reminds us that no national government can fix in a local situation within a family what is broken within marriage. No community, no state can replace the family in terms of meeting needs and raising children. And as we see here when it comes to maintaining democracy, human rights and righteousness, an international organization turns out to be far more ineffectual than its framers and founders had hoped.
What the quest for self-fulfillment in the 1970s bequeathed to America today
Next we turn to an obituary. Daniel Yankelovich one of the most pioneering sociologists and opinion researchers died in recent days at age 92. What’s so important about Yankelovich is that he back in the 1970s published a book entitled,
in which he made the argument that a quest for self-fulfillment among the baby boomers was transforming society. The full title of his book,
“New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down”
He talked about the psycho culture wars and the seeds planted in the sexual revolution. But what’s was most important is that he pointed to a reversal as he sought in American society for people being concerned less about themselves and more for others to being almost entirely inwardly concerned with self-fulfillment being the ultimate moral good. The research undertaken by Daniel Yankelovich brought both its applause and its critics. But the most important thing is that now its basic thesis is almost irrefutable. There is understood now in retrospect to have been a major turning point in American society and in American morality, going back to the 1960s and 70s, and we see it described well in terms of this quest for self-fulfillment, which became the end all and be all for many Americans. That doesn’t explain everything that’s taken place in American society since, but it does explain a very great deal.
Major American newspapers divide Americans into the dead and the pre-dead
Finally, I point to another obituary that appeared in the New York Times, this one for Lillian Ross, who died at age 99 quite recently. She was reporter for the New Yorker and one the most formative and influential figures in American literature and journalism for most of the last half-century. What’s most interesting about her obituary by the way is not just the fact that it tells us a great deal about her life, but the fact that the New York Times in two separate places had to note that the writer of the obituary died seven years before the person who is at the center of the obituary. This points to the fact that American newspapers and media have entire files of prewritten obituaries for those called in the business, the pre-dead. The Bible reminds us that death comes for us all, and major newspapers like the New York Times want to be armed in advance. In an editorial statement the Times acknowledged that it has about 1900 prewritten obituaries just ready to go with facts updated at the very end. So it turns out that the New York Times has a major division in humanity between the dead and the pre-dead. That’s telling in itself.