The Politicization of Marriage

Posted on August 29, 2013 by


J.D. Vance wrote an interesting piece in the recent issue of National Review on the importance of mobility as an indicator of opportunity in America. His point is that while we may be seeing some signs of life in the economy due to growth—that growth does not necessarily mean that opportunity is expanding.  According to Vance, the mobility of Americans (moving from one physical location to another) demonstrates opportunity far better than the economic growth data.  While his point is a good one, I am more interested in one caveat that he pursued in the midst of his article.  He noted “We’ve known for a while that family breakdown inhibits mobility, and…that two-parent households produce children who are more upwardly mobile than those from broken homes.”   The Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that in 1960, 72% of adults were married. By 2008 that number had fallen to 52%.  Meanwhile, Pew also found that median household income of married adults was over 40% higher than among unmarried adults.   In 1960, that difference was only 12%.  Supporting Vance’s point, has found that children of continuously married parents are more than twice as likely move up the economic scale than children of divorce.

As an academic, I have long been fascinated by the political system’s handling of marriage.  In some cases this is a product of a genuine effort to help women in abusive marriages. For others it is a means of expressing support for the equality of women.  For some, it is the product of a much more extreme position, generally known as the third wave of feminism where all distinctions between the sexes is eradicated and marriage is seen as bondage.  I won’t be addressing that perspective here because most Americans reject it.  As a nation, we have pretended, however, that divorce has no meaningful impact on those involved, on the children in these relationships, and on society as a whole.  While the motives for this position are in some cases laudable, we should not allow good motives to undermine the truth.  The reason I noted my frustration as an academic is because academics should know better.  The field of Psychology makes clear to us that our home life matters.  Having a mother and a father present in the rearing of children is a significant factor in the adjustment and development of a child.  This is not to say that children of divorce, like myself, are doomed to devastation.  I do not believe one is simply a victim of their circumstances, but we cannot pretend that divorce leaves no scars either.  They are very real and they do have an impact on subsequent generations.  The field of Sociology tells us that the family unit is critical to the success of any society.  When we allow political considerations or even laudable concerns about hurting people’s feelings to prevent us from supporting marriages (and thereby condemning divorce), we place those considerations above the health of society.  The impact on society of young men, in particular, coming from broken homes is clearly documented by both of the fields I have mentioned.  As an historian of American History, I worry about the impact of having so many fatherless young men coming of age.  Nonetheless, I also realize that academics are a bit part of the reason why this has become so politicized.  A brief glance at textbooks used in marriage and the family classes at universities around the country will demonstrate that academia on the whole has embraced the politicized agenda, even in the face of clear evidence about the importance of the family.

Vance draws some of those same conclusions when he suggests that the tax code and the poorly written welfare statutes that discourage marriage are not the only forces at work against marriage.  He notes that women in American are “having trouble finding suitable men.”  I wonder if that is not in some part a product of less than ideal home situations where “suitable men” were missing from the equation and valiant single mothers had to try to be both mother and father to their children.

The family is a difficult topic to discuss because we can all relate to it and we all know examples of people who made it through unfortunate circumstances to be a success.  No one wants to denigrate those who through circumstances beyond their control wind up a single parent.  I am not intending to do so either.  What I am talking about is focusing on the ideal—what society values as best.  When the preponderance of the data suggests that traditional family structures matter to success (defined in multiple ways) of individuals and society, it seems that government ought to be pursuing policies that encourage the family.  It is not my intent to get into the policies that do or don’t support the family, but rather to simply highlight why this most foundational institution matters.  As a Christian, I am not at all surprised by the importance of the family.  The Bible very clearly reveals that God designed the family unit and emphasized the importance that man should place on his responsibilities to wife and children.  The American republic was built on such Judeo-Christian foundations and was further influenced by Reformation thought.  For most of its history, we have not been ashamed of those roots. Increasingly, we are.  I am quite convinced it is time–for personal , academic, and religious reasons—that we reconsider our ways.  If as the family goes, so goes the nation; then we better start refocusing on the family.