Marriage and Family Life: The Kernel of Every Nation
Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D.
We’ve had a wonderful first day of this World Congress of Families VII. We’ve talked about the ways that the natural family makes us happy, it’s importance to national economies, and how family life can prosper.
Now, we ask, “What is most important to family life and society?”
The answer to that question is especially pertinent at this point in time. Both marriage and the natural family are under attack, in unprecedented ways. The link between marriage and family life –– which used to be inextricable, is now increasingly tenuous.
I have spent more than two decades in Washington, D.C., analyzing social science data on the family and writing about what Francis Fukuyama refers to as “the great disruption.” In my 2010 book, Children at Risk, I report the results of my research about the numerous ways that individuals, especially children, are harmed when marriage declines and the family disintegrates. My 2012 book, Marriage Matters, focuses on the research regarding how marriage is best for a couple, for children and for nations.
My research is applicable now more than ever, because our young people are being brainwashed into believing that marriage is “just a piece of paper.” Those youth who refuse to accept this moral relativism are marginalized, even persecuted. That is why it is imperative you and I understand the social science and use this indisputable evidence to equip the next generation, the future.
Main Point #1 –– All of these data make my first point abundantly clear: Throughout history and across all cultures, marriage has been the foundation of families and the bedrock of civilized nations.
Like the glue that holds a rocking chair together, marriage and family life are the institutions that bind a nation together. The contribution of this social “glue” while indispensable is often not as easily recognized as other factors –– jobs, education, GDP, or national defense; that is until the glue fails and things begin to fall apart. I think of it like water eroding a building’s foundation. Water is damaging the building’s structure every day, but this destructive force is unseen until the building begins to crumble.
Married mom-and-dad families having babies and raising the next generation of children have been so much the norm of most of our personal experience that now with birthrates sinking below replacement levels, it is hard to imagine the long-term impact of their absence. We have, however, all seen the result –– at least on TV –– on those areas like Detroit or other inner city neighborhoods where the prevalence of married-couple families is already too low to provide the necessary critical mass for a healthy environment –– we can extrapolate from that to pretty well predict what a society will be like when there are few, if any, married couples.
The question we face today is, “How much havoc will happen before chaos rules?” Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so gangs fill the gap of missing families. In some places the breakdown of the family unit is so prevalent that many children there have never seen a natural family. It is ironic that in such situations children join gangs in a misguided attempt to find a “family.” Without strong families to exert moral authority, neighborhoods echo the scenes from the classic 1991 movie, “Boyz n the Hood” that takes the viewer inside the gang-infested communities of South Central Los Angeles. Picture marauding gangs, constantly at war with each other, terrorizing and dominating their territory. That’s what happens when there are not enough strong fathers to control and civilize the young males.
Main Point #2 –– That naturally flows toward my second point: Marriage and Family Life Make a Profound Difference both for Individuals and for Society.
God's plan is not complicated. Perhaps one of the major contributions of married couples is just being there, living a moral life that models order and decency. It is when we deviate from the simple basic plan that society gets very complex. Rescuing and rehabilitating an alienated child that has gotten into drugs and sex is a lot tougher and more complex than raising that child in a loving, moral home where they imbibe good values and civic responsibility by seeing them modeled by their parents working together for the family.
Notre Dome’s Father Hesburgh was willing to be very simple in his prescription: "The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." And, someone paraphrased Urie Bronfenbrenner’s long analysis of the importance of parents to children with the pithy statement: "Every child needs someone who is absolutely crazy about him.” It’s all pretty simple and straightforward when you do it God's way. Trying to fix life when we’ve made a hash of it, is when things get really messy.
In his book, Family Politics, Scott Yenor, summarized the difference well:
“Stronger families keep government limited by providing services, in the raising of children and in how a husband and a wife share a life, that government otherwise might have to provide. It produces citizens more likely to be moral, relatively self-sustaining, and law abiding. It answers a deep human need for belonging, unconditional acceptance, love and mutual recognition that might otherwise find unhealthy outlets. Marriage and family life are ballasts that serve individual happiness and contentment and lend meaning to our freedom and equality.”
Tragically models of loving marriage and healthy family life are becoming increasingly rare. Dr. Neil Clark Warren, founder of E-Harmony, a web-based matchmaking service, asked over 500 young couples to describe a marriage they had observed that was happy and harmonious. More than half of those young couples could not name a single role model marriage and family.
Today the ambiguous and tenuous place that marriage and family hold in contemporary society is increasingly evident. Over time the philosophy of radical individualism unleashed by the Enlightenment have been pushed to their logical conclusion and the hedonistic opinions and utopian views of liberals have displaced the wisdom of the ages. The result is a toxic me-centered culture that is incommensurate with and hostile to the idea of marriage as two persons each subordinating their own desires to the needs of the beloved. The concept of conjugal intimacy as “knowing” one’s spouse has been swept away as has their union being viewed as becoming “one flesh.”
Main Point #3 –– That brings me to my third point: The heated controversies about what constitutes marriage affect the fundamental meaning of marriage and family and influence the public policies related to those centuries-old institutions.
The dramatic increases in the rates of divorce, illegitimacy, cohabitation, and families headed by poverty-stricken single mothers, leave us with a radically transformed culture and confronts us with growing numbers of children in families that are dependent upon government. The well-documented declines in birth rates and marriage rates leave us stymied –– for nothing has halted population decline . . . and no solution to the shrinking labor force is evident.
Most of our countries are struggling to find an answer to the significant demographic divides related to family breakdown and the lack of marriage. The huge education, economic, racial, and geographical divides are heavily documented by researchers — nearly 60 percent of males 25 to 39 made less than $40,000 in 2012.......and less than half of them have ever married.
Will the growth in no-strings-attached cohabitation among the lower educated make the concept of marriage and family as a sacrament become extinct among them? Will it be replaced among the higher educated population by a non-binding contract that can be broken at will? Marriage as a sacrament involves consent and a loving, mutually-dependent relationship that supersedes contractual obligations.
Are marriage and family too exclusive and too restrictive on individuality, equality and autonomy? That’s the position advocated in a controversial Canadian report, “Beyond Conjugality?” Marriage has been the foundation of virtually all societies because it has been the bond that has held families together; in this regard it is important to note that social science shows that living together without marriage – cohabitation – is less satisfactory as a bonding unit. Couples who cohabit rarely stay together more than 5 years and 80% of those who cohabit and eventually marry, end up divorced.
For decades, liberals, progressives, feminists and welfare advocates have tried to find solutions to the problems associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing, single motherhood, and child poverty –– without advocating marriage in public policy. Their solutions? Contraceptives, abortions and expanding government welfare. We don't need to ask, "How has that been working?" The answer is obvious. The decline of marriage, including no-fault divorce and the sexual revolution, is a luxury popularized by celebrities but it is a dead-end trap for the poor that is paid for by their children.
Research provides clear evidence that having a married mom-and-dad family provides the best odds for a child’s healthy development and well-being. Politically incorrect or not, we cannot continue to give a polite nod to the ludicrous claim that all family structures are the same.
When the sum total of our morality, both personal and public, consists of not being judgmental, it is not surprising that there is little concern for more than whatever brings a moment of pleasure today with no regard for the effects this will have for anyone's well-being tomorrow.
A healthy family --- a married husband and wife – provides the first schoolhouse where children are taught the self-restraint, empathy, personal responsibility necessary for them to live cooperatively, harmoniously, and economically self-sufficient; these are the skills crucial to the future of limited government and strong nations.
Let me conclude by affirming: Good marriages generate life and energy in such a marvelous way that they radiate outward, affecting all in their path. To fully embrace the sacrament of marriage is to start another branch on the tree of life with all of its bountiful potential, large and small.
I like the way R.R. Reno described marriage in the journal, First Things ––
“Marriage is one of the most essential ways we make the kinds of commitments and accept the kinds of responsibilities that make us adults, and it provides us with the most reliable social safety net of all. . . . It is one of the surest sources of personal happiness. It’s also the single most reliable institution for the renewal and transmission of social capital, which in a healthy culture of marriage is such a crucial component of the common good.”
Because it requires sexual exclusivity and permanence as the means of securing the connections between the parts, marriage and family life anchor sex to love, procreation, parenthood, and economic interdependence.
Children that come from healthy marriage are vital to the future of society, but the contributions of these good marriages do not end there. By building strong, healthy families married couples create virtue. In some immeasurable way, the goodness they create –– simply by living according to the natural order and moral law designed by the Creator –– is of benefit not just for the couple; their success also contributes vitality to the whole. Anytime a marriage nurtures, shelters and protects, it becomes a stage –– for all to see –– where scenes of love and joyful celebration are played out again and again.
Of course, we humans are fallible, hence all marriages, despite our early romantic illusions, will have imperfections. But by striving towards the ideal, undeterred by their failings, the marriage builders keep the ideal alive. Their efforts encourage us all, and as their love overcomes and endures, they point to potential that exists. Persisting through "sickness and health," they produce something far more significant than the mere sum of their labors. Their union can be both inspirational and practical, providing a safe space for growth and development, and ultimately, a strong foundation for nations.
Much as the gravity of the sun holds the planets in their orbits, providing light and energy, these good marriages are little anchor points both within the local community and across the entire society. Though it is not their conscious intent, the way they live generates something akin to a magnetic field that helps to hold a community together. Their vital presence helps to stabilize and nurture the whole.