WASHINGTON — WILLIAM BENNETT recalls when one of his "radical students" at Boston University announced that he and his girlfriend were getting married for "as long as we feel good about each other." It seemed rather temporary to Dr. Bennett, so for a wedding present, he says, "I gave them paper plates."
Like other once deeply rooted traditions, conservative critics say, marriage has become part of America's throwaway society. More than 1 million marriages break apart annually.
Now, some Americans are fighting back. Under the rubric of "family values," many concerned citizens - the most vocal ones being conservative Republicans - are striving to reverse this cultural breakdown.
They have targeted divorce, abortion, illegitimate births, and soaring poverty among children as social scourges that could be alleviated through better values. If they get their way, family values will become the No. 1 political issue in the 1990s.
The values crusade worries those identified by conservatives as Hollywood's liberal elites.
"I do fear this country is being shredded apart," says Candice Bergen, star of TV's "Murphy Brown." "But poverty is contributing to an erosion of family values far more than the media are."
But William Kilpatrick, author of "Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong," says: "This is not simply a matter of poverty, not simply a matter of economics, but a poverty of values.... All the other problems are linked to it, including the problem of poor economic performance in general."
Bennett, who served as secretary of education in the Reagan administration, says it is the loss of "republican virtues" that is leading to economic and spiritual decline. Many conservatives blame the media for this.
For generations, educators, parents, authors, and religious leaders taught the fundamental virtues: self-discipline, civic-mindedness, deferred gratification, and respect for legitimate authority.
Today, the message has changed. Endless hours of exposure to TV, movies, and records are overwhelming the traditional teachers in society, analysts say. In their place is greed, sensualism, and materialism.
As one analyst comments: "If a kid's choice of role models is between Madonna and her mom, many kids will pick Madonna. And what does that mean for our society?"
Conservatives say all this is more than prudish morality. Unless there is a renewal of American values, they say, the United States could fall permanently behind its economic competitors.
Karl Zinsmeister, an adjunct scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, notes the close tie between family stability and prosperity: "Blacks and whites alike have a 9 out of 10 chance of staying out of poverty if they simply finish high school and avoid having a birth out of wedlock."
Yet compared with economic competitors, he says, the US is not doing well: "In present-day Japan, 1 percent of all births are illegitimate, versus well over [25 percent] in this country. Their divorce rate is about one-quarter ours. Ninety-five percent of all Japanese children today live in an intact, two-parent family."
Yet increasing numbers of American children (more than 60 percent of blacks) are growing up in families without fathers. White families once mostly avoided such problems. But no more. Divorce and out-of-wedlock births have created millions of white female-headed households. And more white children are living in poverty.
"Strong, healthy values are critical to national prosperity. They are not a frill," Mr. Zinsmeister says. "Today, national riches are measured in ... personal behaviors and productive habits.
Conservative writers, educators, and leaders, such as Midge Decter, a distinguished fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Life, say the need for moral regeneration is urgent. "We are a society in a lot of trouble," Mrs. Decter says.
Professor Kilpatrick, who teaches at Boston College, notes that Mr. Quayle's criticism of "Murphy Brown" was only one paragraph in a long speech.
"If Quayle's `Murphy Brown' speech ... was really that wide of the mark, there wouldn't be such an uproar," he says. But the fact is, the media elites "have much more permissive ideas about divorce and sexual activity and homosexuality and pornography."
Schools, too, have moved away from what many parents want. Kilpatrick finds "character education," being excised from both public schools and some Roman Catholic schools. In its place is a new model based on individual decisionmaking, without the deep grounding in values.
In his book, he observes: "Aristotle, who had a very practical cast of mind, recommended virtue not because it was a duty, but because it was the surest route to happiness."
That sounds much like Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who said after visiting the US in the 19th Century: "When America ceases to be good, America ceases to be great."
Second of two articles. The first appeared Sept. 21.