Till death – or whatever – do us part

One of America's most insightful social critics laments the condition of the modern family

Handwringing over the troubled state of the family has been elevated to an art form during the past decade. In book after book, critics ranging from sociologists and politicians to economists and religious leaders have chronicled what happens when the vow, "With this ring, I thee wed," becomes a broken promise – or a promise never made at all as more couples choose cohabitation or unwed parenthood.

Now James Q. Wilson, an esteemed conservative thinker, adds his voice to the chorus with a provocative book, "The Marriage Problem." Rather than echoing the same tired lamentations, Wilson approaches the subject with a refreshing twist – a historical perspective that breaks new ground in understanding the reasons for the weakening of the family.

Wilson sees the United States as divided into two nations. In one – call it the nation of promise – children are raised by two parents in stable homes and safe neighborhoods. They acquire an education, a job, a spouse, and an optimistic sense about the future.

In the other – think of it as the nation of poverty – children are born to young, unmarried mothers. They grow up in a world without fathers, safety, or reasonable prospects for the future.

Calling such out-of-wedlock births "our grave social problem," Wilson warns that single-parent families are "the source of the saddest and most destructive part of our society's two nations." Too many people, he adds, assume that welfare payments, community tolerance, and professional help for children make marriage unnecessary.

Pretending that women can rear children alone on a large-scale basis is an exercise in arrogance and folly, Wilson contends. Without male help for mothers, the human species "would have died out tens of thousands of years ago." Nowhere, he notes, does a place exist where children are regularly raised by a mother who has no claims on the father.

Wilson traces the decline of marriage to two underlying causes. First, the rise of individualism that grew out of the Enlightenment weakened the traditional family unit. The spread of the "wish to be free" led to an increase in illegitimacy. Marriage shifted from being a cultural and religious union to a personal and secular contract.

Second, he argues that the consequences of slavery have also undermined marriage. Slavery denied slaves the right to marry. A black man often had to live apart from the mother of his children and could offer his family no security, status, name, or identity. Even after slavery ended, sharecropping perpetuated the problem. For white Americans, getting married usually meant buying land; for blacks, little land was available to buy. To compound the problem, slaves came from Africa attached to broad kinship groups, rather than the independent nuclear families that formed the domestic patterns of English settlers. All of this, Wilson suggests, helps to explain why black women today are three times as likely as Latino women and five times as likely as Anglo white women to give birth out of wedlock.

Family law in the West, Wilson notes, has largely abandoned the moral basis on which it once rested. Yet he refuses to lay all the blame for family ills on the tumultuous 1960s. That decade made a difference, of course. Among other changes, it marked the beginning of no-fault divorce laws and higher divorce rates.

But this represents only one change in developments that began centuries earlier. In Paris, for example, in the first three months of 1793, 562 couples were granted divorces, one-third the number of marriages during that time. As far back as 1689, John Locke urged that childless couples be allowed to divorce at will.

For 21st-century Americans, the challenge involves making marriage more common, thus helping "two nations to become one again." But how? Wilson rejects the idea that tax breaks or government subsidies will necessarily shore up marriage. He sides with former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said, "If you expect a government program to change families, you know more about government than I do."

Churches and the media must play a role, he says, helping to persuade men that marriage makes sense in the long run. He points to an earlier era when it was a "gross breach" of a man's honor to refuse to marry a woman who was pregnant with his child.

Wilson is the master of the pithy definition: The family, he writes, "is the fundamental social unit of any society, and on its foundation there is erected the essential structure of social order."

And: "The purpose of marriage, however it was defined, has always been to make the family secure, not to redefine what constitutes a family. Pretending [that] anything we call a marriage can create a family is misleading."

His views will strike some readers as too rigid and idealistic. But even those who disagree with his conservative politics may find his historical perspective thought-provoking.

Calling the family the bedrock of society, Wilson cautions that marriage is a "fragile institution" requiring "constant efforts" to keep it strong. The same holds true for childrearing. He makes a persuasive case for tradition in this heartfelt paean to the family: "Children are not raised by programs, governments, or (in this country) villages; they are raised by two parents who are fervently, even irrationally, devoted to their children's well-being."

• Marilyn Gardner writes about family issues for the Monitor.

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