From the founding to the present, freedom and liberty have represented the North Star which has guided our country, admittedly with fits and starts, to chart its path in a world in which many countries hold contrary beliefs. However, America is not immune from some unfavorable trends. One troubling trend for our country, shared with Europe and the developed world, recently was announced by the Census Bureau.
The Census Bureau American Community Survey reports that married couples represent only 49.7% of the nation's 111 million households. This is one "first" in which our country cannot take pride. Statistics compiled by The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, a think-tank based in Rockford, Illinois, whose co-founder is my longtime friend, John A. Howard, Ph.D., show marriage has been in a steady decline over the last fifty years.
Married couples comprised three-quarters of American households in the mid-1950s. The new American majority consists of heterosexual and homosexual singles, unmarried couples, and, of course, those poor souls whose spouse is deceased and therefore, understandably are alone. The marked decline in married households indicates a dramatic shift in the morals and standards and ideals by which Americans live.
Howard, an educator by profession, in his paper, "Recommendations for Defending the Family Against the Gay Marriage Juggernaut," identifies how our nation and others have experienced a lost sense of purpose, visibly demonstrated by the decline of key institutions in society such as our universities, and, of course, the family. Howard writes:
... the natural family came to be perceived in the United States as an obstacle to the good life ... and ... the natural family is now a primary target for elimination by much of the intellectual and opinion-making forces in the United States.
Until the middle of the twentieth century it was universally recognized that the primary purpose of the educational process was to train each new generation how to live responsibly and productively in its own society. This goal was preeminent in tribal as well as industrial nations. The young were taught the ideals of society, why these ideals were important, and why they must be sustained and protected.
America's schools, public and religious, placed emphasis upon inculcating our most important values in our young people. "The parietal rules at all the nation's colleges and universities reflected the common judgment of the American people in the approval of the natural family and the disapproval of contra-family sexual activity. The principle, here, is that the family and sexual liberation cannot co-exist," Howard maintains. That started to change in the 1960s and this lost sense of purpose continues to this day. Too many colleges and universities jettisoned sensible standards governing relations between the sexes, opting for co-ed dorms, permitting men and women to engage in sex on campus without having accepted the responsibility of marriage. The concept of the chaperone suddenly became as outdated as the horse and buggy.
So-called sexual "liberation" has changed the character of American life. Most couples wanted to get married and to remain married. They waited until marriage to have sex. Sex entailed responsibility because abortion rightfully was considered sinful. Many families stuck together through thick and thin. Teenagers could not obtain birth-control pills. Five decades ago, of every 1,000 unmarried women age 15 or older 82.4 married annually. The rate in 2000 was 47. Over three-quarters of adult males were married in the late 1950s, 61.5% at the start of this decade.
The adverse trend regarding marriage and families is even more dramatic in Europe. Our country's birth rate was higher at the start of the decade than those of such major European countries as Germany, Italy and Poland. These countries, despite their historical ties to the Catholic Church, have populations which largely have fallen away. Europe's liberalized attitude toward marriage, particularly same-sex marriage, is not beneficial to society. Stanley Kurtz, in a February 23, 2006 NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE column, "Standing Out," reports that the percentage of Dutch men and women who told pollsters that "marriage mattered to them" nose-dived from 68% in 1992 to 45% by 2003. Kurtz, citing the work of Dutch demographer Jan Latten, writes that the crucial alteration in Dutch family life during that period was the sanctioning of same-sex marriage. Relationships between men and women, as well as same-sex couples, are increasingly viewed as completely personal and simply not the business of the state. The result? Increases in out-of-wedlock births and unmarried parenting, and, of course, relationship breakups.
Some may say Americans retain a stronger view of marriage than Europeans, particularly those countries that have embraced same-sex coupling. Europeans can point fingers at Hollywood, complaining its values undermine marriage and morals. Many European films were more derisive of tradition and morals at a time when Hollywood studios were still churning out many relatively wholesome films. The bad obliterates the good in Hollywood's products now but some films continue to be produced about fairy-tale romances which result in men and women marrying. All well and good.
Too few Hollywood movies show the importance of faith in the lives of Americans and too few movies these days portray the give-and-take successful marriages require to endure. There is so much more to marriage than love at first sight. Fortunately, the rise of Christian independent movies provides hope that a real alternative market for faith-based entertainment will develop which can portray the true importance of faith, marriage and family. Many young Americans are desperately seeking such guidance, failing to receive it from the entertainment industry, from separated or divorced or uncommunicative parents, or from their schools.
Americans should demand more attention and thought from their leaders on how our nation can rediscover the importance of marriage and family. We must be careful. Radical proponents of feminism and homosexuality will be emboldened to hijack these efforts. A defining moment in the conservative movement came when pro-family groups rallied against the White House Conference on Families staged by the Carter Administration and dominated by feminists. Leaders such as Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum, Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America, and Connie Marshner, then my colleague at the Free Congress Foundation, were galvanized by the dominance of the feminists and advocates of everything but traditional marriages and families.
The 1980 election was a dramatic rejection of the radical values which had come to dominate America's left, particularly those espoused by the leaders and organizations that controlled the conference. Later, a successful conference on families was convened by the Reagan Administration and performed admirable work. The findings of the American Community Survey indicate the need for President George W. Bush to convene a new conference on marriage and family. I urge him to do so provided the right people, such as Dr. Wade Horn, Patrick Fagan, the skilled social science researcher at the Heritage Foundation, and others who understand the importance of upholding traditional marriage and the family would provide the needed strategic direction for the conference.
This conference should explore ways, particularly for religious and voluntary organizations, to reinforce traditional marriage. There is a strong role for the States to play. Divorce has become too easy due to no-fault laws. As a conservative, I take a skeptical view toward activism by the Federal Government outside its proper constitutional purview. One interesting point to consider is how the policies of the Federal Government may undercut marriage.
Consider our reliance on Federal loans for students, which saddles them with debt, causing them to delay marriage, perhaps even leading some to avoid it all together. We naturally want young Americans to achieve their potential. We need to understand that marriage assists the young to achieve that potential. This conference could examine new, innovative ways to reinforce the institution of marriage. An action agenda for States to consider regarding their own laws could be a useful product for any such conference.
Too many young Americans are growing up with a radically wrong view of life. They view marriage as a temporary bond between a man and a woman, or, I fear, increasingly, between a member of their own sex. Today's children need to have a mother and father who honor their commitment to remain united "for better or for worse" and who instill a respect for God, their religion, their family and work. That, more than just money or material goods, will provide a firm foundation for success.
Allan C. Carlson, Ph.D., President of The Howard Center, delivers an equally pointed and prescient statement. "It's married couples who have children -- guaranteeing society's survival. Married couples care for the elderly and infirm. They provide most of the support for charities and civic activities. Their decline is a harbinger of atomization and fragmentation."
I know full well how important marriage is when unexpected misfortune occurs. There is no greater comfort than a loving family -- wife, children and grandchildren. My fear is that too few Americans are being reared to respect and honor marriage and the family. The wrong impression is set by their parents, the entertainment industry, their peers, even many religious and civic institutions.
Reversing the five-decade decline in marriage and families will be difficult but the rewards will be infinite. Many young Americans will be saved from lives of alienation and aimlessness. They will lead better, more vital and purposeful lives. Reinvigorating marriage and family life can help our country maintain its sense of purpose. I cannot say I am pleased by the finding of the American Community Survey. Americans can resign themselves to defeat or re-energize themselves to save the institutions of marriage and the family. I cast my lot with the latter group. Stronger marriages, stronger families, bound firmly by faith and traditional values, will provide future generations of Americans with a fighting chance to reap the benefits of freedom and liberty in this uncertain century.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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