Back from the Edge: The Intellectual Tide Turns Against Marriage and Civil Society

The American experiment is in trouble. The number of deaths from despair – due to suicide, drug or alcohol poisoning – has increased dramatically in recent years. Reports of happiness have dropped. Millions think the American dream is out of reach. The polarization in Washington is going from worse to worse.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we see increasing evidence that America’s cultural elites are increasingly willing to confront the roots of these problems, regardless of their ideological origins. The professors, journalists, policymakers, professionals and Hollywood tastemakers who dominate the heights of our culture seem finally fed up with lazy, ideologically driven thinking about our biggest problems and willing to explore solutions that exist outside their generally left-wing bubbles.

Take the health of marriage and civil society, which play a crucial role in sustaining the American experiment. Until recently, our elites have often ignored or underestimated their role in driving some of our biggest problems. For example, as New York Times columnist David Leonhardt noted, “I think my half of the political spectrum—the left half—often dismisses the importance of family structure.”

But books by Melissa Kearney (“The Two-Parent Privilege”), Rob Henderson (“Troubled”) and Brad Wilcox (“Get Married”) underscore the value and importance of marriage and a stable family life – from left, center, respectively and the right – have received good attention from leading opinion organs such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and NPR. Wilcox has highlighted the value of marriage for adults. Married adults are happier, healthier, more satisfied with life, live longer and have more financial security. Kearney documents the economic and social benefits for children raised by two parents. Henderson offers a moving memoir of a life from foster care to Yale that reinforces the message: loving, stable, married families are themselves an incomparable asset. The success of these books suggests that the pendulum is swinging back on extremist ideologies that have underestimated the value of marriage and stable families in American life.

This is crucial. As the Social Capital Campaign has found, social scientists and think tank researchers have been documenting a decline in social capital across the board for some time. They worry that the rich networks of relationships that exist not only in families, but also in neighborhoods, religious institutions and other social institutions, and the social trust they generate, have been eroding for decades.

It is not just marriage and family that are at stake here, but the wider context of social relationships: the number of friends we have, the places we meet people, church attendance and volunteer work, all of which play an important but increasingly diminishing role. play a role in American life.

These antisocial shifts away from marriage, family, faith and community involvement have had serious consequences. When it comes to families, America just crossed a historic threshold: Among adults ages 18 to 55, there are now a greater share of single adults without children than married adults with children. This rise of what the Chinese call “bare branches” – individuals who do not marry or have children – is a major reason why deaths from despair have increased and happiness has decreased.

But we also see a deterioration in the quality of civil society. Particularly when it comes to religion, elite voices have too often underestimated the importance of the nation’s houses of worship. For example, a recent article in the New Yorker suggested that faith causes Christian men to be tortured by “guilt and shame that make you feel worthless about yourself” and prone to divorce. But the truth is that the decline of American social capital, including religious faith, is driving some of our deepest problems. And, against The New Yorker’s The insinuation is that religious couples are significantly happier and more stable in marriage than their secular peers.

There are three features of the decline of the family and civil society that unfortunately reinforce each other.

The first is a two-tiered society, in which wage and relationship differences risk becoming permanently entrenched rifts that cannot be bridged. We see this in the marriage rates among 25-55 year olds. In households earning more than $111,000 a year, the share of married people is 77%. In contrast, among households earning less than $50,000, only 27% are married. Given that relationships are role models, “captured, not taught,” the rise of children growing up with single parents, and neighborhoods full of single parents, means that the equality of relationships is being eroded and lost in too many of America’s communities.

Second, the decline in religious affiliation and attendance is both a symptom and a cause of the loss of social capital, with major consequences. Tyler VanderWeele has published new research from Harvard that shows the remarkable health impacts that religious attendance and participation have on health – both physical and mental – with significant declines associated with a lack of participation. A decline in religious participation helps explain the “historically unprecedented decline” in face-to-face socialization, both for adults and their children. The decline in religious attendance is more pronounced among the working class and the poor. In other words, there is a further entrenchment of the ‘social capital’ haves and have-nots.

Third, the decline in social capital appears to be contributing to the collapse of trust across society, as measured in surveys, including the Gallup Survey of Trust in Institutions, based on data collected since the 1970s. Confidence in all three branches of government is at or near historic lows. Nearly four in ten Americans have “no trust at all” in our media, also a historic level. Only 32% have “a lot/quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion (compared to 65% in 1973); 14% at large companies (compared to 65% at small companies); while only 55% have a lot or a fair amount of confidence in the American people.

The trends when it comes to marriage, family formation, church attendance and other key indicators of social capital are not good. That’s a big reason why so many aspects of the American experiment are going in the wrong direction—including that classic Jeffersonian pursuit, the “pursuit of happiness.” But for the first time in years, more and more cultural elites appear to be reflecting on the value of family, faith and community. The positive attention that Kearney, Henderson, and Wilcox have received for their books on marriage and family is one sign of this. Recent articles in The Wall Street Journal And The Atlantic Ocean The chronicles, in the words of Derek Thompson, “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust” also suggest a new elite appreciation for the contribution of faith to the fabric of American life.

As America lumbers toward its 60th presidential election this year with a repeat of the candidates of yesteryear, let’s hope the country can have an honest discussion about how we can move from honestly diagnosing our problems to solving them. This means we must resist the temptation to think that all the solutions lie in Washington, that we must revitalize these institutions for the 21st century, and that we must chart a better familial and civic future for all Americans.

Chris Bullivant is a senior fellow at the Social Capital Campaign, which will publish its full policy proposals in May 2024. Brad Wilcox is professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the author of “Getting Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Create Strong Families, and Save Civilization” (Harper Collins).

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Desert News. It is reprinted here with permission.