The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Twenty-first century scholars often turn to economics to explain the dramatic changes in American family life since 1970—changes evident in markedly higher rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and non-marital cohabitation and markedly lower rates of marriage and marital childbearing. Legal scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone are thus quite typical when they explain many of these changes by asserting that “the changing economy has undermined the path from abstinence through courtship to marriage.” These two legal scholars are still relying on economics to explain shifts in family life when they argue that maintaining “traditional [family] values . . . has become difficult as economic conditions reserve greater rewards for the well-educated and undermine the traditional [gendered] division of labor on which family stability previously rested,” explaining that as the traditional gendered division of labor died with the emergence of “the information economy . . . [which] created greater demand for highly educated women, rewarding greater investment in daughters as well as sons,” this new economy “created . . . greater pressures to delay the beginning of family formation.”
But such economic explanations of changes in family life have actually been around a good while. And those wielding such explanations have not always used them—as Cahn and Carbone do—to advance a left-liberal political agenda. In 1987, the culturally conservative University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson deployed economic explanations of family change with The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. In this book, Wilson explains the sharp drop in inner-city marriage rates as the consequence of economic changes that have made it increasingly difficult for urban black men to find employment as unskilled or semi-skilled blue-collar workers, so making them less attractive as marriage partners. This explanation was sufficiently compelling that in 1988 Wilson’s book won the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.
Such economically based arguments deserve attention from Americans who care about marriage and the family. They deserve particular attention at a time when marriage rates have tumbled by more than 50 percent since 1970. The retreat from wedlock has been especially dramatic among the nation’s poor and working-class citizens. The prominent social scientists W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J. Cherlin report that “marriage and family stability . . . [are now] in decline in the kinds of neighborhoods that we used to call working-class—home to large numbers of young adults who have completed high school but not college.” But careful study reveals the inadequacy of any entirely economic explanation of the unraveling of American marital and family life. A complete explanation of that unraveling must allow for the potent influence of non-economic cultural developments. And among these developments: the emergence of a cultural elite that has for at least four decades not only been sending mixed messages about the value and importance of an intact marriage but also been shaping law and public policy accordingly.
To be sure, the mix is not the same in all segments of the nation’s elite. Among Republican leaders, the nation has seen more than a few old-fashioned hypocrites: Newt Gingrich has provided the archetype with a public support for traditional family values and a personal life of infidelity and philandering. Gingrich fits only too well in what one journalistic commentator aptly labels “a long line of conservative Republicans who preach family values . . . but upon further inspection are found to be hypocrites.” Other Republicans who fit too well in this un-inspiring long line would include Mark Sanford, Lawrence Kudlow, and Mark Souder.
Among Democrats, who at mid-twentieth century constituted the pro-family party, voters have frequently seen what might be called inverted hypocrites: California Senator Barbara Boxer exemplifies this not uncommon political species, reaping the benefits of an enduring marriage and stable family life while indulging in anti-family rhetoric and endorsing anti-family policies. Cahn and Carbone frankly acknowledge the thematic dissonance in the treatment of marriage among those that they call “representatives of blue family values”—that is, representatives of the type of family values found among states that political cartographers have been painting blue for the last several election cycles. “The most visible representatives of blue family values bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage, or the stigmatization of single parents,” Cahn and Carbone write. “Their secret, however, is that they encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.” Besides Boxer, Democrats who practice many family virtues but who inscribe family vices in their public policy and political rhetoric would include Nancy Pelosi, Dick Durbin, and Chuck Schumer.
But whether those who garble the message of family-reinforcing moral principles are old-fashioned hypocrites or inverted hypocrites, the results have been toxic for American life, especially among the poor and the working class. For that garbling of that message has been a critical part of what has caused the nation’s disastrous retreat from family life in recent decades. Sociologist Christopher Jencks forcefully underscores this point in his incisive review of Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged. The problem with Wilson’s book, Jencks asserts, is that “economic factors alone cannot explain the changes [in family life among the poor] that began in the 1960s. It is the conjunction of economic vulnerability and cultural change that has proved disastrous.”
As Jencks explains, “Couples with neither money nor education have always had more trouble keeping their marriages together than more privileged couples.” However, many underprivileged couples made the extra effort necessary to rear their children within an intact family together so long as “almost every ‘respectable’ adult thought unwed parenthood, desertion, and divorce immoral.” But many poor people stopped making such extra efforts when “elite support for the two-parent norm . . . eroded.” So pronounced was this erosion that “instead of feeling morally superior to anyone who had a baby without marrying, [many] began to feel morally superior to anyone who disapproved of unwed mothers.” “Once the two-parent norm los[t] its moral sanctity,” Jencks remarks, “the selfish considerations that always pulled poor parents apart often became overwhelming.”
The Forgotten Insights of Montesquieu
Jencks is right to identify particularly pronounced erosion of this elite support “in the mass media, in the law, and in the widely publicized activities of celebrities.” But because of the socially formative power of the law, the erosion of support for marriage and family life has been particularly toxic among the hypocrites and inverted hypocrites who serve as lawmakers, judges, and government executives.
Even a mediocre legal education should have given the nation’s legal and political elite reason to endorse a consistently pro-marriage, pro-family message with both the example they set in their own personal life and the rhetoric and policies they advance as public officers of the government. For it is hard to imagine a legal education in the United States that does not expose students to the thought of Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. Politically educated Americans usually remember this French political theorist largely for one reason: it was from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) that America’s Founding Fathers drew their inspiration for the system of checks and balances they built into the U.S. Constitution. In the clear separation of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, Americans see a lasting monument to Montesquieu’s wisdom as a political theorist.
Unfortunately, both hypocrites and inverted hypocrites have apparently forgotten Montesquieu’s insights into another issue of perhaps even greater importance for the long-term health of the republic: namely, what Montesquieu calls “the ceremony of marriage.” Viewing wedlock as the safeguard of that “public continence [that] is naturally connected with the propagation of the species,” Montesquieu recognized in marriage the ritual that enforced “the natural obligation of the father to provide for his children” so preventing a mother “who generally wants [i.e., lacks] the means” from being compelled to care for her children alone. Montesquieu thus held “illicit conjunctions” between unmarried men and women in low regard, believing such conjunctions could “contribute but little to the propagation of the species.” Emphasizing that “in republics . . . it is necessary that there should be the purest morals,” Montesquieu spoke out against the “libertinism” of men and women who avoided marriage while indulging in non-marital sexual relations, warning of malign social consequences “when the two sexes, corrupting each other even by the natural sensations themselves, fly from a union which ought to make them better, to live in that which always renders them worse.”
“It is a rule,” Montesquieu further reasoned, “that the more the number of marriages is diminished, the more corrupt are those who have entered into that state; the fewer married men, the less fidelity is there in marriage; as when there are more thieves, more thefts are committed.” It is no wonder, then, that Montesquieu viewed favorably “the ancient laws of Rome [which] endeavored greatly to incite the citizens to marriage.” Indeed, as he surveyed social conditions in eighteenth-century Europe, he concluded, “In order to communicate a general spirit, which leads to the propagation of the species, it is necessary for us to establish, like the Romans, general rewards, or general penalties”—referring here to the legal rewards and penalties of the sort incorporated in Rome’s ancient pro-marriage laws.
If Montesquieu believed that laws upholding marriage as the social ideal were necessary in eighteenth-century Europe, he would recognize an even more acute need for such laws now. For the dramatic fall in marriage rates since the introduction of no-fault divorce and legal abortion in the early 1970s has brought troubling social, economic, and political changes. Without question, Montesquieu would share the fears of demographer Phillip Longman, who worries about “America’s vanishing labor supply” in a social landscape reshaped by “the low birthrates of recent decades.” What is more, an eighteenth-century writer who worried about women lacking financial resources trying to raise children would have even more reason for concern in contemporary America, where more than two-fifths of all children are now born out of wedlock, where high divorce rates have created a world in which half of all children live at least part of their growing-up years outside of a married-couple home, where at any one time almost one quarter of all children live in a single-mother household, and where nearly half of children living with single mothers live below the government’s poverty line.
How Democrats Outdo Republicans
Though their personal conduct corrosively undercuts their public rhetoric, America’s Republican family-values hypocrites give at least verbal assurances that they do understand the importance of marriage and family life in sustaining American civic life. To be sure, social historian Allan Carlson has good reason to complain that self-proclaimed pro-family Republicans have actually done far too little to translate their rhetoric into policies—especially economic and tax policies—that actually reinforce wedlock and family life. But at least on such symbolically and culturally formative issues such as abortion and same-sex “marriage,” these Republicans at least vote against open legal assaults on wedlock and family life.
Unfortunately, the inverted hypocrites among the nation’s legal elite appear entirely oblivious to the extensive social and cultural problems consequent to the nation’s retreat from wedlock. It is indeed this elite who has saddled the country with no-fault divorce laws making it easy to dissolve marital bonds, who have promoted cohabitation as an emancipatory replacement for wedlock, and who are now promoting the stunningly subversive notion of same-sex marriage. This elite, predictably enough, share the views of most academics who—recent survey data show—profess “very liberal attitudes toward sex” and are increasingly willing to “discriminate against people with conservative views” on social issues. Morally sober Americans can only wonder if these inverted family-value hypocrites—who recognize the substantial benefits of marriage and stable family life and who secure those benefits through their private conduct—are not pursuing political advantage by undermining other people’s marriages and families through their anti-family rhetoric and policies. For Americans who have lost the security found in lasting marriages and intact families become—of necessity—captive clients of the ever-growing government apparatus in which these inverted hypocrites build their lucrative fiefdoms. Montesquieu would have well understood that the growth of such fiefdoms imperils the very civic virtue that sustains republican freedom. But apparently, America’s inverted hypocrites care much, much more about their own short-term political and economic advantage than they do about the country’s long-term civic or political health.
Though their conduct betrays their professed values, at least old-fashioned hypocrites will—when found out—own up to having transgressed. Gingrich is thus typical of old-fashioned hypocrites when speaking of his womanizing: “I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness.” More important, these old-fashioned hypocrites would never dream of publically attacking the moral principles that sustain marriage and family life, nor would they ever attempt to frame public policy on the basis of the transgressions they try to keep out of the public eye. Indeed, the conduct of old-fashioned hypocrites brings new meaning to Jonathan Swift’s keen observation of old-fashioned hypocrisy as “the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”
In contrast, the nation’s inverted hypocrites utterly refuse to acknowledge anything morally problematic in the discrepancy between their aggressively anti-family public rhetoric and their subversively anti-family public policies, on the one hand, and their private choices allowing them to benefit from their own intact marriages and enduring family commitments, on the other. Indeed, should the discrepancy between public actions and private behavior surface, these obdurately inverted hypocrites will actually boast of how enlightened they are in refusing to impose their values on others and of how much they are doing to foster tolerance for everyone’s family choices. Senator Boxer expresses the quintessential attitude of the inverted hypocrite in her warm endorsement of That’s a Family!, an “educational” film fostering social and moral confusion by subverting every normative understanding of marriage and family. Betraying all the family principles she actually lives by, Boxer praises this thirty-minute destructive film shown in elementary schools for reflecting “the true diversity of American families, [and so] break[ing] down intolerance.” Boxer thus makes herself one of the voices of inverted hypocrisy that have helped confuse poor Americans, so causing them to give up those extra efforts that once enabled them to keep marriages and families together.
What is worse, while old-fashioned hypocrites strive mightily to keep their dirty little hypocrisies out of the public eye, the inverted hypocrites of the political left are working overtime to inscribe their destructive hypocrisies into policies that leach all family or marriage-affirming beliefs out of law and public life. The baleful social and cultural consequences would be immediately recognizable to Montesquieu, who distinguished between “two sorts of corruption—one when the people do not observe the laws; the other when they are corrupted by the laws: an incurable evil, because it is in the very remedy itself.”
Already widespread enough to catch Jenck’s attention in the 1980s, the family life of the poor and working class has sustained even worse damage during the last twenty years from the corrosive effect of liberal opinions—that is, the opinions of the elite inverted hypocrite who dominate the nation’s media, judiciary, and standing bureaucracies. To be sure, though they may not be especially conversant in the relevant social-science literature, it is precisely because this elite understands the remarkable social, psychological, and economic benefits of marriage and an intact family that—as Cahn and Carbone point out—they continue to “encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.”
Inverted Hypocrisy, Social Inequality
But the nation’s poor and working-class citizens are paying a very high price for the disjunction between the elite hypocrites’ private family discipline and their public rhetoric of tolerance, especially since that rhetoric justifies the no-fault divorce regime, the legal push for same-sex marriage, and other legislation deeply subversive of marriage and family. As Jencks rightly pointed out a quarter of a century ago, the poor were already suffering the baleful effects of family disintegration fostered by the erosion of “the elite support for the two-parent norm.” In the decades since Jencks penned his compelling analysis, inverted hypocrites have effectively destroyed most of what remained of such support, leaving poor and working class citizens too confused and demoralized to exert themselves to follow a life script of marriage and family life.
It would be naïve to suppose that the nation’s inverted hypocrites always practice a family-sustaining private morality while preaching an amoral tolerance on family issues. At times, these hypocrites suspend their strange form of hypocrisy by actually living by their vapid public slogans, so abandoning the private moral discipline essential to successful marriage and family life. Of course, when they do so, they suffer the inevitable consequences. But as political scientist James Q. Wilson has pointed out, affluent Americans (and the nation’s inverted hypocrites are overwhelmingly affluent) enjoy sufficient resources to protect themselves and their children from at least some of the consequences of marital and family failure. After all, they can afford to pay for therapy, for drug rehab, for medical treatment of STDs, and for professional parental surrogates. But when the nation’s poor and working class indulge in the same behaviors, they suffer the consequences without any financial insulation.
Taking the game of Crack the Whip as his metaphor for explaining how the rich avoid many of the consequences of indulging in family-subverting amorality while the poor who imitate their malign example cannot, Wilson explains:
The pleasures of loose sexuality, were celebrated by the affluent, who wrote articles about sexual freedom or made motion pictures glamorizing the lives of unmarried mothers; the people at the end of the line thought sexuality without marriage was desirable, but there was no place for their children to turn for help. It is hard to keep up at the end of the line.
Wilson thus believes this perverse game of Crack the Whip “may well help us understand why a changed culture—the decline of stigma, the embrace of cohabitation, and the acceptance of divorce—may influence most powerfully the people who did the least to create it.” “The tolerance and individualism of the affluent,” Wilson asserts, “have exacted a heavy price from the poor.”
Of course, one of the essential services that the affluent can pay for after indulging in marriage- or family-subverting behavior is the professional counseling and assistance that may offer the personal discipline essential to rebuild marriage and family life. Intelligent enough to recognize the life-enriching benefits of marital and family ties, relatively few of America’s affluent Americans actually wish to spend their lives as wild, socially untethered hedonists. This recognition, in fact, explains a pattern that surprises Wilcox and Cherlin:
College-educated Americans, surprisingly, have grown more marriage-minded. For instance, since the 1970s, opposition to premarital sex fell 6 percentage points among high school-educated Americans and rose 6 percentage points among college-educated Americans. Thus, in a striking turn of events, Middle America, which has long been seen as the putative source of traditional family values, is moving away from a marriage mentality at the very same time that Upscale America is moving towards such a mentality.
Unfortunately, when professional counseling that helps many affluent Americans to regain family-sustaining private discipline, it does not usually convert them into public advocates of family-sustaining principles. More typically, such therapy merely returns them to their previous posture of inverted hypocrisy—reaping the substantial personal benefits of a morality-sustained marriage and family life, but publicly echoing all the family-subverting slogans of tolerance and diversity. When poor or working-class Americans—confused and misguided by such slogans—indulge in the same kind of behavior, they cannot afford such professional assistance—making it far harder for them to recover their previous marital or family ties.
Family Disintegration: The Hard Facts
No one should suppose that it is just the nation’s poor and working class citizens who are paying a high price for the family disintegration that hypocrisy—especially inverted hypocrisy—has helped to incubate. When families disintegrate—or fail to form in the first place—everyone ends up paying for the consequent lawlessness, academic failure, psychological distress, drug addictions, and intra-familial litigation. Emphasizing that their methodology could only yield a ‘“lower-bound’ or minimum estimate,” the Institute for American Values and its collaborators calculated in 2008 that “family fragmentation costs U.S. taxpayers at least $112 billion each and every year, or more than $1 trillion each decade.” And when it comes time to collect this tax money, the progressive advocates of tolerance and diversity in family life will suddenly become very rigid and intolerant in demanding complete and total compliance with the forms prescribed for reporting income and paying taxes. But such a volte-face on the question of tolerance cannot be avoided given the fundamental untruth hidden behind all the ebullient slogans advocating tolerance in family forms. For as legal scholar George Swan has explained, only an intact family gives Americans “a freestanding institution mediating between the individual citizen and the central government,” so allowing them to “organize their lives independent of central political authority.”
Beyond the economic costs of family fragmentation visible in out-of-control government budget and in ever-heavier tax burdens, the civic and cultural consequences of family disintegration, although harder to quantify, may finally count for far more. Given that social scientists have established that married Americans are much more civic-minded than their unmarried peers, political scientists have good reason to worry about the future health of the nation’s shared public life. And given that researchers have also established that children very often manifest a markedly underdeveloped sense of morality if they grow up without married parents, community leaders have even more reason to fear future breakdowns in ethical conduct. These are dire realities that America’s cheery-minded inverted hypocrites would prefer to keep out of view—and with the help of an astonishingly pliant media, they do so. But sooner or later, the nation must face the hard realities consequent to family disintegration.
As a political thinker who stressed a free republic’s need for intact marriages as essential incubators of virtue, Montesquieu would understand why America faces such a threatening future with a dwindling number of such marriages. Fortunately, in this same thinker, Americans can find at least some guidance for framing political strategies for dealing with the crisis that the country’s inverted hypocrites have precipitated. To be effective, such strategies must recognize just how the system of divided government that Montesquieu bequeathed to America affects marriage and marital law.
Americans have long, and justifiably, regarded Montesquieu’s divided-government plan for checks and balances as an essential safeguard for freedom. But when it comes to family issues, Americans will want to keep in mind the point made by political scientist Franz Neumann, when he points out that Montesquieu’s system of checks and balances “can live up to its promise only if the three (or two) powers are not only legally and organizationally, but also socially, separate, i.e., different social groups dominate the different powers.” After all, “What possible guarantee of freedom can there be in separate powers if all three are controlled by one group?”
Challenging the Judicial and Executive Branches
Given the pervasive influence in academe of inverted hypocrites whose public rhetoric has been corrosive of marriage and family life, Americans who share Montesquieu’s belief in wedlock will certainly wish to keep all three branches from falling under the sway of the academy’s inverted hypocrites. Since the inverted hypocrites of academe control the credentialing of those who serve in the judiciary and the permanent bureaucracy of the executive branches, it is perhaps not surprising that activist judges have taken the lead in establishing the subversive legal mendacity of same-sex marriage. Nor is it surprising that the lawyers in the executive branch of government have—even in the absence of a Supreme Court ruling on the matter—repudiated the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.
At least for the time being, those who share Montesquieu’s perspective on marriage must look to the legislative branch as the essential check against inverted hypocrites in the judicial and executive branch. In other words, voters must scrutinize the social views of prospective legislators with particular care.
Of course, voters need to scrutinize candidates’ social views even more intensely when selecting the political leaders to occupy the top positions in the executive branch of government—governors and, of course, the president. These leaders, after all, can appoint bureau chiefs and judges who will resist the anti-marriage philosophies of modern academe. Family-minded Americans may particularly hope for an executive branch with more supportive attitudes toward wedlock. But these Americans should not underestimate the ongoing influence of inverted hypocrites who have made anti-marital thinking nearly orthodoxy on the nation’s campuses. Consequently, even under a family-friendly chief executive, Americans will likely see the malign influence of inverted hypocrisy persist among those who staff the permanent bureaucracy of the executive branch and among the lawyers who populate the judicial branch. Until pro-marriage scholars can rid academe of its pernicious inverted hypocrisy on family issues—and some brave academics are working to that end—pro-family Americans will need to rely heavily on pro-marriage legislators to counter anti-marital initiatives coming from the inverted hypocrites in the executive and judicial branches of government. This way, the structural feature of American government for which Montesquieu is widely remembered can protect the vital social institution the Frenchman recognized as critical to republican virtue.
But as Americans seek out pro-family legislators, they must find champions who will do more than simply include the right principles in their electioneering rhetoric. These champions must be willing to challenge the inverted hypocrites in the judiciary and executive branches with legislation that actually does affirm wedlock and the natural family. The work that pro-family members of Congress in defending the Defense of Marriage Act against judicial- and executive-branch attacks represents at least one instance of how divided government affords opportunities for resisting the pernicious effects of inverted hypocrisy.
But in finding and electing pro-family congressmen, Americans must be vigilant against the deceits of old-fashioned hypocrites in the GOP who profess pro-family principles in public but betray them in private life. For when such hypocrisy is exposed—as it inevitably is—the exposure brings pro-family principles into discredit, particularly since the inverted hypocrites in the media relish nothing more than broadcasting the marital and family misdeeds of a pro-family hypocrite of the old-fashioned sort. Inevitably, the reports of these misdeeds tarnish the pro-family cause and morally confuse the poor and working-class Americans who very much need to hear from irreproachable public statesmen just why they should make the sometimes difficult sacrifices that will hold their marriages and families together.
Fortunately, in legislators such as John Kyl, Michele Bachmann, Tom Coburn, as well as former legislators such as Marilyn Musgrave and Rick Santorum, Americans can see the real possibility of finding champions of pro-family principles, champions who will vigorously challenge the efforts of the inverted hypocrites in the judicial and executive branches, and whose irreproachable personal lives give assurance that they will not betray their cause by falling into old-fashioned hypocrisy. The task facing pro-family Americans—a daunting but not impossible task—is that of multiplying the number of such legislators in both parties.
Dr. Christensen in editor-at-large of The Family in America.