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Back from the brink: The intellectual tide is turning on marriage and civil society

Deseret News

April 18, 2024

The American experiment is in trouble. Deaths of despair — due to suicide, drugs or alcohol poisoning — have surged in recent years. Reports of happiness have plunged. Millions think the American dream is out of reach. Polarization in Washington goes from worse to worse.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is we are seeing more evidence that America’s cultural elites are increasingly willing to confront the roots of these problems without regard to their ideological provenance. The professors, journalists, policymakers, professionals and Hollywood tastemakers who dominate the heights of our culture seem to be finally tiring of lazy, ideologically driven thinking about our biggest problems and willing to explore solutions that exist outside of their generally left-leaning bubbles.

Take the health of marriage and civil society, which play vital roles in sustaining the American experiment. Until recently, our elites have often ignored or discounted their role in driving some of our biggest problems. For instance, as David Leonhardt, a columnist at The New York Times, noted, “I think that 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”) underlining the value and importance of marriage and stable family life — from respectively, the left, center and right — have gotten good attention from leading organs of opinion like The New York TimesThe Atlantic and NPR. Wilcox has spotlighted the value of marriage for adults. Married adults are happier, healthier, more satisfied in life, live longer and are more financially secure. Kearney documents the economic and social advantages to children who are raised by two parents. Henderson offers a harrowing memoir of a life from foster care to Yale that reinforces the message: loving, stable, married families are an incomparable good in and of themselves. The success of these books suggests the pendulum is swinging back from extremist ideologies that have discounted the value of marriage and stable families in American life.

This is critical. As the Social Capital Campaign has identified, social scientists and think tank researchers have been documenting for some while a decline in social capital across the board, concerned that the rich networks of relationships that exist not just in families but also in neighborhoods, religious institutions and other civic institutions, and the society-wide trust they generate, have been eroding for decades.

It’s not just marriage and family at stake here, but the wider context of social relationships: the number of friends we have, the venues where we meet people, church attendance and volunteering, all of which play an important but diminishing role in American life.

These antisocial shifts away from marriage, family, faith and civic engagement have resulted in dire consequences. On the family front, America has just crossed a historic threshold where, of adults aged 18-55, there is now a greater share of single adults with no children than there are married adults with children. This rise of what the Chinese call “bare branches” — individuals who do not marry and do not have children — is a big reason why deaths of despair have surged and happiness has fallen.

But we are seeing a deterioration in the quality of civil society, too. When it comes to religion especially, elite voices too often have discounted the importance of the nation’s houses of worship. One recent New Yorker article, for instance, suggested faith left Christian men tortured by “guilt and shame that makes you feel crappy about yourself” and prone to divorce. But the truth is that the decline of America’s social capital, including religious faith, is a driver of some of our deepest problems. And, contra The New Yorker’s insinuation, religious couples are markedly happier and more stably married than their secular peers.

There are three features to the decline in family and civil society which are, sadly, mutually reinforcing.

The first is a two-tier society, where wage gaps and relationship gaps are at risk of becoming permanently entrenched chasms that cannot be crossed. We see this in the marriage rates among 25-55 year olds. In households earning more than $111,000 a year, the share of people married is 77%. Those households earning less than $50,000, by contrast, only have a 27% share married. Given that relationships are role-modeled, “caught, not taught,” the rise of children growing up with lone parents, and neighborhoods full of lone parents, means relationship equity is being eroded and lost in too many of America’s communities.

Second, the decline in religious affiliation and attendance is both symptom and cause of social capital demise, with wide implications. Tyler VanderWeele has published new research from Harvard that shows the remarkable health impacts 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 to explain the “historically unprecedented decline” in face-to-face socializing, both for adults and their children. The drop in religious attendance is more pronounced among the working class and poor. In other words, there is further entrenchment of the “social capital” haves and have-nots.

Third, the decline in social capital seems to be helping drive the collapse of society-wide trust measured in surveys, including the Gallup confidence in institutions survey, with data collected since the 1970s. Trust in all three branches of government is at or near historic lows. Almost 4 in 10 Americans “have no confidence at all” in our media, also a historic level. Only 32% have a “great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion, (compared to 65% in 1973); 14% in big business (compared to 65% for small business); while only 55% have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the American people.

The trends when it comes to marriage, family formation, churchgoing and other key indicators of social capital are not good. That’s a big reason why so many aspects of the American experiment are headed 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 seem to be coming to their senses about the value of family, faith and community. The favorable attention that Kearney, Henderson and Wilcox have garnered for their books on marriage and family is one sign. Recent articles in The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic chronicling, in the words of Derek Thompson, “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust” also suggest a new elite appreciation for faith’s contribution to the fabric of American life.

As America limps to its 60th presidential election this year with a rerun of yesteryear’s candidates, let’s hope that the country can have an honest discussion about how to turn from honestly diagnosing our problems to solving them. This will mean resisting the temptation to think that all solutions lie in Washington, reviving these institutions for the 21st century and charting a brighter familial and civic future for all Americans.

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

About the Author

W. Bradford Wilcox