A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage
An Appeal from Seventy-Five American Leaders
Its time for a new conversation on marriage.
Because families are the seedbeds of civil society, and marriage is the basis of the family. Marriage creates kin. Marriage is a wealth-producing institution. And because marriage is the main institution governing the link between the spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is societys most pro-child institution.
Marriage is fracturing in America. While the nations attention is riveted by a debate about whether a small proportion of our fellow citizens (gays and lesbians) should be allowed to marry, marriage is rapidly dividing along class lines, splitting the country that it used to unite. While marriage is stable or strengthening among our college-educated elites, much larger numbers of Americans, particularly in middle and working-class America, are abandoning the institution entirely, with harmful social and personal consequences.
This hollowing out of marriage in mainstream America is among the most consequential social facts of our era. Its contributing to the growth of inequality, harming countless children, and weakening, perhaps fatally, our formerly strong middle class. And amazingly, if you listen to political leaders of both parties and opinion leaders from both the left and right, youll discover that very few of them appear even to have noticed whats happening.
Why a new conversation?
Because the current conversation is at a dead end. And because we wont renew marriage without fundamentally reforming the way we discuss marriage.
Let us tell you the differences between the dead-end conversation of today and the new conversation we propose.
1.The current conversation is almost entirely a culture war over gay marriage, pitting traditionalists opposed to gay rights against gay rights leaders and their allies.
We propose a new conversation that brings together gays and lesbians who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. The new conversation does not presuppose or require agreement on gay marriage, but it does ask a new question. The current question is, Should gays marry? The new question is, Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?
2.The current conversation treats marriage decline as primarily a problem of the poor and minorities.
We propose a new conversation on marriage decline, focusing on the startling fact that marriage trends in middle America, particularly among the nearly 60 percent of Americans whove graduated from high school but do not have a four-year college degree, are more and more resembling the historic marriage trends in poor and low-income America.
In short, in the current conversation, marriage policy is mostly seen as a welfare topic. In the new conversation, marriage policy is an inequality topic.
3.The current conversation on heterosexual marriage focuses largely on the young, especially on teenagers at risk of getting pregnant and on parents of young children.
We propose a new conversation involving all Americans on marriage across the life cycle. If unwed child bearing is not good for teens, is it good for twenty-somethings? Thirty-somethings with good jobs? As the huge Baby Boom generation (the generation that led the divorce revolution) heads toward retirement and old age, does marriage matter for older and empty-nest Americans, and if so, why?
4.The current conversation on middle-class marriage is largely therapeutic and psychological, focusing on gender roles and on soul mate issues.
In the wake of the Great Recession and in the midst of severe and possibly long-lasting economic challenges to our society, we propose a new conversation that re-establishes the link between marriage and money, the nest and the nest-egg. What economic policies strengthen marriage? What marriage policies create wealth? In the new conversation, marriage and thrift, the two great engines of the American middle class since the nations founding, stand best when they stand together.
In short, the current conversation on middle-class marriage presupposes affluence. In the new conversation, marriage helps to rebuild affluence.
5.Finally, and possibly most importantly, the current conversation on marriage decline is rooted in the belief that nothing can be done.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that marriage except possibly for gay marriage is something that cant be fixed. Its about personal choices. People are voting with their feet. Nothing can be done to stop or reverse the trend. The only thing we can do is ignore the problem, change the subject, or passively wring our hands in sadness.
The new conversation rejects this premise entirely. This is an American conversation. Like our forebears, we assume that what happens in the future will be the result of our ideas and choices today. No trend in our society, including the marriage trend, is preordained, or immune from human decision-making, and no problem we face this is America, after all is so large that we must become passive and servile in its face.
The current conversation is at a dead end.
But the new conversation is just getting started.
To this new conversation, we pledge our time, money, and best ideas. We are eager to face the challenge. We invite you to join us.
I have done something I never imagined I would do. I think you may be interested, and I hope you may want to help.
The Institute is grateful to the following individuals who are supporting the New Conversation on Marriage:
The passions surrounding gay marriage have blinded left and right to the common cause they should share: reversing the trend that consigns ever more of our children to lives of chaos and poverty, when marriage disappears from their neighborhoods. We've got to change the conversation and start working together as a society on this urgent national problem. (January 10, 2013)
I affirm this new conversation that's being created at the Institute (January 14, 2012). I think it's important for us to talk about how marriage for everyone strengthens the entire social fabric of American life. (January 14, 2013)
I have seen first-hand what a joy marriage has been for gay friends and a gay family member of mine, and what a credit to the institution of marriage these people and their spouses have been. Meanwhile, I see the institution of marriage falling apart for reasons having nothing to do with same-sex couples. Gay marriage is not part of the problem. It is part of the solution. (January 9, 2013)
More comments in support of our New Conversation on Marriage (Add your voice!):
I must write and applaud your change in views towards gay and lesbians and gay marriage. Your evolution on the issue gives me, a gay man, great hope that others will follow your example. While I don't know enough about your group to join, I must commend you on your stance.
—Craig from KY, February 3, 2013
First of all, I am very impressed with this proposed shift in the conversation about marriage. Thank you for having an open mind and being willing to change the discourse even if you alienate some of your former "allies". We all have our reasons for marrying, and I hope your conversation will include the value of marriage for couples who choose not to have children. Society is strengthened by marriage, even if the purpose is not for child bearing. As for gay marriage, I have always supported the rights for gays to marry. If you want to make a life-long commitment to someone you love, it just does not matter what your sexual orientation is. Thank you for changing the conversation on this topic to a more useful direction.
—Cynthia in Colorado, January 30, 2013
As an Episcopal priest, my church is now blessing same-sex lifelong covenanted relationships, and in some dioceses where same-sex marriage is legal, pronouncing these blessings as a marriage.
Our church requires the couple, as we similarly do for heterosexuals couples being married, to 'solemnly declare that we hold this covenant to be our lifelong commitment ... characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables us to see in each other the image of God.'
Same-sex marriage is inevitable, and good. Why not support those who want to commit to one another emotionally, legally, and spiritually in a lifelong covenant?
—Brian C. Taylor, January 29, 2013
We have become polarized over marriage. On one hand, I was with my late partner for over 30 years. I wish that marriage had been an option. On the other hand, we can have an honest and constructive conversation about protecting religious liberty.
—David Cary Hart, South Beach, FL, January 29, 2013
Thank you. This is a breath of fresh air. We all want the same thing from our of marriages both gay and non gay participants. We grow and strengthen from dialogues such as what you are helping us engage in.
—Dr. Heather Andersen, January 29, 2013
The 'old' conversations about marriage accomplished a little, but their power is used up and worn out, and those conversations are unable to carry us any further. Some 'new' conversations could, if dedicated to a fresh start, resume progress toward an end that is sustainable.
—Anonymous (Boston, MA), January 7, 2013
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