The Magazine

The Nuclear Wars

Men, women, marriage, children-and America's future.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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While this familial chaos correlates to a great degree with poverty, Hymo witz rejects the economic explanation for it--the argument that the lack of reliable breadwinners forces women to settle for children without marriage. She notes that teen birthrates were at their lowest, and illegitimacy rare, during the Depression, when unemployment reached a historic high of 25 percent. By contrast, between 1965 and 1991, while unemployment rose and fell repeatedly within a "normal" range, illegitimacy soared. She points out, too, that rural black populations in Maine, Montana, and Idaho have been largely exempt from inner-city-style family disintegration. Why? Because there, "mainstream norms" have continued to hold sway.

Hymowitz's greatest strength is her appreciation of the role of norms and values, ideas and beliefs, in shaping behavior. She recounts, for example, the dark story--equal parts scandal and tragedy--of black and white elites' ideologically based refusal to heed the warning of the Moynihan Report. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, documented alarming levels of illegitimacy in the "ghetto." But Moynihan's conclusion--"a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure"--was greeted with what Hymowitz calls "forty-plus years of lies."

There was the lie that the only problems were joblessness and discrimination. There was the lie that "the nuclear family was really just a toxic white hang-up anyway." There was the lie that the poverty of single mothers was proof of patriarchal oppression and nothing more. And so Moynihan's call to action produced none--and today, the share of African-American babies born to unwed mothers, already 25 percent when he sounded the alarm, has nearly tripled, to 70 percent. To this day, it is newsworthy when a prominent person breaks through the denial and speaks plainly about the need to recover "Parent Power," as Bill Cosby has done--to large and enthusiastic audiences, Hymowitz notes.

Or take her interesting discussion of the distinctive mission of marriage in the American Republic--namely, to mold free citizens equipped for self-reliance and self-government. Breaking with the arranged marriages and authoritarian fathers of Europe, the theorists of the Founding generation prescribed a different style for the democratic family. By the 1830s, Tocque ville already observed in American homes a "familiar intimacy, which renders authority less absolute" and noted that "a species of equality prevails around the domestic hearth."

But American principles of equality and free choice contained within them the seeds of the divorce revolution. American individualism--progressively unmoored from the moral capital of biblical teaching, with its emphasis on love, fidelity, and self-sacrifice--led to the cult of self-fulfillment, of which recent generations have eagerly grabbed the rewards, and for which they, their children, and the country have paid dearly:

Think of the past several decades of high rates of divorce and illegitimacy as a kind of natural experiment testing the truth of the founders' vision. The results are in: if we forget that marriage is both a voluntary union between two loving partners and an arrangement for rearing the next generation of self-reliant citizens, our capacity for self-government weakens.

Given her interest in beliefs and culture, it is surprising that Hymowitz gives only the most cursory treatment to the decline of religious commitment in hastening the developments she deplores. Similarly, in her discussion of the "Morning After," she makes no mention of the renewal of interest in orthodox belief and morality among the young. (Colleen Carroll Campbell has described this on prestigious college campuses, among both Catholics and Protestants. Among evangelicals, the Joshua Harris phenomenon is worth noting: His I Kissed Dating Goodbye, published in 1997 when he was 21, sold over a million copies, according to his publisher. Like his three subsequent books, it calls for a return to chaste, marriage-oriented courtship.)

So what to do? These fine essays, along with the rest of Kay Hymowitz's intelligent polemics, embody a response rather than proposing one. Long associated with the "marriage movement"--an energetic and constructive alliance of social scientists, theologians and pastors, lawyers and judges, psychologists, counselors, and writers periodically convened by the Institute for American Values in New York--Hymowitz has surely contributed in some small way to creating the present hopeful moment for mainstream America. Whether or not similar efforts have the power to prevent the final entrenchment of a post-marriage under-caste in America, and even to begin the restoration of the black family, Hymowitz and her friends are right and valiant to try.

Claudia Anderson is managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.