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The Collision of Different Views on Marriage

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Recently, ABC launched the 19th season of “The Bachelor” reality television show with 30 beautiful young women eagerly (some desperately) vying for the chance to become the wife of a handsome Iowa farmer. In ironic juxtaposition, Isabelle Sawhill, the Brookings Institution’s marriage expert, rocked the pro-family world this fall with her book, “Generation Unbound,” by essentially declaring that marriage is dead. In media and in popular culture, there is still the view that marriage involves love and romance and happily ever after. Among the scholarly experts, there is the reality of single mothers, poverty and fatherless children.

Ms. Sawhill shocked her colleagues by seeming to give up the fight for marriage. Forget trying to “resuscitate marriage,” she said. Also stop accepting, she suggests, the reality of couples just “drifting” into parenthood. Instead, society should create conditions that encourage “planning” for that responsibility. Our focus, according to Ms. Sawhill, should be on avoiding the poverty that so often accompanies single motherhood.

Certainly a marriage revolution producing single motherhood is underway –– today’s marriage rate is historically low and cohabitation is quickly replacing marriage (especially among minorities and the uneducated). At the same time, Pew research reported in 2010 that 61 percent of those who are “never married” still want to be married. Further, as evidenced by the popularity of television shows like “The Bachelor,” young adults want romance and value marriage: 82 percent of girls and 70 percent of boys report that it is “extremely important” for them to have “a good marriage and family life.”

How sad: Marriage is very important to most Americans, yet the proportion of married adults continues to decline.

Even on “The Bachelor” shows, the marriage rates are abysmal: In the 26 seasons of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” only 18 couples (75 percent) actually got engaged and only three married. In addition, two recent couples are planning weddings: Desiree Hartsock and Chris Siegfried plan to be married “this month” and Marcus Grodd and Lacy Faddoul are planning “a summer wedding.” But, the latest couple, Andi Dorfman and Josh Murray, just broke up after being engaged for a year.

So there is no shortage of young men and women eager to go on a television reality show (as they say, “for the right reason”) to find a husband or wife. But even with glitzy dating situations, romantic locales, the very best restaurants and beautiful people, the dream rarely comes true.

Ms. Sawhill, who has spent her career studying marriage and promoting marriage as the best arrangement for raising children, mourns the “demise of marriage.” While she wishes marriage could be restored, she says, “that the genie is out of the bottle and no amount of ‘wishful thinking’ will put it back.” She admits, “I don’t know the answer.”

Actually, conventional wisdom now says that regulation of the “hook up” culture is the answer. Thus, the collegiate dating scene is now governed by “consent rules” –– guys must have a clear “yes” before any intimate contact occurs. Obviously, that impractical and unenforceable strategy is doomed for failure. As R.R. Reno says in First Things’ “Public Square,” the “consent approach” to sexual relations doesn’t work “because sex is an existentially potent human act, for good and ill. But we’re not allowed to say that because, if spoken, many of the old taboos begin to find a basis in reason.” Mr. Reno continues:

“We can’t talk about the harms caused by sexual encounters that are making many young women miserable and some deeply damaged, because our official ideology of sex tells us that sexual acts have no intrinsic moral meaning. … We can’t talk about the unique vulnerability of women to these harms, for to do so would threaten another important commitment. We can’t speak of a moral limitation on sexual relations other than consent, for to do so would threaten the sexual ideology of our time at its most fundamental level.”

We live in a time when many Americans don’t like being told that there are moral boundaries built into the fabric of life. A common refrain from the “Bachelor” couples about why they have no marriage plans even though they are supposedly engaged is, “We just want to have fun.” So they live together without commitments to each other, no matter the cost in terms of their emotions and relationships in the long run.

Ms. Sawhill says that “traditionalists” – those who view marriage as sacred – blame the demise of marriage on the culture, whereas “village builders” (liberals) blame the economy and are convinced that providing education, jobs, better wages and other support for single mothers will alleviate poverty and thus restore marriage.

Right. Let’s just re-engineer all of society to fix the problems we created when we cast marriage aside. Haven’t we been trying that for the last 30 years? Remember the definition of insanity? Maybe it’ll work if we just keep doing the same thing, only work harder and provide more entitlements.

The way to achieve a marriage revolution, according to Ms. Sawhill, is to follow the pattern of the Sexual Revolution that decoupled sex from marriage. Now, she suggests that we “decouple sex from parenthood.” The two phrases with their parallel construction have the makings of a terse sound bite, but what do they mean? It is easy to see that the Sexual Revolution decoupled sex from marriage by substituting promiscuity and cohabitation. But hasn’t the Marriage Revolution already decoupled sex and childbearing via over-the-counter contraception and abortion-on-demand?

Today, as Ms. Sawhill notes, “half of all births to young women are outside marriage, and 60 percent are unplanned.” Remarkably, this is the case despite the ready availability of contraception and abortion. It seems postmodern thinkers are ignoring the powerful elemental forces at work in human nature which overwhelm logic and drive childbearing despite technological advances that make it possible to avoid pregnancy.

Ms. Sawhill’s solution is a rhetoric of ethical considerations and individual responsibility, as though logical considerations will govern the emotion-drenched intimate interactions of a couple, as though these abstract concepts are strong enough to overcome the powerful drives unleashed by alcohol-fueled sexual passion!

When it comes to finding solutions – even with clever parallel construction, new rhetoric and fresh research – the answer inevitably comes down to a solid foundation of ethics, morality and responsibility.

Turns out, there really is no substitute for the moral authority of Judeo-Christian values as an underpinning for a strong and humane society.

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