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US/ Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda Without Talking About What Marriage Is?

How successful can a “new conversation on marriage” be when its leaders can’t even say what marriage is? RYAN ANDERSON underlines the risks that a bad definition puts on the whole society

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The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” despite the impression its title might give, was released Sunday (December 16 – ed) not by the Obama administration but by the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. It is a timely, compelling, and important report, but it falls short in a basic way: it never once even attempts to say what marriage is. But you cannot advance a marriage agenda without knowing what marriage is and why it matters for public policy, as my co-authors and I argue in our new book, What Is Marriage?

The leadership of the Institute for American Values, after embracing the redefinition of marriage in a high-profile change of heart earlier this year, hopes this report launches “a new conversation on marriage.” The authors urge political leaders to encourage “community-based and focused public service announcements that convey the truth about marriage, stability and child wellbeing to the next generation of parents.

Well, what is the truth about marriage?

The report rightly notes that “marriage is not merely a private arrangement; it is also a complex social institution.” But the report never says what this complex institution is, or why it ought to be governed by the standard marital norms of monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and a pledge of permanence—norms that many leading defenders of redefining marriage explicitly reject. Yet without these norms—and the intelligible basis that grounds them—marriage can’t do the work that the authors want it to do.

That is important work indeed, as the report explains. It helpfully documents the retreat from marriage afflicting today’s middle class and how fixing this “is the social challenge for our times.” While in the 1980s “only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage,” today that figure has “risen to a whopping 44 percent.” Indeed, the majority of births to women under thirty “now occur outside of marriage.”

Although some have tried to characterize the disappearance of marriage as a problem facing only lower-class America or the black community, the report notes that “family instability can now be found in Middle America almost as frequently as it is among the least educated sector of the population.” And the disappearance of marriage has social costs, especially increased poverty and decreased social mobility, as “researchers are now finding that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities. . . . This decline of marriage in Middle America imperils the middle class and fosters a society of winners and losers.

As a result, more children grow up without the care and support of their mother and father—and it’s costing everyone: “The loss of social opportunity for these children and their families, and the national cost to taxpayers when stable families fail to form—about $112 billion annually, or more than $1 trillion per decade, by one cautious estimate—are significant.” As the report notes, economist Ben Scafidi and his team of researchers found that “if family fragmentation were reduced by just 1 percent, U.S. taxpayers would save an estimated $1.1 billion annually.