“Love and marriage, love and marriage,” crooned Frank Sinatra, “go together like a horse and carriage.” Today, however, an ever-growing majority of Americans seem to think marriage is just as outdated as a social institution as a horse and carriage are as a transportation technology. And this includes those who have historically championed marriage as essential to a healthy and flourishing society.
Overall, belief in the importance of marriage is at an all-time low. According to Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs poll, just 29 percent of Americans say it is “very important” for a couple who have children together to be legally married. That’s down from 49 percent in 2006.
Given that, during those intervening sixteen years, marriage was both legally redefined and constantly assaulted by advocates of so-called “alternative” family models, these numbers aren’t that surprising. Nor is it surprising that a strong majority of respondents now believe sex outside of marriage and having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable.
What is surprising is the dramatic shift in beliefs about marriage among those groups that have historically defended and championed the institution. Just 36 percent of self-identified Republicans now say marriage is “very important” for couples who have children together, compared with 62 percent in 2006. And, incredibly, only 41 percent of self-identified “conservatives” now agree with that statement, which is down 21 points since 2006.
How did party demographics shift so dramatically over the last sixteen years? Did the “populist turn” of the party contribute to these discouraging numbers? Is this shift the cause or the effect of other policy shifts?
Related research suggests that America has a growing “marriage divide.” In other words, more and more working-class couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage, and seeing marriage increasingly as a kind of status symbol of the elite. And there’s another divide too, the one between fiscal and social conservatives. That one has been growing for some time.
On one side, there are those who merely want a smaller, less intrusive, and more efficient government. On the other, those who champion the ideals of life, marriage, and religious liberty. The label “conservative” is used to refer to those who hold one, the other, or both positions. What these Gallup numbers now indicate is that those who hold socially conservative positions, much less prioritize them, are getting rarer and rarer, especially among the young.
This is not only a loss for those who care deeply about these social values, but also futile for those who think that a smaller government is possible without strong social institutions, especially marriage. Decades of research show that children raised by married parents not only enjoy better outcomes in almost every area of life, they tend to be more productive and able to self-govern. According to the Brookings Institute, children of married parents “do better in school, develop stronger cognitive and non-cognitive skills, are more likely to go to college, earn more, and are more likely to go on to form stable marriages themselves.”
This is not to say, of course, that every child from a married home succeeds. They don’t. And there are, of course, many heroic single parents who successfully raise children in less-than-ideal situations and many heroic children who overcome incredible hardship as they grow into adulthood. Statistics are not destiny for individuals, but they are destiny for societies.
Marriage is simply the best means of keeping both parents—especially fathers—involved in a child’s life. And, the science is settled: moms and dads are irreplaceable, in different ways and for different reasons.
In other words, marriage and the family help produce the kinds of citizens that make small government even possible. When marriages and families fail or decline, governments must provide all kinds of additional (and expensive) aspects to their social safety nets to make up for the terrible loss of this most basic institution. For a society to flourish, there is simply no substitute for the family.
That’s why it is an oxymoron to claim to be a conservative while downplaying the importance of marriage and the family. The reason is simple: marriage is a non-negotiable part of reality. It isn’t something arbitrary or socially constructed, like a speed limit, which can be changed or expanded with little consequence. It’s real, like gravity, built into the world, whether we recognize it or not. To ignore it is dangerous and, ultimately, futile.
Any political vision that treats marriage and family as optional or fungible, even if it goes by the label “conservative,” is destined to fail. This isn’t a matter of updating our definitions. If we lose our belief in marriage and the family as the foundation of a healthy and flourishing society, there will soon be very little left for “conservatives” to conserve.
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The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.
John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.