Saturday, September 24, 2005

Why Mainline Church Leaders are Ambivalent About Promoting Marriage, Part I

Of all the institutions which could promote marriage, religious institutions are, I believe, in the best position to do the most good. Yet the leadership of mainline churches has not been in the forefront of the marriage movement. There are several reasons for this, including a fear of hurting single parents and a fear of prejudging the question of homosexual marriage. I will return to these issues in future posts.

My research on the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the pillars of the mainline, struck me as revealing another powerful motive for being quiet about promoting marriage: church leaders are much more likely to be divorced.

When future Presbyterian ministers are in seminary their theology falls in a bell curve from conservative to liberal, with most calling themselves some kind of moderate or centrist. And seminarians all across the theological spectrum are equally likely to be married.

In later years, though, there is a dramatic shift, which suggests a strong connection between marriage and a more conservative position. In my book on strengthening the loyalist center of the church, Leading from the Center, I found this remarkable pattern:

“One of the most striking differences among Presbyterian ministers that develop after seminary is the ratio of married to divorced people in different groups. Among theological conservatives, there are 89 married ministers for every divorced one; for those in the center the ratio is 16 to one; for liberals, there are 7.7 married people for each divorced person. An extraordinary extension of this pattern is that for ministers in church agencies or judicatories (that is, presbyteries, synods, or General-Assembly-level bodies), the married-to-divorced ratio is 2.2 to one.”

The church bureaucracy is much more likely to be filled with divorced people. Indeed, I know of a number of cases of ministers who left their congregation following their own divorces, and ended up in church bureaucracy seemingly by default.

There is, I think, a complex relationship between marriage and theology, not all of which I understand now. It does seem clear to me, though, that a church leadership which is full of divorced people, and thus also of the colleagues and friends of divorced people, will be more ambivalent about promoting marriage.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Do Gen Xers Want Mom Home More Than Boomers Do?

In a comment on “Good News from New Orleans,” KC wrote:

I ask that you address the Millennium generation's divergence from feminist protocol of the 70's, 80's and 90's. It is my observation that many people in my generation, despite our youth, desire to work in the "real world" for a limited period of time. Eventually, many of us, women in particular, want to return to the home, with multiple children and live the life of an at-home mom. Some of us, myself included, would prefer the option of working from home (God bless the freedom of broadband technology), but most importantly to be at home. Thoughts...

I don’t have the data to answer your excellent question about the Millennial generation. I did take stab at asking about Gen X vs. the Baby Boomers, though. The General Social Survey, the annual survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, had a special module in 1996 (when the oldest Millennials were only 15) on relationships. The respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement:

It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.

I compared core Boomers, who were 40 to 50 years old that year, with core Gen Xers, who were 20 to 30 then. Comparing men to women within each group shows that while most member of each generation take a liberal (disagreeing) position on this question, the Xers tended to be more liberal than Boomers. 2/3rds of the Boomers disagreed with the statement, whereas 3/4ths of the Xers disagreed. Men and women answered about the same way, though the women were more likely to disagree strongly. Comparing married and not married people in each generation yields a similar result – the younger generation is a bit more liberal on this question.

I will look for data on the next generation.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Children and Marriage Go Together – Really.

Kathryn Edin, whose fine new book, Promises I Can Keep I wrote about earlier, was part of a panel on “Overcoming Barriers to Stable Marriage” at the Brookings Institution recently. In her Brookings testimony, Edin said:

“This is probably a profound cultural change[:] marriage and child-bearing among low-income men and women, white, black, and Hispanic, are no longer seen as decisions that necessarily go together. Here there are comparative ethnographic studies with middle class 20-somethings. And middle class 20-somethings almost never even consider having children outside of marriage. It's not that they're especially moral, they just literally can't imagine being able to sustain it, given all of the other things that fill their lives and make their lives so rich.”

Sociologists have a long-running debate about whether the basic family unit is mother-child, to which father is later added, or husband-wife, which then naturally produces children. I think nearly all human practices are a rich tangle of nature and nurture. As a rule of thumb, I assume those factors will be in a 50/50 mix. I incline to the view that the mother-child unit is what nature starts with in building families. The father-mother-child molecule is, I think, a great cultural achievement – perhaps the greatest single achievement of human culture. The couple-child family is so deeply embedded in all kinds of human civilizations that it seems natural. It has achieved “cultural hegemony” in Antonio Gramsci’s phrase – it is hard for us to even imagine an alternative.

However, as Edin notes, one American subculture has broken the cultural hegemony which connects children with marriage. The genie is out of the bottle. A generation of poor women – most especially African-American women – assumes kids, but only hopes for marriage. Realistically, though, few of them will achieve their dreams unless they change their ideas about marriage.

My point here is a different one, though. Some people look at the fact that one subculture has broken the link between children and marriage, and conclude that the whole culture should break that link. Since marriage is not naturally connected with childbearing, this argument goes, we should stop trying to impose a connection. Marriage is a personal lifestyle choice; having kids is a different personal lifestyle choice. Now that we are free from the unnatural hegemony of the idea that marriage and kids go together, freedom demands that we prevent the culture from imposing a connection between the two.

This is, I think, absolutely the wrong conclusion to draw. When we see that some part of the culture is not really required by nature but is, in some sense, socially constructed, that does not mean we should stop constructing it. On the contrary, the construction of a culture is a great human achievement. What we need is not a new naturalism, which only accepts what our (quite limited) animal nature imposes. Instead, we need a new, clear-eyed commitment to rebuilding civilization precisely because some social structures need to be socially constructed.

And the greatest of the socially constructed social structures, I submit, is marriage.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I had to share this

(From a twenty-something former student)

I enjoyed your blog tremendously; you are the oldest blogger I ever
knew in person.

Potty Parity is a Good Centrist Idea

Public facilities that handle crowds should have more women’s toilets than men’s. This is not fair, but it is just.

Well-known class action lawyer John Banzhaff III made the case for “potty parity” in 1990. Since then, 20 states and many cities have adopted ordinances that require anywhere from a 60/40 split of women’s to men’s toilets, to a 2:1 ratio. This past summer New York City passed the Women’s Restroom Equity Act requiring twice as many women’s toilets in arenas, bars, concert halls, convention halls, motion picture theatres, public dance halls, stadiums, and theatres.

Why is this necessary? Because women take longer in the restroom. They take longer because they have more clothes to manage. They take longer because they are more likely to have kids to manage. They take longer because they Just Do. Everyone would be better off if women did not have to wait longer to get into a restroom. This is pretty much a win-win rule.

So who is against it?

Critics on the left say that the law should be sex-blind, treating men and women exactly the same. Any different treatment, they say, even those that benefit women, reinforce stereotypes that women are weaker and in need of help. This reminds me of a lawyer I once heard of who argued that if the town had a dog leash license, the equal protection clause of the Constitution required that there also be a cat leash license. But this is a silly argument: recognizing real differences is sensible, not sexist. Equity does not require strict equality.

Critics on the right say this is an absurd example of overreaching and over-regulating by the “nanny state.” But this ignores the fact that the state has already shaped public facilities in a hundred ways to insure health, safety, and equal access. You would have to have a very strong stomach for mob panics and crowded collapses to be willing to let a big sports stadium or concert arena be built without any regulation at all.

Potty parity is a common-sense compromise that recognizes that men and women have different bodies and that they have different cultural customs and responsibilities.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Good News from New Orleans: The Crowds Weren’t Murderous, After All

Disasters usually bring people together. That made the reports of looting, rape, murder, and even attacks on rescuers after Hurricane Katrina so distressing – and so sociologically unlikely.

Turns out the good news is that the bad news was wrong. Christopher Shea reports that the worst stories – rapes in the Superdome, gunshots at a helicopter, carjackings in Baton Rouge by refugees – cannot be substantiated. The many murderers of the Big Easy took a holiday. Even the looting was largely people taking necessities.

Many have pointed out and lamented the racial difference in some news coverage – white people “found food,” black people “looted.” This is bad news about racial consciousness. But it can also be read, underneath, as good news about community. Most people in this dangerous disaster took care of themselves and those around them. They held themselves together, and went and found what they needed. I am confident that when the fuller story of Katrina is told, there will be many more stories of people sharing with the strangers around them and taking care of the weakest than there will be tales of depredation.

In fact, as I watched the interviews with trapped people from the Superdome and the convention center, from the many highway overpasses and isolated attics, I kept hearing family stories. Again and again they would interview a seemingly able-bodied person. I first wondered, “why are these people still there?” Were they stupid, clueless, or terminally feckless? The reporters’ questions sometimes seemed to carry the same assumptions. Yet as I listened to their stories, the most common refrain was, “I stayed to care for a vulnerable member of my family.” The mother with diabetes, the grandmother in a wheelchair, the sick babies, the uncle who needed dialysis.

At the time, these stories of sick relatives were told to show the desperate bad news of people who needed immediate rescue. But they are also part of a larger, better story: people who could have saved themselves put themselves in harm’s way to try to protect their needy kin and neighbors. The picture of the dead old woman in the wheelchair is very sad. But she, at least, had someone who pushed her from her home in the flood path to higher ground, where she had a better chance of survival. That wheelchair pusher could have walked him or herself right out of the city in the same time and with half the effort.

A few people did horrible things during the Hurricane – the nursing home owners who abandoned their charges to drown while they fled is the worst thing I have heard. But most did not. Most of the stories coming from New Orleans are of decent, even heroic people trying to save themselves and others.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Deliberate Childlessness: The Anti-Natalist (Mini-) Movement

My fellow Kentuckian, President Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary, has created a stir by criticizing deliberate childlessness among fertile married couples. This is no more an organized movement than is the kind of natalism David Brooks talked about (see my post of yesterday). Still, not having children makes sense to a small but strategic group.

Some people think we are still faced with a population explosion. The industrialized countries have solved that problem in a big way. Some people don’t like kids. This is fair enough in a free country, though hard for me as a doting dad to empathize with.

I am concerned with another group, who think that they are not mature enough to have children. Probably more men feel this way than women. Children of divorce, as Judith Wallerstein has show, are especially likely to fear that they themselves may never be mature enough to have kids. This is sad. Worse, it means that a significant number of people are writing themselves off too soon.

Really, almost no one is ready to raise children when their first child is born. Marriage, and the willingness to do whatever it takes for your kids, transforms unprepared men and women into parents. This is also more true of men than women.

Why should centrists care about this as a policy matter? Why should I care if other people don’t think they should have children? A groundless fear that deprives one couple of the blessing of children is sad. A groundless fear that deprives the country of millions of fellow citizens, workers, taxpayers, and community makers creates an avoidable social weakness.

SO, reassuring those who are ambivalent about having children is a social benefit.

What does this have to do with Mohler’s “deliberately childless?” His criticism is drawn with a broad brush. He doesn’t distinguish between those who are afraid to have children, and those who are the real target of Mohler’s criticism: couples who are too selfish and materialistic to have kids. Yet most of them, I think, are ambivalent, too. You would have to be a cyborg libertarian to make the cold, Gary Becker-like calculation that kids are just an unattractive investment. Most of the deliberately childless have really slipped in to the “creeping non-choice” of waiting too long to decide to have children. The creeping non-choice will have to be the subject of another post (in the meantime, see Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life).

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Coming Natalist Movement

Americans don’t have enough kids to keep the population up.

We are blessed with immigrants, who both add instant population when they move here, and have more kids than the average American. But that seems to be a phenomenon of one generation. The United States, like all the other industrialized nations, has too few kids per native-born mother – under the replacement level of 2.1 kids (on average) per mother.

In the past there have been “natalist” movements in countries that thought their population was shrinking or not growing fast enough. Columnist David Brooks has talked about a natalist movement in this country, but he really just means that some Americans want to have a bunch of kids and live in places that are safe, cheap, and family-friendly. This is not so much a movement as a name for one smallish subsection of Americans, mostly quite religious people who are moving away from the big cities.

Demographer Ben Wattenberg has been lamenting the “birth dearth” for nearly two decades. He is critical, though, of government-run natalist movements, like those in Europe, where the birthrates and immigration rates are even lower than here. Italy, for example, has a fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman, whereas the U.S. is a bit under 2.

I agree that a government-run natalist movement would probably not work in this country. In fact, since many people believe that we have too many people, not too few, it would be politically disastrous to the administration which officially tried to encourage people to have more kids.

The American way to do just about anything, though, is for the movement to begin with the people, not the government. Some conservative religious groups already support family life as a blessed vocation. So far, though, I have not found an organized politically based natalist movement.

Centrists should seriously consider a movement with this modest goal: all stable married couples should think about having three kids. Each couple has different circumstances, of course, and not all couples can have all the children they want. But for the last generation the norm in the stable middle class has been that one or two kids was the responsible limit. The facts have changed: consider three.

The natural home for such a movement would be among conservatives, and therefore in the Republican Party. I think, in response to this natural inclination, that liberals and Democrats should take the lead in a new natalist movement. Supporting a more generous standard of how many kids we can afford is, after all, a liberal thing to do.