Ideas have consequences, Richard Weaver famously wrote, and bad ideas can have baleful consequences. It is fashionable these days to say and to believe that matters like divorce, illegitimacy, cohabitation, and single-parenting are "private" matters that are not the business of the wider community. To which I would respond: There are few matters of more profound public consequence than the condition of marriage and families. Most of our social pathologies-crime, imprisonment rates, welfare, educational underachievement, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, depression, sexually transmitted diseases-are manifestations, direct and indirect, of the crack-up of the modern American family.
In tracing the etiology of these pathologies, The Broken Hearth is, as I already intimated above, critical of contemporary liberalism and various "liberation" movements. But it also assesses the temptations of modernity and probes why so many Americans of nonideological persuasions do not hold the institution of marriage in high repute. To say it simply: We could not have experienced the scale of marital breakdown we have witnessed since 1960 unless huge numbers of our fellow citizens-conservative and liberal, believers and nonbelievers alike-had willingly detached themselves from once solemn commitments made to spouses and children.
Finally, this book attempts to articulate some of the forgotten purposes of marriage and family. Too often in this debate, it strikes me, even the advocates of the family speak of it the way a mother might speak of spinach to an unwilling child: You might not enjoy it, but it's good for you. This needs to be redressed. Commitment, hard work, and perseverance are indeed essential elements in making a modern family succeed, but, today no less than yesterday or the day before, the rewards are matchless, taking the form of love, deep friendship, tenderness, mutuality, the refinement of the soul-and much laughter to boot.
I am no Pollyanna, and I do not believe that every marriage that is entered into in good faith can, or must, last forever, no matter what. My own mother divorced when I was five, remarried several times, and held two jobs outside the home; I saw my father only on weekends, and the various stepfathers in my life ran the usual gamut from good to bad. I am, therefore, the last person to idealize or sentimentalize family life. Still, we need to reclaim the ideal itself, so that it may serve as a guidepost, something high and estimable that we strive to attain. One reason so many American families are dissolving, or never forming, is that many of us have forgotten why we believe-and why we should believe-in the family. In the pages that follow, I try to answer those questions as well.
Let me offer a few additional observations. Divorce, out-of-wedlock births, fatherlessness, cohabitation, and the gay rights agenda are phenomena that affect virtually the entire Western world-which means, among other things, that what is happening in the United States is not unique. The engine driving the crack-up of the American family is cross-cultural and entangled in modernity itself. For a variety of reasons, however, I confine myself largely to America. It is the nation I know best and love most and feel best equipped to comment on.