The following is an excerpt, taken with permission, from "The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles."
Is renewing a marriage culture a reasonable goal? We think so.
When Americans organized in the 1990s to combat teen pregnancy, teen pregnancy declined. The recent decline in teen sexual activity, a significant decline in divorce rates since 1979, a drop in the illegitimacy rate, and the leveling off of the proportion of births out of wedlock in the late 1990s are all indicators that social change is not a one-way street. The apparent success of new strategies (such as community marriage policies and marriage education) in preventing divorce gives us powerful additional reasons to hope.
We know that not all of our fellow citizens agree. There are at least three concerns that stand in the way of a renewed public commitment to marriage.
The Argument From Despair
The second argument against a marriage movement stems not from despair but fear: Will a great public effort to strengthen marriage require denigrating single mothers and their children? We don't think so. Supporting marriage does not require punishing single parents or their children. The Marriage Movement is a movement for a better marriage culture, not a movement of the smug marrieds for the smug marrieds. Many of us in the Marriage Movement are single parents or the children of single parents. We know firsthand how children suffer and parents struggle when marriages fail. We know, too, how false the common stereotype is that single parents don't care about marriage. Few parents, single or married, dream of the day their daughters will become single mothers, or their sons turn into absent fathers. Children of single parents, like all American children, need and deserve help in making better marriages than their parents may have had. They need a marriage culture that affirms their deepest aspirations and does not merely confirm their deepest fears; a culture that tells them that married love is a possible, reasonable, normal, achievable goal. Fatherless boys, in particular, need help in affirming the value of responsible, nurturing fatherhood. They do not need false reassurances that their own fathers' abandonment was no big deal, or that if they in turn become part-time or absent fathers, their own children will not suffer. If boys without fathers are to grow up to be loving, committed fathers to their own children, they cannot live in a culture that tells them that full-time fathers are not important.
Marriage is not just a private relationship. It is also a social institution. "The belief that marriage is a social good and therefore a legitimate concern of the state," points out Don Browning, "lies behind the 1998 green paper on family and marriage issued by the Labor government in England, the interest in marriage education in Australia, and the moves into marriage preparation in Florida, Louisiana, and Arizona. The mass of legal codes governing marriage and family in the 50 states is also a sign of the long-standing belief that marriage deals with profound goods that must be monitored and ordered for the public good." After 30 years of a divorce culture, many Americans see marriage as too personal to be a proper matter for public concern or intervention. Even family members, clergy, and children are often not seen as legitimate stakeholders in the success of a marriage. For if marriage is just a word for two adults who have managed (or not managed) to create an emotionally satisfying personal relationship, how can any outsider legitimately second-guess their decision to divorce? We do not share this limited conception of marriage. A good marriage is not just a good private relationship, and married couples are not in a sealed bubble, immune from the influences of others. Though marriage is intimate and personal, marriage also has an inherently public side. Marriage is what lovers do when they want to bring their relationship out of the private realm of personal emotions and make it a social fact, visible to and recognized not only by the couple, but also by friends, family, church, government, and the rest of society. Good marriages are made, not born, and they are most likely to be made in a society that understands and values marriage as a shared aspiration and key social institution, not just a private affair of the heart.
What to do now: Next Steps