Bill Bennetts family values

The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family
By William J. Bennett
Doubleday, New York, 199 pages

William Bennett, perhaps the leading conservative voice in American public life today, turns his attention from Bill Clinton and his misdeeds, the subject of his previous book, The Death of Outrage, to the state of America’s families, in The Broken Hearth. Bennett believes that a series of trends in American life–divorce, cohabitation, single parenting, and the push for homosexual unions, most prominent among them–have considerably weakened the family. The nuclear family, “defined as a monogamous married couple living with their children,” is, he insists, “vital to civilization’s success,” so America must wake up and change its way of life or find itself unable to pass on the wonders of its greatness to new generations.

Much of this had been said before in a spate of books and reports, but Bennett, both because of his refreshingly pugnacious writing and his ability to express points of view clearly and without cant, has the ability to reach much larger audiences than social scientists. In addition, Bennett benefits from his enemies, some of whom, in pursuit of ideals of personal liberation, have been blissfully unaware of the dangers faced by children, especially children in poverty, that flow from unstable homes. Finally, there is a strong grain of truth in Bennett’s overall argument, although not necessarily in the details he marshals on its behalf: Marriage is a good thing, in the sense that it correlates with good health, longevity, and happiness, and also a hard thing to maintain in a culture that worships immediate gratification.

When it comes to moving American culture further away from the more extreme personal liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s toward a greater emphasis on duty, obligation, and respect for others, I am very much on Bennett’s side. Yet I also fear that in the way he frames his arguments, he will lose the support of many who might agree with him, but who also believe that commitment and responsibility can take more than one form.

Bennett acknowledges that the family cannot, and probably should not, be the same for all eternity. He says that he is not in favor of returning to a time “when marriages were arranged, marital sex was frowned upon, polygamy was acceptable, children were abandoned on a wide scale, boys were favored in every important way over girls, and women were subjected and demeaned, or denied public participation in the workforce.” Along similar lines, Bennett also lets his readers know that his own mother divorced when he was five, remarried more than once, and worked outside the home. Perhaps for that reason, he concludes that divorce is not always wrong or unwise.

But if some family values can and should change, why not others? When Bennett turns to the subject of gay marriage, he says that his aim is to develop “principled” arguments about why this is a bad thing. And the principle he invokes is that advocates of gay marriage rewrite “the central rule of the marriage bond” when they urge a form of marriage that does not lead biologically to procreation. “Once that rule is broken,” he then asks,”why stop there?” If proponents of same-sex marriage want to argue on behalf of marriage, “what arguments would they invoke? Tradition? Religion? The time-honored definition of the family? These are the very pillars they have already destroyed.”

The problem here is that Bennett has destroyed these arguments as well. Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine viewed sex within marriage as degrading, yet Bennett would break that rule, as he rightly should, by recognizing that sex within marriage is one of the many reasons we now want marriage to survive. If homosexuals want their own sex to take place in a marital state, should we discourage them? The realist in me says that, to protect and preserve marriage, we should expand, and not contract, its benefits for reasons quite similar to those that once led us to reject the strict and unforgiving views of Christian saints.

If at least some gay Americans are in favor of something like marital stability, moreover, not all conservatives, including all religious conservatives, are necessarily friends of the family. Bennett rightly says that we often have too romantic a view of marriage, with the result that, once people experience an unhappy moment, their instinct is to flee. Yet some of the states with America’s highest divorce rates are also states with the highest numbers of evangelical Christians. There is a reason. Preaching exalted forms of love, church leaders do not always do the best job preparing those who fill their pews with the right dose of realism that marriage requires. It is not, in short, only the attacks on marriage one can find on the extreme left that have made our families vulnerable; it is also the elevation of marriage associated with the conservative and Christian right.

To his credit, Bennett does not spare his fellow conservatives when he finds them responsible for the weakening of the marriage bond. He has especially sharp things to say about Newt Gingrich, a so-called conservative who looks more and more like a 1970s-style liberationist, and he blames the media and the profit motive alike when both require blame. In so doing, Bennett acknowledges, without ever saying so explicitly, that the question of the marriage bond is one that ought not to be fashioned in terms of the culture war, as if Republicans and conservatives are always right and Democrats and liberals always wrong.

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Although Bennett finds a few irresponsible writers and celebrities who celebrate the breakdown of marriage as a good thing, there is no general rejoicing in America that it has become so hard for spouses to remain together and to share responsibility for child rearing. If this is a revolution, it is one that few people wanted and most would rather do without. One senses, further, that the country has gone about as far as it can go away from common sense–that there is a renewed appreciation for stable and responsible institutions, including the institution of marriage.

Bill Bennett surely deserves some of the credit for this, for he has been an eloquent, if sometimes extreme, critic of our morality for quite some time. If these positive steps are to continue, we will continue to need his voice, but we will also require a bit more compassion for the many difficulties Americans face, as well as a bit more respect for the ways they reshape their institutions to deal with those difficulties.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and author of Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice.