That's fun. The current political discussion on marriage is not quite so fun. The two halves of it which came together inside my brain-box have a lot of trouble staying together and, indeed, desperately wish to get divorced.
The first half is a recent study about divorce. I haven't been able to read the original study yet, but most write-ups regard it as fairly well done.* What the study authors argue is this:
Demographers Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas and Philip Levchak at the University of Iowa looked county-by-county at divorces for a study to be published later this month in the American Journal of Sociology.
Their study controlled for the effect of poverty, which is greater in the southern Bible belt and is known to contribute to higher divorce rates. Even accounting for income and the higher rate of marriage overall in southern states — an alternative to unmarried cohabitation more common in less conservative households — divorce rates in counties with higher proportions of conservative protestants remained higher.
The religiously conservative states of Alabama and Arkansas have the second and third highest divorce rates in the U.S., the authors noted. at 13 per 1000 people per year while New Jersey and Massachusetts, more liberal states, are two of the lowest at 6 and 7 per 1000 people per year.
The strongest correlation showed that early marriage and low income among religious conservatives factor into the higher divorce rates. “Unpacking these variations, Glass and Levchak found that the high divorce rate among conservative religious groups is indeed explained in large part by the earlier ages at first marriage and first birth, and the lower educational attainment and lower incomes of conservative Protestant youth,” the authors wrote.
The study also argues that the divorce effect even works on people who live in areas with large numbers of conservative Protestants, even if they themselves don't belong to that group. The tentative explanation the researchers offer is this:
According to their paper, it’s not just believers who are affected—simply living in an area with lots of right-wing evangelicals makes divorce more likely, because the prevailing community norms and institutions affect everyone. The more powerful Christian conservatives get, the worse the problem becomes. “One plausible interpretation of the results is that as conservative Protestant presence increases, elite conservative Protestant influence grows stronger, which results in policies and programs that do little to reduce divorce, but only increase early marriage,” write Glass and Levchak.So what do we have here? Something that has actually been known for a while, in a fuzzier form:
“One of the things that happens is that early marriage and parenthood in particular are bad times for very young women to be entering the labor force,” says Glass. “They withdraw from the labor force and withdraw from schooling to take care of their kids.” Meanwhile, she says, “it’s become very, very difficult for young men to support an entire family. Families that are formed early have a really difficult time making ends meet with the human resources they have at their disposal.”
The rates of divorce are considerably higher in the Republican heartland than in the Sodom and Gomorrah of the more liberal states (such as Massachusetts, the Sodom of conservative imagination). Much of that is linked to greater poverty in the former, but some, at least, does seem to be linked to conservative Protestantism. That it is conservative Protestants who most worry and fret over marriage makes a kind of sense, except that they blame the problems on liberals.
The second half: Ross Douthat's recent column. Douthat is a good example of those conservative religious people who blame divorce on liberal values. He begins by suggesting that both sides in this political debate (the god-fearing conservatives and the Sodom folk) should make certain concessions:
Or both sides could be a bit more honest about the roots of marriage’s decline.
Honesty from conservatives would begin by acknowledging that policies championed on the right — mass incarceration in response to the post-1960s crime wave, Bain Capital-style “creative destruction” in response to Carter-era stagnation — have often made it harder for low-income men to find steady work and stay out of prison, and made women understandably wary of marrying them.
Then this honesty would continue with a concession that certain kinds of redistribution — especially if tied to wage-earning — might help make men more marriageable, families more stable, and touch off a virtuous interaction between the financial and the personal.
Right now, I think some conservatives — though not enough Republican politicians — are willing to concede these points. But I don’t see a readiness among liberals to make any concessions of their own, beyond the minimal acknowledgment that all things being equal, two parents are often better than one.
A more significant concession would be to acknowledge the ways in which liberalism itself has undercut the two-parent family — through the liberal-dominated culture industry’s permissive, reductive attitudes toward sex, and through the 1970s-era revolution in divorce and abortion law.
Bolds are mine.
The bolded first paragraph suggests to me that Douthat wants to see wage subsidies for low-earning men. He's not spelling it out, but that's what the redistribution tied to wage earning must mean in this context.
And note that last paragraph, for the liberal-blaming. This clashes with the findings of the Glass and Levchak study. But it's also a hint that Douthat likes the idea of forcing marriage on people and the idea of keeping them married. He talks about that later, when he offers various "compromises":
Many marriages, especially in the upper-middle class, were strengthened by caution and delay. But for couples with more limited resources, and more to lose from failure, no-fault divorce may have reduced the value of the institution and the sacrifices embraced on its behalf.The idea of various abortion bans is to force women into marriages, the idea of making divorce more difficult is to keep people married, whether they wish to do that or not. All this smells of forcing to me, and Douthat argues that the outcome is good because it is good for children to have two parents.
When liberals claim social conservatives don’t have any policy ideas for marriage promotion, then, they’re somewhat self-deceived. A sustained conservative shift on abortion policy and marriage law probably would, over the long term, increase the rate at which couples take vows and stay together, and improve the life prospects of their children.
So one hypothetical middle ground on marriage promotion might involve wage subsidies and modest limits on unilateral divorce, or a jobs program and a second-trimester abortion ban.
But here's the problem with that: In the first half of this post about the marriage (or divorce) of the two thought types the problems of the conservative Protestant marriage culture boil down to the exact thing that Douthats dislikes: They make divorce more likely.
Yet he wants people to be forced into that very type of marriage, one which favors getting married so early that the women haven't acquired an education which guarantees decent earnings later, one which favors the norm of early childbirth and the mother staying at home with the child or children, one which therefore results in young families with many mouths to feed and only one wage-earner.
What Douthat adds to that is the argument that people should be forced to take the stresses of that type of marriage without being able to leave it very easily because it is better for the children. But here we enter the question whether any kind of marriage (even one that is all stress and fights, say) is better for the children than growing up in a divorced home. Research suggests that this is not the case.
The question Douthat is not asking, really, is what type of marriages we wish to create. That may be because he assumes that all people are pretty evil and must be made to live the way Douthat believes people should live, based on his conception of what divine rules on this are, or because he believes that in some weird sense all marriages are created equal, so the only question is how to push enough people into the marriage mold.
It's the marriage mold which matters here. When we debate something like "marriage" we bring to the conversation our own deeper ideas what marriage might mean. If I had to make a guess about Ross Douthat's deeper ideas in this context, I'd say that he believes in a certain kind of traditional marriage, based on heterosexuals marrying, the husband being the boss of the family, the husband earning all the money in the family and the wife doing all the child-rearing and all the household chores, and the number of children in the family being determined by either chance or by what the husband deems suitable.
That may be quite wrong. But whenever I make that assumption about the conservative deeper ideas of marriage what conservatives say or write starts making sense within that narrow context:
Same-sex marriage is then clearly deplorable because how can we decide which of two men or two women should be bringing the bacon home and which one should be cooking it? How can we keep child-rearing a purely female task if the parents are two men? And who on earth is going to be the god-determined boss in such a family?
Likewise, the recent conservative statements about the government being Uncle Sugar for unmarried women or Wendy Davis' husband seen as a Sugar Daddy can best be interpreted within that narrow framework: In the conservative worldview married women are like employees and married men are like the employers. The employer pays for the work of the employee, and that work consists of housework and child-rearing and sex. In return to that work, the employer funds and protects the employee and promises not to use other labor for those chores on the side, such as sex.**
If a woman is not carrying out the whole list of those tasks, then her husband (or the government) is seen as paying for nothing but sex. Ann Coulter called Wendy Davis a kept woman, because her husband helped her to get an education. Mike Huckabee sees the role of the government as a way to bypass the delivery of marital work to the proper employer of the married woman which is her husband.
What do you think of that interpretation? Do note that I'm NOT saying that marriages are like that or that husbands are like that or that wives are like that or that marriage cannot be absolutely wonderful and delightful, only that a certain strain of conservative thought is based on those implicit (and economic) assumptions.
This also explains why married women in the labor force are still seen as problematic among some social or cultural conservatives. The more time a woman spends outside the home, the less time she has for that proper labor that married women are assigned in the conservative thinking, especially child-rearing. And a woman bringing in money is also interfering with the assigned tasks of the conservative husband which is to be the wallet for the whole family unit. Because his role as the family CEO is based on that role, anything that threatens it is of grave concern.
OK. Now go and read Douthat's column again.
*This is one critique which argues for problems in the study but even its writer agrees that the main conclusions apply. The church-attendance stuff the author uses to differentiate between those young Protestants who stay married and those who do not is, by the way, trickier to use than he or she implies. That's because the causality between divorce and church attendance is very likely to go the other way: Young people attending church regularly who then get divorced might stop attending church regularly. Thus, it's not at all clear that regular church attendance protects against early divorce. -- We need time series data to test for the most likely direction of causality there.
**Adopting this approach finally let me understand why one conservative writer, Danielle Crittenden, in her book (What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman) argued that men and women make similar size sacrifices for marriage when she tosses her career plans out of the window and when he agrees not to have a mistress.
I read that book years ago and could never understand how such a wild comparison could be made. Aren't the women, too, agreeing not to have lovers, and why is that not a sacrifice? But within the conservative framework of marriage as an employer/employee relationship this makes sense.