When I was growing up in the Seventies, I knew a few hippie families in which the long-haired, flower children parents never married formally… the kids ran wild… the parents worked at strange professions like selling homemade jewelry at weekend craft fairs… yet, truth be told, they embodied virtually all of the traditional values of marital fidelity, industriousness, faith and family to an amazing degree.
In fact, both the church and the common law recognize substance over form: in Catholic theology, a man and woman actually marry themselves and the priest functions merely as a witness; and in the common law, a man and woman can be married without benefit of the so-called “little piece of paper” so scorned by the hippies. What matters is the underlying reality of fidelity, openness to children, family loyalty, faith in the future, and so on. (This isn’t an argument against the sacrament of marriage celebrated in a church, however: couples need all the grace they can get!)
The tragedy of modern life is that the virtues that contribute to a happy life are increasingly limited by class and economics – certainly between whites and minority populations but also, unbeknownst to most people, among whites. It’s not that upper-class whites are intrinsically more virtuous; it’s that the moral habits (virtues) that give rise to a happy life are tied to stable families and larger cultural communities that increasingly exist only among the prosperous.
In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – in a cultural as well as economic sense.
In his book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, published in 2012, the controversial conservative sociologist Charles Murray argues that an enormous and growing cultural chasm now divides upper-class and blue collar whites.
While the liberal stereotype is that “traditional values” are the bywords of blue-collar rednecks in the South and Midwest, Murray argues that actually such values are more common in affluent, upper-class, liberal enclaves like Palo Alto, California, and McLean, Virginia.
Marriage and church attendance, for example, are increasingly correlated with income, not race.
Murray produces reams of statistics to show that less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage while 40% of white women with only high school diplomas do – eight times more.
The same is true of religion. While President Barrack Obama famously ridiculed poor whites as “clinging to their guns and religion,” the statistics paint the opposite picture: After the upheavals of the 1970s subsided, church attendance among upper-income, college-educated whites has actually increased in recent years… while church attendance among blue collar workers has plummeted to historic lows.
What’s worse, this reality is a self-perpetuating cycle. Without the reinforcement provided by broader cultural communities, especially religious communities, individuals are less likely to develop the moral habits that make strong families possible – and thus each generation sees a gradual increase in single parent households, childhood poverty, high school dropout rates and unemployment.
Like most conservatives, Murray denounces the “hypocrisy in reverse” of America’s cultural elites: they do not “preach what they practice,” he says.
While they make mega fortunes “preaching” sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, their actual lives are often as boring and traditional as Ozzie and Harriet.
In other words: It’s all an act, an absurd pose, to make money. Sex sells. Rebellion sells more.
Many teenagers were shocked when MTV produced a reality television show about the home life of legendary rocker Ozzie Osborne and his long-suffering wife, Sharon, precisely because it revealed a prosperous, privileged life of almost stultifying domesticity with nary a groupie in sight.
It’s a common theme in Hollywood and the entertainment industries: TV actors and executives who won’t let their own children watch the trashy TV they make.
Murray’s point is that the overachieving children of Silicon Valley techies and Hollywood executives are often raised in stable families, sent to elite private schools, and go to church or synagogue regularly… yet these same elites wouldn’t be caught dead recommending such lifestyle choices to the general public. It would hurt sales.
As a result, the children in upper-class liberal enclaves study hard, get high SAT scores, get into Ivy League schools, land good jobs in growing industries, and get married and have children. The children in blue collar white households, increasingly, drop out of high school, go into the military, get their girlfriends pregnant and face increasingly bleak economic prospects.
All this may be of merely academic interest, however, to the individual… so what lesson can we take away from this sociological reality.
For me, the lesson is obvious.
Marriage matters. Family matters. Education matters. Work matters. Communities matter.
These are not empty words but real life.
If you come from an affluent family, they may be taken for granted… but if you come from a poor family, or no family at all, you should fight like hell to make them the goal of your own life.
Simply decide. Decide that you will finish high school and go to college, no matter what it takes. Decide you will get married and stay married. Decide you will work hard, and do whatever it takes to protect and nurture and love your children. Decide to drag your children, kicking and screaming, to church, temple or synagogue. Decide to make education a priority in your home. Decide you will stay the course, finish the race.
It’s not just conservative church folks who say this. The affluent techies of Silicon Valley and the producers of Hollywood blockbusters do, too – just not publicly.