Civilization Killers – On the Decline of Three Basic Cultural Indicators and What it Means for America
Recently, there was a remarkable article over At Real Clear Politics which summarizes important social trends in the United States. The article by Rich Lowry summarizes the views of Charles Murray who gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Murray focuses his data on White America only to avoid the sticky wicket of race politics that so often clouds a conversation on social and moral trends that are wider than race.
The recent unpleasantness in New York where the high rates of abortion in the Black community (simply a statistical fact) were featured in a billboard, quickly devolved into a discussion of race, rather than abortion. Hence, to avoid this sort of thing, Mr. Murray used data only on the White community.
And what he has discovered is that there are significant differences between economic classes in this Country that sheds important light on the cultural crisis we are facing. In effect, economic class is a big indicator in moral behavior today. This was not the case in the past and the class division in America has led to two very different Americas, two increasingly parallel worlds in effect. Likewise, it becomes increasingly clear which world is influencing which.
I would like to presents excerpts of the article by Rich Lowry and make comments of my own. Lowry’s original remarks are in bold, black italics, my remarks are plain text, red. The full article is here: Coming Apart at the Seams.
The social threat to the American way of life is…dire….it is [also] insidious, and…complicated. No grassroots movement has mobilized against it, and no high-profile bipartisan commission is suggesting remedies. Yet it proceeds apace, all but ignored except in the lives of Americans – Lowry refers here to the decline in important “founding virtues” which have made this country strong: marriage, industriousness, and religiosity. And he is right that almost no one wants to talk about the decline of these things. If we had a reform program only half as committed as the anti-smoking campaign of the past 25 years, we’d be well on our way to recovery, I suspect. But sadly there is little agreement on such a campaign, even in the Church where too may pastors, catechists and leaders seem to emphasize not offending, over being real clinicians and doctors with real and clear direction for what ails us.
If there is ambivalence in the Church, it is far worse in the wider civic world where a consensus on good behavior has broken down.
A personal story comes to mind here. I was in a meeting with some local activists here in DC and we were discussing the social structures of poverty. The usual list was announced in the room to include things like, capitalism, the greed of (rich) people, racism, not enough Government action, even lead paint. I happened to interject that the chief cause of poverty is single motherhood and also wondered if we ought no counsel sexual abstinence, and encourage marriage. The room was suddenly silent, and all eyes were on me. Most of those eyes were glaring, some dismayed. Only a few showed understanding or agreement. Some one finally broke the icy silence and suggested that I leave such controversial views to my own pulpit and stick to things where there was real consensus and which was less…ahem… “judgmental.”
Yes, the lack of a grassroots movement seems directly tied to a loss in common moral vision. We do not seem to agree on what is vice, and what is virtue. Here again, I fault the Church and Protestant denominations for failing to hand on the vision and to insist upon it among their (our) rather sizable number. I think we are improving in the Catholic Church and some of the evangelical denominations are doing a better job. Collectively, the Catholic moral vision is being better articulated by many bishops and pastors who see no choice but to speak out. But for a long time we have been too silent, and there still is to much silence from Catholic pulpits as a whole. If there is going to be any sort of grassroots movement it is going to have begin with us.
Among those trying to sound the alarm is Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute…..In a bracing lecture on “The State of White America,” he notes that America has long had an exceptional civic culture. “That culture is unraveling,” he warns. “America is coming apart at the seams. Not the seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” – It does seem that class, even more than race, has become a large dividing line in this country and the question of virtue and vice is significantly influenced by it, as we shall see.
Murray takes whites as his subject to avoid the question of whether racism is responsible for the problem he describes, namely the “emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values.” – Good move, as stated above. If this discussion gets tagged with race, the question of race will rob all the oxygen from the discussion and the moral questions will be unaddressed.
Murray identifies what he calls the “founding virtues,” such as marriage, industriousness, and religiosity, which have always been considered the social basis of self-government. He looks at whites aged 30-49 and divides them into the top 20 percent socio-economically and the bottom 30 percent. The top tier is basically the upper middle class, the bottom the working class. He finds two worlds, increasingly separate and unequal. – So the basic groups we are dealing with in this reflection are upper middle class and working class.
Notice, the very rich are not mentioned. It seems to me that they are a group unto themselves when it comes to the moral life. They (e.g. Hollywood, national politicians, and the very rich) often manifest poor moral values but are more able to “get away with it,” not often suffering all the usual social ills that go with bad behavior. The very poor seem also not on the radar here. Their problems in the moral realm are very often even more complicated and tied in with a very corrupt welfare system that rewards bad behavior and punishes good.
So let’s look at the data of the middle range of classes, the upper middle class and the working class:
In 1960, everyone was married – 88 percent of the upper middle class and 83 percent of the working class. In 2010, 83 percent of the upper middle class is married and only 48 percent of the working class. This gap “amounts to a revolution in the separation of classes.” – Now stable marriage is a key indicator and component of a strong culture. And we can see here that it is the working class that has taken a huge hit in the marriage statistics. In the Church we have noticed this too. In 1974 there were approximately 400,000 weddings in the Catholic Church. In 2004 there we about just under 200,000. The drop in Catholic weddings was attributable to numerous factors including a fall-off in general Church attendance, but the trend is similar to the overall working class, where marriages have dropped by almost half.
In 1960, births to single mothers in the working class were just 6 percent; now they are close to 50 percent. Interesting that our author does not give the number for upper middle class single mothers. My own thought on this is that, while the number is not as high as among working class people, the number is still a lot higher than 1960. Single motherhood began as a problem in the inner-cities and was influenced by a perverse welfare system that rewarded single mothers and comparatively punished married mothers. But the trend of out of wedlock birth has long since reached the suburbs, where the numbers as not as high (close to 80% of children on welfare are born to single mothers), but the numbers have trended much higher.
When it comes to industriousness, there’s the same divergence. In 1960, 1.5 percent of men in the upper middle class were out of the workforce; it’s 2 percent now. In 1968, the number for working-class men hit a low of 5 percent; even before the spike in unemployment after the financial crisis, it was 12 percent in 2008. “The deteriorations in industriousness,” Murray notes, “have occurred in labor markets that were booming as well as in soft ones.” – OK, so Mr. Murray has screened for unemployment. What we’re talking about here is the number of people who simply don’t bother to look for work anymore but live off others or the State. So the “loafers” have doubled in number. The ethic of hard work has taken a hit. However, I would note here that the 12% figure, though higher, is still fairly low, and America remains a nation of hard workers. We still have a work ethic, it would seem, almost to a fault, since many Americans have their career as more important that their vocation (IMHO). Thus children are in day-care and many marriages are strained by overwork and long hours.
Although secularization has long been on the rise, it’s more pronounced in the working class. Among the upper middle class, 42 percent say they either don’t believe in God or don’t go to church. In the working class, it’s 61 percent. In other words, a majority of the upper middle class still has some religious commitment, while a majority of the working class does not. Now this is very paradoxical to some I am sure. I happened to discover the truth of this when I lived among the poor of Southeast Washington for 7 years. I had always thought that the poor were very religious. I think the Scriptures themselves influenced me in this as they warned of riches and indicated God’s loving favor to the poor. But one of the discoveries I made about the very poor was that almost none of them ever went to church! I came to see this as one of the things that contributed to their poverty. For what it indicated was their disconnectedness from others. Churches, among other social functions, serve to knit people together in a socially supportive structure. Having severed themselves from such a community, the poor were even more vulnerable.
Here too, government welfare has had a deleterious effect since many of the poor look to an impersonal government for “the check” rather than to others around them. The advantage of course is that the Government doesn’t ask too many questions or insist upon weekly attendance at services or social functions.
I did not see or experience these poor as atheists in any way. But religion and faith were simply not a big part of their lives. I often had long talks exhorting the poor I met to reconnect with God and the Church. I would even eventually tie on-going help to attendance.
It would seem that the trend of irreligiosity has also reached the working class in higher proportions too. Some will tie this to bad work schedules and the like, rooted in the fact that everything is open on Sundays now. But most churches have a wide variety of things on the schedule including Saturday evening masses, Sunday evening Masses, mid-week bible studies and the like. The fact is people in general are more secular, and this does not bode well for them of for this country as a whole.
These trends mean, just as it is suffering economically, the working class is getting cut off from the richest sources of social capital: marriage, two-parent families, and church-going. More people are falling into a lower class characterized by men who can’t make a minimal living and single women with children….. And this goes back to my point raised in that room of social activists. The fact is that living a life rooted in biblical and natural virtue is just better for you. It leads to fewer complications, greater stability and prosperity, better health, and a higher degree of satisfaction.
Social activists who want to make life better for the poor should reconsider their “agnostic” position regarding sexual choices, and the role of marriage and traditional family values.
In re-proposing the Gospel to an increasingly secular and cynical culture we should not forget to “sell” the Gospel and traditional moral norms as just plain smart, even from a worldly point of view. That is not the only reason we seek to live them, but the fact is, blessings come from following God’s plan, burdens and hardships multiply to those who fail in this regard. Mr. Lowry says it succinctly and well: the working class is getting cut off from the richest sources of social capital.
He quotes the 19th-century observer of American life Francis Grund: “The American Constitution is remarkable for its simplicity; but it can only suffice a people habitually correct in their actions, and would be utterly inadequate to the wants of a different nation. Change the domestic habits of the Americans, their religious devotion, and their high respect for morality, and it will not be necessary to change a single letter of the Constitution in order to vary the whole form of their government.” I believe De Tocqueville said something very similar: Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?
In other words, if freedom is to be politically advanced, then the self control of most Americans must be a presupposed foundation. If that foundation of morality and self-control is lost, the foundations of democracy are threatened.
And we see this in our times. As the decency and self control of more and more Americans diminishes, legal restrictions and punitive measures increase, lawsuits ensue, legal fears increase, and political liberties are gradually eclipsed. Our growing and increasingly intrusive Federal Government does seem very tied to our inability, or unwillingness, as citizens to curb and govern our behaviors. The Constitution, and the freedoms it ensures are thus gradually eroded.
Some consider the Constitution too dated, others see it not permitting enough Government restrictions to curb the bad or unpleasant behaviors of people today. Perhaps this is so. But the solution is not to disregard the Constitution but to reform our lives. We shouldn’t need a nanny state, we ought to grow up and do what is right and proper.
When it comes to saving the American way, balancing the budget is the easy part. -Yes, being saved from ourselves would seem much more difficult.
Murray argues that America can maintain its national power even if these trends continue. – I disagree. I think these downward trends are civilization killers.
If the family is not strong and continues to slide into disarray, we cannot continue as a strong nation and, like ancient Rome, will fade away.
Our work ethic remains strong and there is some hope here.
But as for secularization, that we can have an intelligible and reasonably unified culture without a common “cult” seems dubious. We need not be united on every particular dogma, but, we must have someone and something above us, as a culture, to unite us. The source of our unity cannot be within us, it must transcend us. Pretending that we can have real unity when increasing numbers reject that transcendent vision is fanciful in the end, for with nothing bigger than “us” to unite us, we end in power struggles and endless divisions. The disunity may ultimately be too strong for the great American experience to continue. I do not say it will come soon, but the trend lines do not currently point in promising directions.
As always I am interested in your thoughts.
This song says, America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!