- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

THE BROKEN HEARTH: REVERSING THE MORAL COLLAPSE OF THE AMERICAN FAMILY
By William J. Bennett
Doubleday, $22.95, 199 pages
REVIEWED BY SUZANNE FIELDS


The moralmeister is back. When Bill Bennett wrote the "The Book of Virtues," he revived the best of the moral tales from antiquity to the present for the pleasure and instruction of children and adults. "The Death of Outrage" lived up to its title, describing how Americans had lost their ability to express disgust when disgust was, or should have been, everywhere apparent.
In "The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family," Mr. Bennett is family physician. He not only diagnoses the problem of the nuclear family, but writes prescriptions that should be enlisted to preserve it. He's the man in front of our collective fireplace where the flames are struggling to keep us warm, but a cold wind of indifference keeps blowing through cracks in the chimney, threatening to extinguish the fire. You could say the author throws in all of the pages of his book as kindling to keep the home fires burning.
How seriously readers react to this book may determine whether the family can be fixed, or whether it's broken beyond repair. The author's diagnosis is drawn from multiple symptoms. One paragraph succinctly sums them up:
"Since 1960, fewer people are marrying; they are doing so later in life; they are having fewer children; they are spending less time with the children they have; and they are divorcing much more frequently. Those who do not marry are having sexual relations at an earlier age, and contracting sexually transmitted diseases at much higher rates; cohabiting in unprecedented numbers; and having a record number of children out of wedlock. Finally, more children than ever before live with only one parent."
It's hard to be morally neutral about any of this. The impact is psychologically hurtful to men, women and children, and it's sociologically devastating for the culture. We've all been touched in some deleterious way by the decline of family life, but the poor among us suffer most. Everyone knows the nuclear family is not perfect, but throughout history it has proven to be better than any other institution for rearing the young. Even if you subscribe to the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, it's difficult for the village if there aren't enough mothers and fathers to go around.
In our own time, fatherless families have proliferated with the payments of government cash to husbandless mothers, with government becoming a virtual Big Daddy to support mother and child. But cash is cold and it doesn't provide a live-in daddy to imitate, to look up to and love, so that a daughter can dance on his shoe tops and a son can walk in the prints of those shoes. Mr. Bennett's point is that the nuclear family is "the first and best department of health education, and welfare." Nor can two daddies nor two mommies do it. Mr.Bennett places his opposition to homosexual marriage in the context of the Judaic-Christian moral tradition.
Gay marriage is a slippery slope with a steep decline, which could ultimately undermine even the taboos against polygamy and incest. "We have relatives, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, who are fine, impressive, thoroughly decent individuals and who may also be gay or lesbian," writes Mr. Bennett. "You can be tolerant of others, while declining to accept what they do as right, or as entitling them to public endorsement."
Most of the arguments of this book reasonably link tradition, good sense, goodness and practicality. The most graphic image is that of "the elephant in the living room," the big beast we all see but pretend we don't. That elephant is divorce. We tiptoe around it, hide from its enormous intrusion, and run from the room when someone else is brave enough to target it as depriving children of their pursuit of happiness.
Between 40 and 45 percent of marriages end in divorce and we pretend there's nothing we can do about it. Defenders of divorce invariably trot out the worst case scenario of battered wives and abused children. Well, no one's saying divorce should be abandoned, but neither do we have to continue to allow it to be the easy habit it has become. Cold statistics and cold sadness tell the same story : "The odds of growing up emotionally and physically healthier, better educated, and better off financially are much greater if you are not a product of divorce."
Those couples who rationalize living together without a marriage license "cohabitation" is the trendy word often say they want to learn more about their potential spouse so they won't need a divorce after they marry. If that ever made sense it doesn't now, when statistics demonstrate conclusively that those who cohabit and later marry are more likely to divorce than those couples who don't live together first.
"The Broken Hearth" provides specific steps for change, such as making no-fault divorce harder to achieve, enabling the law to give the edge to the spouse who wants to stay married, encouraging churches to provide more pre-marriage counseling, but the strength of this book is its call for a change in moral attitudes, tapping into the richness and sanctity of the love-marriage contract as reflected in the vows "in sickness and in health," "in sorrow and in joy," "forsaking all others," "till death us do part." In short, how to put another log on the (home) fire.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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