Last week, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ordered that the definition of marriage be changed from a “union between a man and a woman” to a “union between two persons,” which should remind us that we in America still have not arrived at a final answer to this question. And the electorate does not have to wait until our Supreme Court discovers their answer.
A picture of the American family, or the lack thereof, emerges from the following information. Today in the United States the most common living arrangement is a household of unmarried persons with no children. Cohabitation, living together with neither civil blessing nor public promise to stay together, has widespread acceptance by our youth who are now coming of age. Forty-six percent of first marriages and 65 percent of second marriages end in divorce; the children of these broken homes face unprecedented social and psychological difficulties as a result. This year probably less than five children in ten will be born and reared in a household with both mom and dad.
Adding insult to injury, powerful groups are trying to change what it means to be civilly married, exacerbating the problems marriage already has. In short, the foundation of the millennia-old family is crumbling under our feet.
Nothing described above, including the conclusion, is new; similar information and descriptions have already been widely published. Everyone knows the status of the game. What is lacking is strong and dedicated national leadership persuading us how to win.
In quiet moments of war or peace, each American asks what their country requires of him. Some of us are part of Generation X — the first set of children reared in the nascent social environment arising after the sexual revolution and no-fault divorce laws, among other societal upheavals. Others were reared before these upheavals and then have, in turn, been parents of young children after. We believe what is required of us now is to give a final answer to our most fundamental and pressing question of today: What to do about the family? We hold that society’s survival depends upon the wholeness of the traditional family. Therefore we ask that the federal government more decisively endorse and fight for traditional marriage.
Two steps have already been taken by the Bush administration: the Healthy Marriage Initiative and the Federal Marriage Amendment. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy Marriage Initiative is designed to “help couples, who have chosen marriage for themselves, gain greater access to marriage education services, on a voluntary basis, where they can acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage”; it has worthy goals, one being to increase the percentage of children who are raised by two parents in a healthy marriage. The Federal Marriage Amendment was endorsed by President Bush in early 2004 and proposes to amend the Constitution with language that in effect declares marriage in the United States to be the union of a man and a woman.
Unfortunately, both are stalled. When was the last time you heard of either in the news? We suggest that the administration transform the well-meaning but impotent Healthy Marriage Initiative, currently buried in the Department of Health and Human Services, into a new cabinet level department, which could be named the Department of the American Family. Such a move will necessitate a federal definition of marriage. This will bring the issue into the limelight of public debate, where it deserves to be.
What will the department do? First, the fact that there is a Department of the American Family will be highly symbolic of America’s belief in the traditional family and will draw a line in the sand. The secretary would advise the president on the status of American families, suggesting ways the president could secure its convalescence and long term health. Additionally, the department could assess the family’s response to critical issues or events and the impact of them on the country’s families; fund efforts to document the history and influence of the American family; sponsor public advertising campaigns endorsing marriage; and fund university research on the benefits of marriage.
The time has come for the government to energetically and unequivocally state that the perpetuity of the social contract it administers rests squarely on the health of the time-honored family. We understand both the vitality and even the necessity of the traditional family are being fiercely questioned. Nevertheless, a decision must be made. While we do not naively think that restoring the traditional family to its place of pre-eminence will solve all of America’s challenges, we do believe that without such a restoration, all other solutions will fail to provide the desired results.
Both civilization’s history and the great world religions are on the side of marriage as it has been known throughout time. Our nation’s government should align itself with this ancient wisdom.
David Wilkinson is a former attorney general of Utah (1981-1988). Chris Stevenson is a co-founder of the Virginia Parent Political Action Committee.