- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2010

American “exceptionalism” has started popping up in commentaries and newscasts. The phrase is traced back to French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who in the 1830s tried to explain to European elites why and how Americans were so different from them.

In 2008, U.S. scholars distilled some of these “exceptional” differences in a book, “Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation.”

Because many people are questioning America’s exceptionalism - suggesting that maybe we have become legends in our own minds - I would like to revisit this issue as it pertains to America’s families.

No one can dispute that America’s family culture is imperfect, but there is one area where America stands out from other prosperous developed nations: We strongly welcome children.

This is evidenced in America’s fertility rate, which has either been at replacement level (2.1 children per woman) or just below. In comparison, virtually all of Europe, Japan, Australia and Russia have subpar fertility rates, some dangerously low.

America’s welcoming of children is also likely to last. According to opinion surveys, half of American women aged 18 to 46 would like to have at least two children, Linda J. Waite and Melissa J.K. Howe wrote in “Understanding America.”

American women’s next most popular “fertility intention” was for “three” children, followed by “four or more” children, leaving “zero” children as the least popular choice.

European women in several countries - Finland, France, Ireland, United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden - have similar fertility intentions. However, in many countries, women don’t aspire to have even two children, and as a result, many couples have one or no children.

“What then makes the American family unique? Why is the United States producing just about enough children to replace itself, while most other developed countries are falling behind?” asked Ms. Waite and Ms. Howe.

Their answers mirror two characteristics that de Tocqueville saw 200 years earlier: America is exceptionally welcoming when it comes to immigrants. Most of these young men and women arrive with the hope of achieving the American dream for themselves and their children, and their babies have helped keep America’s population relatively balanced and robust.

Second, America’s exceptional acceptance of religious diversity has allowed faiths to flourish, particularly those that believe children are gifts from God, with fertility rates being the highest for Mormons (3.1 children per woman), Ms. Waite and Ms. Howe wrote. Nonreligious Americans, meanwhile, have 1.12 children per woman, comparable to women in more secular countries.

My own belief in American exceptionalism is what leads me to call for our people to create a world-class family culture.

It’s obvious that, for better or worse, American products, goods, entertainment and technology are threaded into the cultures of the world.

But what is America exporting regarding marriage and family? We are a welcoming culture for children, but what kind of families are we forming? Sadly, a recent report from the Family Research Council found that more than half of U.S. teens, aged 15 to 17, have grown up with at least one core “rejection” in their lives, i.e., their parents never married or married but divorced.

When I look at the abundance of blessings in this nation, I can’t help asking: Why aren’t we the best at forming happy, healthy, long-lasting marriages? Why aren’t we renowned for raising competent, hardworking, loving adults who take care of their own families and serve their communities?

America’s history of can-do spirit, ingenuity and desire for excellence tells me we can master the world of family relationships. After all, as de Tocqueville said, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

c Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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