November 30, 2001 | Commentary on Family and Marriage
You wouldn't expect a man who's just written a book called "The
Broken Hearth" to be an optimist.
But that's exactly what William Bennett is.
Yes, that William Bennett -- the former secretary of education
and drug "czar" who's been on the front lines of almost every
social brawl of the last 15 years. Check the subtitle of his latest
work: "Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family."
That may seem like a Herculean task, especially in the wake of
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But a new kind of attitude --
serious-minded, more reflective, less self-absorbed -- seems to
have sprung up among the American people since those attacks. This
new wave of public purposefulness makes me believe Bennett's book
will find a receptive audience.
He confronts his readers with sobering facts about the American
family, circa 2001. Since 1960, the divorce rate has doubled, from
one of every four marriages to one out of every two. Far more
children are born out of wedlock; indeed, more than three-quarters
of all births to teenagers occur outside of marriage. Single-parent
households are also more common, with more than one-third of
American children living apart from their biological fathers.
The number of couples that simply live together without getting
married has risen dramatically as well, from less than 500,000 in
1960 to more than 5 million. And contrary to popular myth, these
"trial marriages" don't produce healthier, more stable unions later
on, when the couple finally gets married. As Bennett notes, such
couples divorce at almost double the rate of couples who marry
without shacking up first.
Consider, too, the trends we've seen in the 2000 Census, which
has been released in segments throughout this year. Households
headed by single mothers grew at a much faster rate than those
headed by married couples, to take but one example.
As The Washington Post summed it up: "These statistics showed no
reversal of a decades-long national trend away from the
historically dominant household, married couples with
It surely doesn't help that many (not all) producers of popular
entertainment seem to consider it their job to push the edges of
the cultural envelope even further. You don't have to head off to
the nearest multiplex for examples -- prime-time television's full
of them. Like this relatively mild exchange between two teenagers
on "Dawson's Creek":
Dawson: "What are you suggesting?"
Eve: "Only the obvious. A night of scorching-hot, unbridled,
Dawson: "Just like that? No first date, no months of getting to
know each other?"
Eve: "Those are small-town rituals for small-town girls. Face
it, Dawson, we're hot for each other."
Hey, it's just a TV show, some will say. True. But once you take
into account all the other TV shows that are taking the same line
-- and notice, too, all the like-minded movies, books and magazine
articles -- you begin to see that we're doing precious little to
repair our "broken hearth." In fact, we seem to be trying to smash
it still further.
America can do better. As Bennett noted in some recent TV
interviews, the current generation is capable of great things -- as
shown in its response to the Sept. 11 attacks, from volunteer work
to military service.
Many young people are now talking about self-sacrifice and putting others first. Let's hope this is the beginning of America's next "Greatest Generation."
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
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