July 4, 2010 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Family and Marriage

Credo: Things of Permanent Worth

Editor’s note:  This is the text of a Q & A with The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer A. Marshall  conducted by Leah Fabel for the “Credo” feature of  The Washington Examiner (which published it July 4, 2010).

Beyond the fireworks, the cookouts, the parades and the waving flags, Independence Day is a celebration of American families, and their freedom to grow and to thrive. As director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, Jennifer Marshall oversees the conservative think tank's research about family and all areas that determine the character of our culture, including education, marriage, religion and civil society. She shared by e-mail some reflections on that work, and on her hopes inspired by her Christian faith.

Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?

I belong to a Presbyterian congregation that is a part of the Reformed theological tradition. I especially appreciate the wonder of God's grace in personal redemption and how it gives hope for restoration in the world around us.

"Family values" has become a politicized term, fraught especially for many on the left, and lacking an agreed-upon definition. How would you best define family values in a way that is true to your own beliefs, and in a way that invites fresh conversation?

When we talk about our "values," we're referring to worth that is self-determined. But beyond our values, some essentials have worth that is permanently "endowed by their Creator" -- to borrow the language of the Declaration of Independence. Among these permanent things are life, conscience, the institution of marriage, and a transcendent moral order.

Human nature -- capable of both great good and great evil -- persists as well, and needs constant shaping toward the good. Family, religious congregations and communities have the responsibility to cultivate respect for these endowments in each new generation, and law should support them in that role.

Looking at American culture today, on the Fourth of July, what do you think would disappoint our founders? And what do you think would give them most satisfaction?

The Founders would have good reason to be satisfied at the success of their attention to detail in building a constitutional government suited to human nature and anchored in the wisdom of the generations. The republic they designed not only has endured, it has served as a beacon of liberty throughout the world.

On the other hand, the Founders would be disappointed at the vicious cycle that has developed as the erosion of personal responsibility and virtue led to expansive government that undermines the roles of other institutions and individuals. Government's breach of proper boundaries has undermined the institutions in civil society that nurture responsibility and virtue, the most important ones being family and church.

This imbalance has distorted Americans' concept of self-government. I think the Founders would have concluded that impairs our understanding of the proper pursuit of happiness in community.

Your book "Now and Not Yet" examines the single life from a God-centered perspective. What do you believe are the biggest challenges for singles today? And what's the significance for society generally?

The average age of first marriage is about five years older than it was a generation ago, and the path to marriage is not as clear as it once was. In the wake of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution, we tend to view each other -- particularly the opposite sex -- through the fog of cultural stereotypes. That can lead to a failure to appreciate each other as an individual creation.

Meanwhile, in a culture growing more relationally impoverished, we risk unlearning the virtues and habits that make it possible to form and keep a happy, healthy marriage.

That's especially troubling since the family formed around marriage is the basic building block of any strong and free society. Many trends are working to undercut this foundation. Casual sex carries risks that are costly both for the individual and for society, and cohabitation is less stable than marriage. While young people delay marriage, unwed childbearing increases. Forty percent of children today are born to single mothers, most of whom are in their 20s.

As marriage weakens, intergenerational social stability is imperiled. We need to pay much more attention to our cultural ecology, even as we care for our physical environment.

At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?

I believe we are created with a need and desire for God and that nothing can satisfy us completely or eternally except for a restored relationship with him through Christ.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

Originally appeared in The Washington Examiner