Thursday, November 13, 2008

What are we conserving?

Pete Vere, co-author of The Tyranny of Nice, discusses the conservative project:
Looking back at the debate that arose from America Alone, [Mark] Steyn presents two ideas in his book. The first is that western civilization is collapsing from a plummeting birth rate. The second is that radical Islam has moved in fill the void.
The ensuing debate has focused on Steyn's second point, to the detriment of the first. Everyone is talking about the danger to western civilization posed by radical Islam. Yet we've forgotten about the danger we pose to ourselves. The plummeting birth rate - and the near extinction of the natural family unit - is by far the greater threat. What's the use of fending off the terrorists of today, when we're allowing ourselves to degenerate into the barbarians of tomorrow. Will there still be a western civilization to defend tomorrow? . . .
(Read the whole thing.) Again, here is the interesting use of "we." As a father of six, I can hardly be implicated in the collapse of the birth rate. Pete is a Canadian Catholic layman and, as he is surely aware, Catholic teaching about the family is widely ignored by nominal Catholics, so that there is today relatively little difference between the Catholic and Protestant birth rates. Catholic teaching forbids divorce, and young Catholics are avoiding divorce . . . by avoiding marriage. They are not, however, avoiding sex, and pre-marital fornication is commonplace.

Of course, we Protestants have nothing to boast about in this regard. Even among "conservative" evangelicals, pre-marital fornication seems to be winked at nowadays. The fiery young evangelist Joshua Harris has talked about how the "dating" mentality often turns church youth groups into sort of teenage singles meetups, so that you need a scorecard to keep track of who's cheating on whom, who's broken up, etc.

Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, but one especially deserves condemnation: "Christian" parents who discourage their children from marrying. I Timothy 4:
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
Forbidding to marry . . .
The appearance of this shameful and sinful -- indeed, one might say, satanic -- prejudice against marriage in "Christian" culture has gone almost unnoticed. There are many Christian parents who, if their daughter came home from college and announced she was a lesbian, would be "understanding." But if their daughter came and announced she was going to drop out of college and get married . . . oh, the horror! The disgrace!

Too many Christian parents have succumbed to the prejudice of middle-classness: The belief that the object of life is to be middle class, and that the life that is not middle class is not worth living. Middle-class people have college degrees, they have careers, they work in offices, they raise their children in single-family homes on suburban cul-de-sacs, where everyone over age 16 has his or her own late-model automobile.

This kind of middle-classness is economically incompatible with marrying young and having lots of babies, and so middle-class parents discourage their children from even thinking about marriage before they've graduated college and established careers with 401(k)s and full health benefits, etc. Such is the zealousness with which this attitude is inculcated that, if you talk to college kids today, it is hard to avoid the impression that they believe it is illegal to get married before receiving a bachelor's degree.

I used to participate in a Christian courtship discussion board where there would frequently be questions from kids who would begin by saying, "I'm a sophomore in college and I'm wondering what to do about this problem with a girl I'm interested in . . . ." And my response would often be to say, "Well, why don't you get married?" To which the reply was always, "We aren't ready" or "We can't afford to get married."

We can't afford to get married. Think about that sentence. What does it cost to get married? My wife and I got married at the county courthouse. The blood test and the license were the only costs. But once people are infected with the prejudice of middle-classness, they believe they can't get married unless they have a wedding that would make Princess Di envious.

I've got a 19-year-old daughter, and if she flew off to Vegas next week for a wedding at the Elvis Chapel, I'd be a happy father. If she and Romeo then set up housekeeping in a tiny basement apartment somewhere, struggling to pay the bills while they finished school, OK -- what's wrong with a little hardship? And if she then got pregnant, and Romeo had to quit school and join the Marines -- well, just call me "Grandpa"!

This trend of delaying marriage and childbearing helps undermine the bond between generations. Which grandmother can be more involved with her grandkids, the 45-year-old or the 65-year-old? But if motherhood is delayed until age 32, grannies will more generally be feeble than vigorous.

While I very much encourage ambitions of upward mobility, these ambitions ought not become temptations to sin, which is what happens when middle-class prejudice causes people to imagine that the only life worth living involves that big house on the suburban cul-de-sac with 1.7 children. Must everyone live like that?

Studies show that the average American kid today becomes sexually active at age 17, while the median age at first marriage is now 26. This is what I call the "fornication gap." And if Christians wish to close the gap, abstinence education can't be the only answer. If you're going to tell teenagers to save sex for marriage, don't you think that marriage should at least seem like a possibility? To a 15-year-old, age 26 seems like a million years in the future -- one of those science-fiction years, like when we were kids and watched space shows set in some impossibly far-off date: "Space, 2012!"

Evangelical Christians often talk about "stepping out on faith," but when it comes to their children's lives, many of them want everything planned as a can't-miss secular proposition. The end result is that parents end up being the worst enemies of the marriage culture.


  1. Great post. Somehow, I had thought you might be Roman Catholic.
    Regardless, those who have a confession of any sort need to focus on the moral areas where agreement is easy.
    Too much 'house divided against itself' going on within Christianity these days.

  2. Thanks very much, Mr. McCain, for this post. You have very succinctly stated a very serious problem that I have seen, and lived with, for some time. Not only is there a very strong bias among middle class families towards having their children become fully situated in a career and well into their twenties or thirties before marrying, but there is also a certain hostility towards those who aren't part of the program. My wife and I are Catholic, and have 5 daughters. We have received numerous, sneering comments referring to our children, such as "you know what causes that, don't you?" , or, "You're just trying for a boy," or "Are you going to stop now?". We threaten them, because we're not on the program with 1.7 kids, a 3000+ square foot house and a new lease car every two years. Much like the antipathy that Sarah Palin attracted, we attact sneers and derision from certain quarters as we try to very fully live our faith. Even many of our "Catholic" friends cannot understand could we possibly trade the bigger house and notional financial security for more children, for our faith?

    The middle class lifestyle has become a false idol, and a very powerful one. I don't think most upper middle class types, in particular, are even aware of the unstated assumptions they have in their thinking, the constant putting of financial concerns above all else in the affairs of their lives, and those of their children. It's very interesting when you step outside that culture, when you stop accepting the precepts of materialism, and look at your life and those of others from a different perspective. It can be quite unsettling, both for you and those around you. Doing so tends to precipitate a desire to step completely outside and away from the dominant culture in this country, and to live a fundamentally different way of life. At least, it does for us.


  3. Glad you said that!

    ALL of it!

    And Steyn's point--that the birth-dearth IS a national security issue--has been buried, of course.

    The antipathy to children is something that all the middle-road (D) and (R) people share, and it is a big part of the Palin-hatred.

  4. Too many Christian parents have succumbed to the prejudice of middle-classness

    That's what I've been saying all along!

  5. All the above is fine except it leaves out the problem of DIVORCE. Divorce is much to easy an out to grasp when things are tough. Those kids that married at 18 find themselves splitting up during the years when their children need both parents. The result is our last several generations of latch key kids that have taken their parents' attitude toward mutual commitment ot a newer level with each succeeding generation.

    If you are going to advocate younger marriage ages, especially when advocating higher birth rates, you must also strengthen the resistance to divorce. We don't just need children, we need children raised properly. That takes both parents as a rule.