Marriage Gaps and Culture Wars

Ross Douthat of the NY Times attempts to update the parameters of the Culture Wars […]

David Zahl / 12.7.10

Ross Douthat of the NY Times attempts to update the parameters of the Culture Wars and comes up with some provocative, if debatable/premature, conclusions: basically, that social class no longer seems to be a defining factor in the conflict. I for one feel more Swiss than ever:

We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.

That division held a generation ago, but now it’s diminishing… Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive.

There has been a similar change in religious practice. In the 1970s, college- educated Americans were slightly less likely to attend church than high school graduates. Today, piety increasingly correlates with education: college graduates are America’s most faithful churchgoers, while religious observance has dropped precipitously among the less-educated.

In part, these shifts may be a testament to the upward mobility of religious believers. America’s college-educated population probably looks more conservative and (relatively speaking) more religious because religious conservatives have become better educated. Evangelical Christians, in particular, are now one of America’s best-educated demographics, as likely to enroll their children in an S.A.T. prep course as they are to ship them off to Bible camp.

This means that a culture war that’s often seen as a clash between liberal elites and a conservative middle America looks more and more like a conflict within the educated class — pitting Wheaton and Baylor against Brown and Bard, Redeemer Presbyterian Church against the 92nd Street Y, C. S. Lewis devotees against the Philip Pullman fan club. 

But as religious conservatives have climbed the educational ladder, American churches seem to be having trouble reaching the people left behind. This is bad news for both Christianity and the country. The reinforcing bonds of strong families and strong religious communities have been crucial to working-class prosperity in America. Yet today, no religious body seems equipped to play the kind of stabilizing role in the lives of the “moderately educated middle” (let alone among high school dropouts) that the early-20th-century Catholic Church played among the ethnic working class.

As a result, the long-running culture war arguments about how to structure family life look increasingly irrelevant further down the educational ladder, where sex and child-rearing often take place in the absence of any social structures at all.

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5 responses to “Marriage Gaps and Culture Wars”

  1. chris e says:

    Doesn't this actually sound like a case of class being so entrenched – and Christianity ossifing around class-lines – to the point where things aren't visible any more. MOre like water to a fish.

  2. Bror Erickson says:

    These values aren't irrelevant to the lower classes. Sinners are all, and the people have a hard time living up to what they know is right. But as I work with people from all walks of life.
    But there is a problem as the sins of the fathers are visited to the third and fourth generations. That is so many these days don't even know how. The people are broken by these sins, they hate them. They find themselves trapped in them, doing as only they know how, even as they despise what they know.
    And there is only one cure for that, class warfare ain't it. (That's right I used the non-word ain't).
    It has to start with and end with forgiveness in Jesus Christ every day, and patiently teaching each one to love, to love their spouse even before they love their neighbor as it were.
    Though i think that putting a family bar within walking distance of every neighborhood might help too.

  3. Mich says:

    Im no fan of Douthat, let me be clear about that.
    I find it ironic that he proposes his social analysis without any mention of the economic policies and conditions which have crippled the middle and working classes. This is the kind of amoral rational analysis that passes for profundity nowadays.

    Maybe should invite him to the Conference in NYC so he can hear the Gospel?


  4. Ken says:

    Redeemer Presbyterian Church against the 92nd Street Y

    If I lived in New York, I'd frequent both.

    Mich, Douthat's Catholic. I tend to be left of center, but for my money – which I'll be paying out as soon as the pay wall goes up! – Douthat and Brooks are the Times' most interesting columnists. And Kristof is a saint.

  5. Margaret E says:

    "Amoral rational analysis"? From Ross Douthat? He's normally criticized for being a "moralist" who believes in the Magical Sky Fairy. I find him intelligent, engaging, and – at the NY Times – absolutely refreshing. (Of course, I like David Brooks, too!) From what I gather, he goes pretty deeply into those "crippling economic policies" in his book Grand New Party. But I haven't actually read it, so I may be wrong…

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