Sociological Insight into Broken Working-Class Families

by May 11, 2014Culture, Mission2 comments

comingapartI minister in a low-income community; I wish I could say I do more for my parishioners than I do. I preach, I love, I pray. And I think about them all the time. A while back I read Coming Apart: The State of White America , 1960–2010 in an effort to understand their culture. Murray notes via the tools of sociology what I already know via the tool of personal experience: the institution of marriage is simply dying out among my little crowd of people (who are, as of September, also my neighbors).

I have puzzled a bit over this slow death: why is it that in a place still covered with a veneer of (largely Baptist) religiosity, an institution which used to serve the working class and upper class alike is holding on only among the latter? Murray in his introduction said he wasn’t really going to try to answer that question, only to describe what was in fact happening to the institution of marriage in America. (Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage: A History didn’t focus on that question, either—though it was fascinating.) Murray did end with a call to the upper class to be paternalistic, to go ahead and instruct the lower classes in how to grab hold of the many advantages that come to stable marriages.

Instruction is right up my alley as a weekly preaching outreach pastor, and on an individual level I am always doing it. But there’s also a group dynamic that I have sensed but struggled to grasp. There’s something in the culture, the shared expectations in the air, that profoundly forms the people I preach to. There’s something that goes beyond, goes deeper than, individual choice. I’m not saying that the people bear no responsibility for their adultery or fornication, their porn and cohabitation—I’m saying that the seventh commandment seems to come out of left field for them in a way that it doesn’t for me. It’s other-worldly to them; it’s even hard to explain.

Getting a handle on broad cultural forces requires the insights of people gifted in a way I am not. I found it helpful, then, to read through New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat’s recent thoughts on the subject. I even found it helpful to read the lengthy quotation he offered from the social liberal that he was critiquing. Douthat and the liberal have both clearly given some careful thought—fed through their worldview lenses—to the cultural problems of the American working class.

Here’s the meat of what Douthat said:

Social liberals are entirely sincere in their belief that even self-censorship is unnecessary censorship (or, perhaps, that the internet has rendered cultural standards obsolete); in their conviction that laws banning abortion or restricting divorce are too punitive, illiberal and inherently sexist to be just; in their abiding sense that economic paternalism is morally acceptable but social-moral-sexual paternalism is not. But it is still the case that when we legalized abortion and instituted unilateral divorce, we helped usher in a sexual-marital-parental culture that seems to work roughly as well for people with lots of social capital as it did sixty years ago, while working pretty badly for the poor and lower middle class. It is still a reality of contemporary life that when anyone can get a divorce for any reason, the lower classes seem to get far more of the divorces, and that when anyone can get an abortion for any reason, the poor end up having more abortions and more children out of wedlock both.

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  1. Paul M.

    The glaring omission in Douthat’s piece is the rise of the welfare state. The chronology of the decline of lower-class marriage and social stability matches perfectly with increased state paternalism for the poor. That’s just correlation, of course, but the micro-economics of state incentives buttress the possible connection. Simply put, the state began rewarding those who had children out of wedlock while also providing a huge disincentive for marrying one’s way into a higher tax bracket. I lay the lion’s share of the blame for the decline of working class marriage, both black and white, at the feet of the state, so it baffles me when traditionalists like Douthat strain to pin the blame on complicated cultural arguments when the structural causes appear so glaring. (In my more cynical moments, I suspect it’s because Douthat is himself a paternalist and the urge to blame the situation on his ideological opponents is too great to resist.)

  2. mlward

    Sounds more than plausible to me, unqualified as I am to have an opinion. I’m not sure, however, that I see conflict rather than complementarity here.