Religious Causes and Economic Effects?
Over at Mirror of Justice, Rick Garnett rightly calls our attention to a recent New York Times article by Jason DeParle profiling two families, as the headline says, "divided by 'I do.'" As Garnett reads the piece, it is a morality tale about the tragedy that awaits those who make "less traditional lifestyle choices," and indeed, the article is framed as a piece on the economic benefits of the traditional nuclear family. However, if one reads past the headline, the picture becomes significantly more complex, and Garnett's takeaway: "It's not just that marriage might be 'confined' to the fortunate classes; it's also, it seems, that mobility into those classes (or not) is connected to the decisions that people make -- and that people's parents make -- about marriage and childrearing," becomes less tenable (to the extent that it is not meant to be trivial).
It strikes me that stories like this one that look at trends in domestic life, which seem to be increasingly noting the decline of the "traditional family," often serve as opportunities for those who have "done it right" to receive a healthy dose of self-congratulatory affirmation regarding the choices that they have made. For those who have been guided in those choices by certain religious values, numbers showing the unsurprising practical benefits of living in a two-income household tend to be excitedly, if illegitimately, extended to add metaphysical credence to their "worldview." Yet, in this piece, it is far from obvious that anything like a traditional theology of marriage is driving the upward mobility of our nuclear heros, as Garnett's "values-oriented" interpretation would seem to have it.In fact, the seven times that "church" is mentioned in the article, it is in the context of talking about the upbringing and current "lifestyle" of Ms. Schairer, the "non-traditional" parent in the story. Nowhere in the story do the "traditional" Faulkners talk about their own religious observance. The differences that are cited for their successful marriage are increased education and earning potential, andthough she acknowledges the role of her own decisions,the hardships of Schairer's situation stem from having not finished college due to a pregnancy in her freshman year. The story reports, "Abortion crossed her mind, but her boyfriend, an African-American student from Arkansas, said they should start a family." As you can probably guess, the "they" suggested by her boyfriend eventually became a "she," and now Schairer is raising three kinds on a single, high-school-educated salary.So, it is far from the case that marriage alone is the solution to the economic woes of the "less fortunate" classes, but it is marriage at the right time, which means before children, after college, and after getting a job. Speaking of the Faulkners, DeParle writes, "They did not inherit wealth or connections or rise on rare talent. They just did standard things in standard order: high school, college, job, marriage and children." It is important to note, however, that this order presupposes at least enough antecedent wealth and opportunity to complete college and secure a job as well as the wherewithal to delay childbirth until those prerequisites are met and reliably plan subsequent pregnancies in order to maintain the economic benefits of a two-income household.While I'm sure Garnett would have his own ideas on how to meet this latter requirement, I imagine it would be far more comforting and empowering for those concerned if we saved the sanctimonious speeches about "traditional marriage" and simply gave people access to the practical, material means by which they might build a life. To this end, as Diane Johnson has recently argued, "Perhaps the most seriously useful decision society could make might be that menpoliticians or priests and possibly doctorswould not have the power to decide on things particular to women, beyond their own roles of fertilization and cooperative child-rearing."
About the Author
Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.