Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: For better or worse, marriage remains a good thing

March 14, 2002

"Let's get married today."

Al Green sang that in 1973. These days, it's George W. Bush on lead vocals.

Last week, the president unveiled proposed changes in Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform act. And although Bush's plan to tighten work rules on welfare recipients has drawn fire, it's what he wants to do about the institution of marriage that really has some folks up in arms.

You see, he wants to … encourage it. That is, the president proposes to earmark $200 million in federal money to fund state programs that promote and maintain healthy marriages. Meaning, for instance, classes for those who plan to take the leap and counseling for those who already have.

A number of social workers, women's leaders, op-ed writers and welfare recipients have responded to this with alarm. Some accuse the White House of trying to force people into marriage. Others say the government has no business meddling in people's private lives. And one observer predicts Bush's plan could be a "nightmare" for women and children.


Two words in response: Oh, please.

Maybe I'm just dense — wouldn't be the first time — but I don't understand what all the fuss is about. OK, there's something surreal about the idea of a conservative Republican president pushing what amounts to social engineering. Don't conservatives consider social engineering an evil tantamount to witchcraft and practiced only by godless liberals?

Still, once you get past that little intellectual inconsistency, there's little not to like about what the president proposes to do. Despite the overheated rhetoric of some critics, the plan doesn't amount to a Bush push for shotgun weddings. Nor have I seen any evidence the president would seek to force a woman — or man — to remain in a violent or abusive relationship. No, Bush's proposal says, in essence, only one thing: Marriage is good.

You have to wonder what has become of us when that statement is deemed controversial.

But then, married-with-children families account for less than a quarter of all American households these days, down from 40 percent in the early 1970s, also known as the heyday of the sexual revolution. I was only a kid then, but I recall the earnest debates among people older than I who wondered why they should place so much importance upon a simple piece of paper. Love was love, they said, and it did not require the approval of the government or the church.

It seemed, at the time, a perfectly sensible argument. A generation later, it is difficult to remember why.

Because a generation later, husbands and wives have been supplanted by "my baby's daddy" and "my kid's mother." A generation later, the American family is earthquake stable and stock market steady. A generation later children, who thrive on stability, predictability and routine, find themselves largely bereft of all those things because of the hedonism, selfishness and immaturity of some fathers and mothers. A generation later, commitment is a four-letter word.

Small wonder that, a generation later, some of us barely recognize American children. And what we do know of them breaks our hearts. Many — not all, maybe not most, but way too many — seem selfish, materialistic, isolated from the larger good, enamored of ephemeral things. Their — to use a word beloved by conservative Republicans — values seem unlike not just ours, but any we have ever known.

Marriage, I will grant, is not a panacea for those ills. I'll also grant that cohabitation may make sense in certain situations, primarily childless ones. And while I'm granting, allow me to grant one last thing: It is, and must always be, beyond the province of government to impose marriage on anyone.

But for all that, yes … marriage IS a good thing.

It's a truth cast aside by soldiers of the sexual revolution. The same people who brought women out of the kitchen and gay people out of the closet, who liberated bodies and minds and swept ignorance away, also sold us an unwitting untruth. That is, they taught us that we could do away with responsibility and commitment and that our nation, our families, our children, would pay no price as a result. This is what we sincerely believed.

And we were wrong.

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