I have long chronicled the decline of moral values in America, but I must admit that even I was shocked to read recently that the Centers for Disease Control has estimated that nearly 40 percent of American births in 2007 occurred out of wedlock. Perhaps it’s unsurprising when teenagers or members of lower socioeconomic classes fall prey to this phenomenon; but the reality of our high rate of out-of-wedlock births suggests that the problem has spread much wider than previously imagined. It signals the wholesale disintegration of our American family.
Some would question why it matters. What does society care whether children are born to wedded mothers at all? If the parents are together but not married — or single but wealthy enough to support the child — then isn’t it harmless?
Not at all. There is more to raising children than just food, clothing, and shelter. Parents provide nonmaterial goods that cannot be quantified in dollars and cents, but are just as essential in helping the child become a productive member of society: providing a strong moral foundation and teaching faith, perseverance, and discipline, for example. It’s not that one parent is incapable of doing this alone; but in most American households, where someone has to work to bring in an income, the moral education of children requires teamwork if it is to be done correctly.
Of course, two people do not have to be married to be committed to raising their child. But the reality is that the bond of commitment between the parents is strengthened when sanctioned before their wider family and bolstered by the social and economic benefits conferred by marital status. Married couples can more easily combine income to purchase homes, and they enjoy distinct advantages under the tax system for raising their families. Children of married couples are more likely to graduate from college and enjoy a higher degree of success than those raised by single parents.
Moreover, marriage leads to the creation and preservation of intergenerational wealth. Parental legitimacy has historically conferred social and economic benefits on children that even moral perfection could scarcely equal. Shakespeare knew this: In King Lear, Edgar, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, questioned society’s judgment of him, maligning the system of marriage and legitimate birth as a cruel joke. “Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom and allow the curiosity of nations to deprive me [of my inheritance]?” he raged. But the reality is that legitimacy confers a name, and a name becomes a legacy. Legacies, in turn, create nations and empires.
Just ask the children of professional athletes and entertainers born within wedlock and those born outside it. While the law may compel the absent father to pay child support, it cannot force him to become a father. Children born within marriage end up far better off than those born out of fleeting romances.
Social disintegration is one of the symptoms of modernity. For some, the trappings of modern life — the degrees, the jobs, mortgages, and marital responsibilities — have failed to confer a real sense of foundation, and they feel adrift in a culture that values only social status. In that light, rejecting social institutions like marriage becomes a badge of “authenticity” — a way to remain free to choose any option that they might find appealing.
But it is at precisely this point that society begins to fall apart and the true costs of naked individualism — the “if it feels good, do it” mentality — become clear. People like Nadya Suleman, the infamous “Octomom,” exemplify the effects of this mentality taken to the extreme: She may have made the personal choice to have her 14 children out of wedlock, but it is society that will end up paying the price to supply them with medical care and housing.
The pursuit of radical individuality is based on a vain aspiration to live independently of transcendent moral laws. That people feel this way is not entirely their fault; we live in a society that has failed us in so many ways. But this should not make us dismissive of our own moral responsibilities. True freedom for the individual can only be achieved by living in harmony with a higher order that governs the universe and everything in it — and that order requires children be afforded the opportunity to grow up in a married household.