The Erosion of the Family Takes Center Stage

This partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, March 29, 2002 was provided by the Federal Document Clearing House. Click here to order the complete transcript.


The Marriage Problem


SNOW: You're writing about an issue that has really been front and center in many ways of American policy for years and years and years, constant complaints about the erosion of the family. It has been trendy to argue that the family merely began to collapse in the last 20 or 30 years, but you say that's not true. Explain.

WILSON: I think that the fundamental reason the family collapsed was the spread of unfettered human reason, which equipped human beings with the fantastic ability to chart their own course. It expanded human liberty.  It created political democracy. It strengthened market capitals and there was indeed the foundation of the United States of America.

But when you vest so much in human reason, you're vesting something – your hopes in something that will lead you to believe you can choose the ideal social arrangement. So, in time, in the latter part of the 19th, early part of the 20th century, people began to say, well, marriage is just one of several options. What I could do is choose among these options. I can get married or not. I can have children in marriage or out of marriage, neglecting to note that marriage was a social invention that had existed for millennia, designed to keep people together so they could raise children. And now, people don't raise children as well as they used to.

SNOW: Now, you argue one of the things you note is that marriage, common parlance has gone from being a sacrament to a contract to an arrangement. Talk about the transformation.

WILSON: Well, at times, it was a sacrament. Under the Roman Catholic church, it was certainly a sacrament. When the Protestant Reformation came along, they decided it should not be a sacrament, but should be very important because the Protestant leaders wished to have ministers able to marry and they wished divorces to be possible.

But after that terribly important arrangement was put in place by the Protestant reformers, it began to be further weakened by the rise of easy divorce laws. By the 1960s, virtually every country in the world, in the West at least, had a no-fault divorce law. You could now get out of a marriage easier than you can get out of a mortgage. And as a consequence, the social reinforcement that marriage once had had been weakened.

And if you ask high school students today, do you think you should live together with your sweetheart before you get married, almost 2/3 say yes. This was unthinkable 30 years ago. Of course, if you ask them, do you want your own daughter to do this, then they all say no.

SNOW: True of many children of the '60s as well. Now, one of the things that's happening, as social science research has indicated in recent years, that children that grow up in splintered families, especially fatherless households, certainly don't turn out as well. The question now is how do you change the course of common culture so that people once again think marriage is important and figure out some way to encourage people to stay faithful within their marriages?

WILSON: I think there are two strategies for doing this, and we don't have a good way of choosing between them. One strategy is to say, well, people who are not married are poor, they need money, they need counseling, they need advice, they need special education programs.

The difficulty with that is two-fold. First, in the past, we were poor. In the past, we had less education. In the past, we had very few social services. And yet, marriages were intact. The other problem is that nobody has tested a way to deliver these services. Maybe somebody will, and if somebody will, I will be much in favor of it.

The other strategy is to say that our culture has to change. And that means not a government policy. It means reinforcing our cultural beliefs from the bottom up, by persuading parents to give important messages to their children, namely being married as a precondition of having a child is absolutely essential if you care about the well-being of your own children.

SNOW: Now, we have talked about the religious roots of marriage, and it seems very difficult to imagine a scenario in which you re-instill the seriousness about marriage without a strong moral and religious component.

WILSON: Well, I think people can have a serious commitment to marriage without a strong religious component. There's no doubt that people who are religious are more likely to marry before they have children and less likely to get divorced. But many people who are not religious will stand up in a public ceremony, before a minister, with religious overtones, pledging that they will stay together for the rest of their lives.

The fact that they're not religious is less important than the fact that they wish to make this kind of public commitment before family and friends that they will stay together forever. And that public commitment is the essence of the matter.

SNOW: What do you make of experiments in several states to require people to go to marriage classes before going ahead and completing their marriage vows?

WILSON: Well, that was pioneered in Louisiana where they invented the idea of the covenant marriage, a separate marital track that will be harder to get into. You'll have to go through counseling before you can marry this way and harder to get out of. That is to say the divorce requirements will be tougher to meet. Nobody knows yet whether this is going to make a difference. There is an effort under way to evaluate what's going on in Louisiana, but the results aren't in yet.

SNOW: Do you think people have either the insight or the courage to step forward and change a culture that seems to be moving tidily in the opposite direction?

WILSON: I don't know. I think it requires political leaders, such as President Bush, to constantly emphasize the importance of marriage, which he has been doing. I think it requires churches and neighborhood associations to emphasize it.

I wish it would be possible to persuade television to emphasize it instead of what you see on MTV and VH-1, which is a bunch of teenagers taking off their clothes during spring break in Cancun. But that's probably too much to hope for.

I think the central message is for parents. Parents should tell their children there are three things you must do to avoid poverty: finish high school, get married and don't have a child until you're 20. If you do those three things, seven percent of you will be poor. If you don't do these three things, 79 percent of you will be poor.

SNOW: Parents and children, listen to James Q. Wilson. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILSON: Thank you, Tony.

SNOW: Again, the name of the book is The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families and James Q. Wilson is the author.

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