Once again we are being given some reason for hope when we look across the Atlantic. Or are we? We might be wrong on two counts. It is sometimes thought that what happens there will begin to take effect here in a matter of eight or ten years after. On that basis, if we see a shift in the US in the understanding of marriage, family, sexual behaviour, and a lot of other things besides, can we expect that it might follow here? We are probably right on that one. We might be more doubtful as to whether those changes are a basis for hope or fear.
Ross Doubthat, New York Times columnist, commented recently (NYT December 6) on the findings of a survey by the US National Marriage Project. The NMP is trying to measure what it sees as “the decline of the two-parent family” among what it calls the ‘moderately educated middle’ — the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree.
“This decline is depressing, but it isn’t surprising”, Doubthat argues. “We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.
“But the Marriage Project’s data suggest that this paradox is fading. It’s no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal.
“That division held a generation ago, but now it’s diminishing. In the 1970s, for instance, college-educated Americans overwhelmingly supported liberal divorce laws, while the rest of the country was ambivalent. Likewise, college graduates were much less likely than high school graduates to say that premarital sex was “always wrong.” Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive.
“There has been a similar change in religious practice. In the 1970s, college- educated Americans were slightly less likely to attend church than high school graduates. Today, piety increasingly correlates with education: college graduates are America’s most faithful churchgoers, while religious observance has dropped precipitously among the less-educated.”
So how does that add up to any kind of hope for parts of the world that may have a habit of following the mores of the US after a time? In an Irish context perhaps it means that the liberal elite which we have been accustomed to call “the Dublin Four set” may be about to change. But it also may be an indication that the Faith and Reason dynamic may well be working as we are always told it can and should work. When people begin to think seriously about their human situation, their values, their society – and education is about helping us to do that – then the reasonableness of their Faith becomes apparent to them and good sense in the end prevails.
We may attribute the loss of Faith and Reason among the less educated as partly the effect of the constant barrage of socially liberal propaganda contained in all sections of the mass media – press, radio, television, pop music, cinema. The first generation which passes into the better educated echelons will probably carry this effect with them. But the second generation, contemplating and thinking seriously about the disasters around them created by their parents’ ill-thought out liberalism, may be engaging in a process of full-scale re-evaluation. The Irish ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, someone who would typify the “Dublin Four set”, surprised everyone a few years ago when she talked about this set beginning to re-evaluate their lives and “tip-toing quietly back to Church”. This may be a big part of the effect that Doubthat is reflecting on in the US. Let us dare to hope.
Keith Richards’ other church
Philip Harvey, writing this week in the online magazine, Eureka Street, told us that Keith Richards – a Rolling Stone, in case you have landed from Mars – has written about the importance and value of libraries. ‘When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully — the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser. As a child, you get to feel all these books are yours.’ This was in a book published back in 1995.
Harvey then talks about the Richards’ words at the promotion of his new autobiography, Life (Little, Brown, 2010). “The launch was not in some sleazy nightclub or glamorous rock dive, but at the New York Public Library.
“Richards spoke eloquently, revealing that he had originally aspired to be a librarian. He said that the library is the only place around where he willingly obeys the rules. This infers that he is an old-fashioned visitor, used to libraries that have not been turned into chat cafes.
“He declared that when he walks into a library he is always made truly aware of civilisation, of something that we are part of and that is at the same time greater than we are. This from a man who once led a side project band called The New Barbarians.
“At primary school in the 1960s I was inevitably caught up in the major dispute of the times and have never changed my position that the Beatles are greater than the Rolling Stones. I am not the only one who thinks their last great record was Some Girls (1978), with its magnificent soul masterpiece ‘Miss You’.
“Their subsequent career reminds me of those old bluesmen who keep playing the music they love best until the end of time, even if there’s nothing very new going on. But this is unimportant, compared with the dignity, honesty and humility in fact in which Richards relates his indulgent but harrowing life.
“ We still expect Richards to chain smoke, knock back Jack Daniels like it’s water, and never sleep. But Life reveals he hasn’t had heroin for 30 years. The mainstays of his existence seem to be the love of his family, the creation of his music, and libraries.
“Books were his refuge before he discovered blues music. Growing up in austerity England, Richards had no library at home, so values the retreat he has built for himself late in life. ‘It’s my sanctuary,’ he writes. ‘Reading keeps me in one spot. After a life on the road, reading anchors me.’”