Post-Sept. 11 attitudes may offer right climate for rebuilding family

Posted: Monday, December 10, 2001

You wouldn't expect a man who's just written a book called "The Broken Hearth" to be an optimist.

But that's exactly what William Bennett is.

Yes, that William Bennett -- the former secretary of education and drug "czar" who's been on the front lines of almost every social brawl of the last 15 years. Check the subtitle of his latest work: "Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family."

That may seem like a Herculean task, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But a new kind of attitude -- serious-minded, more reflective, less self-absorbed -- seems to have sprung up among the American people since those attacks. This new wave of public purposefulness makes me believe Bennett's book will find a receptive audience.

He confronts his readers with sobering facts about the American family, circa 2001. Since 1960, the divorce rate has doubled, from one of every four marriages to one out of every two. Far more children are born out of wedlock; indeed, more than three-quarters of all births to teen-agers occur outside of marriage. Single-parent households are also more common, with more than one-third of American children living apart from their biological fathers.

The number of couples that simply live together without getting married has risen dramatically as well, from less than 500,000 in 1960 to more than 5 million. And contrary to popular myth, these "trial marriages" don't produce healthier, more stable unions later on, when the couple finally gets married. As Bennett notes, such couples divorce at almost double the rate of couples who marry without shacking up first.

Consider, too, the trends we've seen in the 2000 Census, which has been released in segments throughout this year. Households headed by single mothers grew at a much faster rate than those headed by married couples, to take but one example.

As The Washington Post summed it up: "These statistics showed no reversal of a decades-long national trend away from the historically dominant household, married couples with children."

It surely doesn't help that many (not all) producers of popular entertainment seem to consider it their job to push the edges of the cultural envelope even further. You don't have to head off to the nearest multiplex for examples -- prime-time television's full of them. Like this relatively mild exchange between two teen-agers on "Dawson's Creek":

Dawson: "What are you suggesting?"

Eve: "Only the obvious. A night of scorching-hot, unbridled, mind-altering sex."

Dawson: "Just like that? No first date, no months of getting to know each other?"

Eve: "Those are small-town rituals for small-town girls. Face it, Dawson, we're hot for each other."

Hey, it's just a TV show, some will say. True. But once you take into account all the other TV shows that are taking the same line -- and notice, too, all the like-minded movies, books and magazine articles -- you begin to see that we're doing precious little to repair our "broken hearth." In fact, we seem to be trying to smash it still further.

America can do better. As Bennett noted in some recent TV interviews, the current generation is capable of great things -- as shown in its response to the Sept. 11 attacks, from volunteer work to military service.

Many young people are now talking about self-sacrifice and putting others first. Let's hope this is the beginning of America's next "Greatest Generation."

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washing-ton-based public policy research institute.



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