The New York Times has noted that normal has changed. According to a report from Child Trends, more than half of children born to women under age 30 are born outside of marriage. The article begins: “It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal.”
Not just “normal”, but new norms
What has changed is not simply the prevalence of children born apart from marriage, but the norms on which the institution of marriage was grounded. The reason that illegitimacy is no longer used is that it belongs to a time when marriage was not only normal, it was normative for procreation.
If you read the Times article as an anthropologist, you will be struck by the way that norms have changed over the period of time that has experienced such an explosion of children born apart from marriage. Yes, of course, marriage as a social norm has decayed. But to focus on that is to miss the forest for the trees. What is taken as normative by the journalists – and many if not most of their readers – is that individual and social behavior ought to be explained by efficient causes: changes in the social milieu (e.g. “Liberal analysts argue that shrinking paychecks have thinned the ranks of marriageable men”) and public policy (e.g. “conservatives often say that the sexual revolution reduced the incentive to wed and that safety net programs discourage marriage”). It is now both normal and normative in public discourse to address – and attempt to resolve – social issues exclusively in terms of efficient causes.
The Compounding Effect
My generation is a unique one because we can remember a time when public discourse was not merely in terms of cause and effect, but of right and wrong. Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail argued powerfully for obedience to just laws and loving disobedience to unjust ones not because such actions were likely to produce desirable outcomes (Dr. King was writing from jail), but because the justice or injustice of a law was measured by its harmony with the moral law, or the law of God. Our children’s generation is in a profoundly different position because their experience of the use of language NOW establishes what they experience as normal and normative. If they listen to us, they stand in danger of seeing marriage merely as a social convention among some subcultures that is merely the product of social, political, and historical (efficient) causes and without any sort of relationship to a moral law or law of God.
Manipulation or Moral Courage
Being born out of marriage is the new normal (at least for children born to women under 30). That’s true whether we like it or not. The question now is how we will respond. Will we try to manipulate the levers of society (public policy, social factors, etc.)? Will we argue about what carrots and what sticks to use to manipulate others into behaviors we desire? Will we blame one another and accidents of history for the state of society?
Or will we have the moral courage to transgress the new norms of language? Rather than blaming others, or impersonal causes, or “social conditions,” will we have courage to take responsibility and confess our own culpability? Will we have the love and patience to come alongside shattered children, mothers and fathers? On what grounds will we call them to something better? Will we recognize that we and they are responsible moral agents who act within the web of real and powerful social settings which do not sufficiently explain our actions? Will we act against social, political, and historical forces for something that is more good, true and beautiful?
Our children are watching and listening.