The Mullahs of Marriage | The Nation


The Mullahs of Marriage

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

From Murphy Brown to Welfare Queens

About the Author

Bill Berkowitz
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer and longtime observer of the conservative movement who is a regular contributor to...

Also by the Author

Scum and foam were piled so high on the surface of streams and ponds in
the rural Illinois area neighboring the Inwood Dairy that it looked like

After his wife, Marilyn, read a Washington Post Mother's Day piece by Whitehead about the "unwed TV mother" Murphy Brown and passed it on to her husband's speechwriters, Quayle unloaded his guns at what Popenoe characterizes as "the TV show's casual attitude toward fatherless childrearing." According to Popenoe, Quayle's speech "was the first time that the nation as a whole would seriously discuss issues like the dramatic rise of unwed births and single parenthood. For the most part, Murphy Brown's behavior was firmly defended by the media--partly, of course, because her nemesis was the conservative Dan Quayle."

By April 1993 Whitehead had an influential cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly titled "Dan Quayle Was Right." While Quayle and Whitehead were bringing the fatherhood pot to a boil, the issue found "institutional advocates," as Popenoe wrote, with the 1992 founding of the Council on Families in America, under the aegis of the New York-based Institute for American Values. Major funders of the institute include the Lilly Endowment and the Achelis and Bodman, Bradley and Earhart foundations. "Here," writes Popenoe, "for the first time was a group of like-minded scholars and leading intellectuals who could speak with one voice and receive media attention." Major players included Judith Wallerstein, Don Browning--who later, with the help of the Lilly Endowment, was to develop the influential Religion, Culture, and the Family Project at the University of Chicago--and Leon Kass, another University of Chicago professor who now heads the President's Council on Bioethics. The Council on Families in America also included several liberals, among them Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the National Parenting Association; William Galston, a domestic affairs adviser to President Clinton; and "Miss Manners" Judith Martin.

Its 1995 report "Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation" found that divorce had "created terrible hardships for children, incurred unsupportable social costs, and failed to deliver on its promises of greater adult happiness. The time has come to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage and to rebuild a family culture based on enduring marital relationships.... We must reclaim the ideal of marital permanence and recognize that out-of-wedlock childbearing does harm."

Concerned foundations were building a "social movement" as the council's ideas quickly moved into the public debate. President Clinton's State of the Union address in 1996 was in large part devoted to family issues, and one of its primary architects was William Galston. By the end of the year, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act--otherwise known as welfare reform.

Since 1996 several states have incorporated marriage-boosting programs into their welfare programs. According to the Voice's Lerner, "Florida has instituted a mandatory marriage and relationship class for high school seniors. Utah[has] designated an annual 'marriage week,'...earmark[ing] $600,000 for pro-wedlock projects, including a video. And Oklahoma's program (which is being called 'the Governor and Mrs. Keating's marriage initiative') has used $10 million of welfare money to fund rallies and a year-long tour of public appearances by a husband-and-wife team of evangelical Christian 'marriage ambassadors.'"

Whether marriage-promotion programs can provide the support necessary to keep struggling families together is certainly debatable. And how the President's $300 million marriage initiative will play out during the welfare reauthorization debate is unclear. But there is no doubt that the right-wing mullahs of marriage are determined to convince the nation that welfare recipients can achieve and sustain self-sufficiency only if they get married and stay married.

Popenoe is particularly proud of the fact that there has been "dramatic evidence of a turnaround in journalistic attitudes," exemplified by an August 2001 article in the New York Times titled "2-Parent Families Rise after Change in Welfare Laws," which criticized single-parent families and suggested that marriage can dramatically reduce poverty.

According to Popenoe, "courageous" conservative foundations encouraged the creation of new marriage-focused organizations and contributed to research centers at existing right-wing think tanks. New policy initiatives developed into legislation; the media changed its tune. The "marriage movement" had completed its circle of influence. President Bush's current marriage initiative is not an aberration; it is the natural extension of this work.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size