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The Mullahs of Marriage | The Nation

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The Mullahs of Marriage

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Although former Vice President Quayle's legacy may not be one for the history books, he will certainly be remembered for the day he took on television's Murphy Brown. Some conservatives claim that it was a turning point in the war to save the family.

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

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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
snow.

On May 9, the tenth anniversary of Quayle's speech condemning Murphy Brown, he celebrated with an appearance at the National Press Club, where he delivered an address titled "Ten Years after Murphy Brown: A Mother's Day Progress Report on the American Family."

Ten years ago, the reaction to Quayle's speech fell along predictable lines-liberals denounced it as another in a series of gratuitous election-year attacks on Hollywood. Conservatives were thrilled that Quayle had brought the issue of single-parent families to public attention.

Quayle's speech was one of the first volleys in the "marriage wars." Over the past ten years, a "marriage movement" has evolved; no longer the subject of widespread liberal disdain, marriage advocates dominated the 1996 welfare reform debate and are now key players in the debate over welfare reauthorization.

President Bush's $300 million initiative to promote heterosexual marriage is at the heart of his welfare reauthorization proposal, and it owes its existence, in large measure, to the marriage warriors at right-wing think tanks and foundations.

Remaking the Cultural Consensus

In an early May Village Voice article, Sharon Lerner writes: "With $300 million of funds from the soon-to-be reauthorized Welfare Reform Act allotted for marriage promotion, poor people can expect an unprecedented array of programs nudging them toward the altar, including billboards advertising the joys of matrimony; 'marriage education' for unwed, expecting parents; and 'marriage mentoring' programs in which married couples serve as role models for singles."

How has the right's "marriage movement" become so prominent in the welfare reauthorization debate? Right-wing foundations conceptualized, supported, sustained and helped direct the debate over marriage during the past ten years, publicizing their views through Op-Ed pieces, articles, books, radio and television interviews, speaking engagements and reports rolling off the presses of conservative think tanks. David Popenoe, a seasoned veteran of the movement, discusses the pivotal role of conservative foundations in an article titled "New Day Dawning? In the Struggle Over the Family, Foundations Made the Difference," in the March/April 2002 issue of Philanthropy magazine--the bimonthly publication of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a consortium of conservative foundations.

Popenoe is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and co-director, along with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, of the National Marriage Project. Popenoe explains how most foundations traditionally focused on funding "direct service programs" rather than research and public education, especially when it comes to children's issues. However, beginning in the late 1980s several conservative foundations "blazed a new trail and supported research and public education in the child-related area of marriage and the family."

This reorientation, led by such conservative foundations as Achelis and Bodman, Bradley, Donner, JM, Randolph and Allegheny, led policy-makers toward new ways of thinking about welfare, family and marriage issues.

The foundations set out to build a new political consensus about poverty. Popenoe says that the old consensus was framed by "the mainstream media and most of the academic community [which] fell back on the old standbys: persistent and institutional racism, income inequality, and lack of government support." In the mid-1980s--the height of the Reagan years--instead of looking to the old formulas for understanding poverty, conservatives began examining "the serious weakening of America's family structure" that had been taking place during those years.

Popenoe: "The divorce rate had more than doubled between 1960 and 1985, and the out-of-wedlock birthrate had quadrupled. Broken homes had grown like wildfire; doleful news articles about 'latchkey kids' popped up on TV and in the papers. These trends were most pronounced among blacks, but family structure rather than race accounted for the difference."

By the late 1980s, "a small but impassioned band of academics and intellectuals concerned about the decline of the family and its devastating consequences on children made personal visits and appeals to a few innovative foundations. There, we found creative thinkers with receptive ears. The battle over changing the cultural debate--what came to be called 'the war over the family'--was joined."

From Murphy Brown to Welfare Queens

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.

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