Our Changing Values Should Worry Us. But We Can Still Change Course.
The late historian and political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa
noted the significance that the preamble to our Constitution concludes with the
words “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our
This is how the drafters of our Constitution saw its
Jaffa continues, saying, “a blessing is what is good in
the eyes of God. It is a good whose possession … belongs properly only to
those who deserve it.”
In light of this, let’s consider a just-released Wall Street
Journal/NBC News poll that appeared under the headline “Americans Have
Shifted Dramatically on What Values Matter Most.”
“Patriotism, religion and having children rate lower among
younger generations than they did two decades ago,” the headline
Of all surveyed, 61% “cited patriotism as very
important to them, down 9 percentage points from 1998, while 50% citied
religion, down 12 points. Some 43% placed a high value on having children, down
16 points from 1998.”
Among those ages 18-38, 42% cited patriotism as “very
important”; less than one-third cited having children; and 30% cited
“religion, belief in God.”
The founders of the country saw the nation’s existence, its
faith, and its posterity as a package deal. It all went together.
Now we have a young generation, our future, that dismisses
the importance of all the elements of that package. What might this tell us
about where we’re headed?
The operative questions are: Does the country have a future,
a posterity, without children? And will there be children if there is no
marriage and family? And will there be marriage and family if there is no
religion and God?
Recent statistics provide pretty gloomy answers to these
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the
lowest birth rate in 32 years last year. It was the fourth consecutive year
with a decline in the U.S. birth rate.
And the fertility rate, the number of births per 1,000 adult women, has been dropping every year and is well below the replacement rate—the fertility rate needed to keep the population from shrinking.
Regarding marriage, over the last half-century, the percentage of U.S. adults who are married has dropped 31%.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 1960, 72% of adults
in the U.S. were married. By 2016, this was down to 50%.
The decline in the percentage of Americans saying religion
is “very important” in their life is identical to the decline in the
percentage of married Americans.
In 1960, 70% said religion was “very important,”
and by 2018, this was down to 50%, a 20% decline.
Although Americans continue to feel free—87%, according to Gallup, are satisfied that they can freely live as they choose—a minority now sees this liberty as a blessing, in the sense that Jaffa explains the word in our Constitution. That is, “what is good in the eyes of God.”
As the sense of the importance of faith and religion diminishes, the values and behaviors that go with them—marriage and children—also diminish.
There are important practical implications on our posterity.
Fewer children means an aging population. More retirees per
everyone working means more pressure on the payroll tax, each dollar of which
must be distributed to more and more retirees.
The population over the age of 55 accounts for more than
half our health care expenditures. As the percentage of the population over 55
increases, our health care expenditure burden will increase proportionately.
And, with the collapse of family, more elderly Americans
will be living alone.
If you think this picture is gloomy, the good news is
nothing is inevitable. We’re still free, and we can change course.
Different discourse in the public square, policies
consistent with seeing liberty as a “blessing,” can be advanced. But
the starting point must be seeing something wrong with the status quo.
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