A review of The Broken Hearth. By William Bennett.

Doubleday, 2001.

This new book by the former Education Secretary under President Reagan is an examination of how the family is unraveling in Western society. Although the book deals specifically with the American situation, its relevance for countries like Australia is obvious. Indeed, “what is happening in the United States is not unique. The engine driving the crack-up of the American family is cross-cultural and entangled in modernity itself.”

Bennett looks at all the worrying signs: the erosion of marriage, the increase in divorce, the promotion of alternative lifestyles, the degrading of values, the increase in cohabitation, and the triumph of feminism, individualism and hedonism.

These trends, taken together, have had an enormous impact on Western culture. Indeed, the changes are as profound as they are significant. When American Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was recently asked to identify the biggest change he had witnessed in his 40 year political career, he replied as follows: “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world. . . . Something that was not imaginable forty years ago has happened.”

Bennett shares this sense of alarm and dismay. We are indeed witnessing a grand social experiment never before experienced: “We are now embarked upon an experiment that violates a universal social law. In attempting to raise children without two parents, we are seeing, on a massive scale, the voluntary breakup of the minimal family unit. This is historically unprecedented, an authentic cultural revolution – and, I believe, socially calamitous.”

Consider but one of the monumental changes taking place today: the push for homosexual marriage. “What is being demanded,” says Bennett, “Is the most revolutionary change ever made to our most important institution.” To radically alter the nature of marriage is to at the same time pry marriage from its cultural, social, religious and biological underpinnings. Once done, it then can be redefined by anyone at will.

Indeed, who is to stop two brothers from seeking marriage? Or three men? Or father and daughter? After all, the same logic applies to these cases as to homosexual marriage.

And homosexual marriage is of course simply part of a larger agenda. “The stated goal of homosexual activists is not merely tolerance; it is to force society to accept. It is normalization, validation, public legitimation, and finally public endorsement. That is a radically different matter.”

Homosexual activists will reply that there is plenty of adultery and promiscuity in the heterosexual world. But Bennett reminds us “this is not an either/or proposition. Although we should assuredly make divorce (and adultery) more of an issue in our national political debate, that does not exempt the homosexual rights movement from criticism or resistance. The family is already reeling from the effects of the sexual revolution…”

The homosexual threat is but one of many assaults on marriage and family. It is certainly not the only concern. Indeed, no one factor is singled out by Bennett in the war on the family.

Bennett is clever enough to realise that there is no single cause to the collapse of the traditional family. There are economic, legal and cultural reasons one can adduce. For example, radical feminism has taken its toll. So too have liberalised divorce laws. The massive increase of working mothers is another factor. The rise and triumph of the sexual revolution is yet another important factor.

And he is not asking us to turn back the clock – at least not all of it. Some social changes of the past half century have been helpful. But if the over-all direction we are taking is unproductive, and in fact harmful, then it is time to reassess our direction.

As C.S. Lewis has reminded us, progress can only be achieved by getting to where you want to go to. If you have taken a wrong turn along the way, the first step is to go back to that point. And if over thirty years of social science research is correct in telling us that marriage and family breakdown are serious and damaging social problems, then the sooner we start our u-turn, the better.

While we all must play a part in the rescue of marriage and family, it is important that societies and governments also play their role: “Although there is simply no substitute for the daily love and devotion of individual husbands and wives and parents, there is also a vital need to affirm publicly, and to defend publicly, the institution that is the keystone in the arch of civilization – a keystone in desperate need of repair.”

And he reminds us that social trends are not irreversible. “Other social problems once thought to be intractable have, after all, yielded to resolute action.” The negative trends we see all around us can be turned around, if we have the commitment and care to see things change.

Part of the way we turn things around is to tell people the truth – the truth that marriage and family are good for children, for parents and society. And this book helps to make that case.

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