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September 2, 2000
Column #992

MAKING MARRIAGE A POLITICAL ISSUE

     Can marriage be made a political issue? A new group, the Alliance for Marriage, hopes so. 

     It commissioned a ''Wirthlin National Marriage Poll'' which found a large majority of Americans agree that the health of marriage and families should be the top priority for political leaders in the United Sates. Consider the data:

  • 64 percent of Americans say that strengthening families is a greater national priority than increasing job opportunities;
  • 77 percent regard strengthening families as more important than a cleaner environment;
  • 92 percent believe America can only move forward as a nation with stronger families.

     Interestingly, there was little difference in the opinion of people of different political parties. For example, 67 percent of both Republicans and independents said family issues were more important than increasing job opportunities and 61 percent of Democrats agreed.

     If all of this seems obvious to you, why isn't it obvious to our presidential candidates? What has George Bush or Al Gore or any gubernatorial candidate proposed to do to strengthen the family? 

     So far, virtually nothing, except that both Bush and Gore say they want to reduce the marriage tax penalty that allows many cohabiting couples to have a lower tax rate than married couples. However, the Clinton-Gore Administration vetoed a marriage tax reform bill.

     Matt Daniels, the Alliance director, asked politicians of both parties to heed the admonition of Sen. Pat Moynihan, described by the Almanac of American Politics as ''the nation's best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician since Jefferson.'' Moynihan said, ''The principal objective of American government at every level should be to see that children are born into intact families and that they remain so.'' 

     Interestingly, Moynihan was excoriated by blacks 35 years ago for his report on ''The Negro Family'' which reported that 25% of black babies were then being born out of wedlock, and predicted a continued family disintegration. At this week's press conference, Rev. Walter Fauntroy, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ruefully noted that nearly 70 percent of black babies have unmarried fathers. He added that white illegitimacy has soared from only 2 percent to 25 percent now.

     Fauntroy is a Democrat who admires former Vice President Hubert Humphrey's vision: ''The moral test of government is how we treat those at the dawn of life, the twilight of life and those in the shadow of life the sick, poor and the disabled.'' He urged voters to distinguish between those ''talk the talk but don't walk the walk, of strengthening the family.''

     The Alliance is a non-partisan, racially and religiously diverse coalition which is as concerned about the divorce and cohabitation rates as the six-fold jump in out-of-wedlock births.

     Skeptical reporters asked what political leaders could do to reverse these trends.

     Daniels said he is challenging both parties but said his reform agenda is ''bigger than parties and more important than the election cycle. President Kennedy set a goal to put a man on the moon in a decade. Let's set a goal of reducing fatherlessness by a third in this decade. It is a goal that state and federal government leaders could call on the clergy to work together on.''

     He also noted that some governors, such as Mike Huckabee in Arkansas and Oklahoma's Frank Keating were encouraging the creation of Community Marriage Policies in which ''clergy come together to mandate minimal premarital preparation so couples can not go church shopping for a quick marriage. This is a common sense reform which has been successful in many cities.''

     The Wirthlin poll found that 87 percent of Americans urge ''businesses to voluntarily do more to help strengthen their employees marriages by offering flex-time/job sharing/home-based work options.'' Three-quarters also support two reforms. First, require counseling by married couples with children who are considering a divorce before the divorce is granted; second, redcus taxes for married couples with children. And 63 percent back bigger tax incentives for adoption.

     One reporter asked about marriages of same-sex couples. Daniels replied, ''This press conference is not about that at all. Every state, even Vermont, recognizes marriage as a union of a man and a woman.''

     Finally, Daniels, who acknowledged his own father abandoned him at age 2, concluded,''We believe there is a need to fund public education campaigns to emphasize the importance of marriage. In every society, marriage is what makes fatherhood more than a biological event, by connecting men to the children they bring into the world. In every culture, there is no substitute for it. We will either have a marriage-based culture or a culture of divorce and out of wedlock births.''

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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