A Massive Effort at Moral Rebuilding Is Necessary

When the Reverend Samuel Dike and his colleagues inaugurated the National Divorce Reform League in 1881, it was because they saw that the rate of divorce in America had grown dangerously high—dangerous, that is, to the common good, especially of the poor. That rate was 10 percent. 

The problems this group had to tackle were social, educational, and political—and by political I imply also the problem of federalism. They knew that certain states had rendered divorces easier to obtain. Nevada was by no means the only state with a questionable policy. Connecticut, a state that had an establishment of religion as late as 1818, had recently passed into law a notoriously liberal provision for divorce, including divorce for any and all reasons not specified. Since Americans might marry in one state and divorce in another, the national condition would be set by the most liberal—that is, the most indifferent or irresponsible states—and thus would one state’s wise protection of family life be undone by a state nearby. 

Nor could the reformers merely petition Congress for a national marriage law. Such matters were not in Congress’ purview. It would require an amendment to the Constitution, or the simultaneous passage of state laws across the country, modeled after what the Bar Association was recommending for New York. For the national government had not yet assumed vast and ill-defined and unconstitutional powers to intrude into matters regarding family life, a people’s folkways, the running of local businesses, what was to be taught in the school down the road, or how your doctor might practice medicine and how you might pay him for it.

The job of the Divorce Reform League, then, was to persuade various local and state authorities, and to engage the people in general, especially civic-minded lawyers, teachers, and clergymen. “The idea of the direct use of the home itself,” says Dike in an 1890 report delivered in New Haven to an audience of Congregational ministers, “as the true starting place and a powerful agent in relief of the poor, in the removal of vice, in the prevention of vice and crime, in conversion from sin, and in the advance of virtue, knowledge, and religion, is beginning to take root in the popular mind. It finds some expression in the homes for the poor, for young men”—think of what the YMCA used to be; its promoter in America, Samuel Chauncy Langdon, collaborated with Reverend Dike—“and working girls, in building associations, in the increasing attention of prison and other charitable reforms to bad home life as the source for supply for prisons and saloons. Political economy has got on so far as to take the home seriously.”

I think it fair to say that political economy in our time does not take the home seriously, because it does not take virtue and vice seriously, as the political economists themselves are mainly content with the withering of religious life—they having been brought up in, and having accepted, the dissolution of sexual morals that is rendering America a nation of broken homes, amputated families, fatherless children, and dispirited lovelessness between young men and women, some of whom are condemned to loneliness because they do not sin, and others condemned to that and worse because they do. 

But the old authors were far more doggedly realistic than our current politicians and educators are, and by realistic I mean that they really saw what divorce is; that the questions of marriage and divorce and family life belong together; that, as Dike says, “questions regarding chastity touch [marriage’s] physical basis”; and that you can no more talk about one of these things separate from the others, than you can talk about “the use of a finger in its complete isolation from the hand.”

And that, by the way, is precisely what we have pretended to do. 

In all our rush to define the essence of marriage out of our consciousness by extending the category to couples who by definition cannot perform the marital act, we have heard hardly a whisper about all the moral and social questions that bear upon marriage—no whisper at all about divorce, for example, and none at all about how you can possibly promote sexual continence, let alone chastity, while countenancing and blessing actions that presume incontinence and unchastity and that far surpass them in physical and moral harm. But then, what Dike then could praise as “our growing emancipation from narrow individualism” has been, in sexual matters, thoroughly reversed, so much so that each person is considered entitled to his or her own fantastical sexual universe, fitted with sexes of his own imagination, and pronouns to go along with it, and woe to the poor fellow who enters the Forbidden City without the special mandarin tongue to address the self-made emperor.

We believe, in short, that sexual desires, so long as no coercion is employed, are sacrosanct, indeed constitutive of someone’s very identity as a human being, but sexual reality is nothing. We are fairly commanded by the Civil Rights Act and now by the Respect for Marriage Act to engage in a vast pretense, much to the harm of the family and the common good, that men and women are practically indistinguishable, and that each sex is not for the other. If it can be called a philosophy at all, with its absurdities and self-contradictions, it is a philosophy for the hedonist, the profligate, the knave, the corruptor, the corrupted, and the fool. And if anyone should say to us that evil clergymen in the faith we espouse have set their own sexual gratification above the welfare of children, we shall respond that the entire society does so all the time, and not by violating a sacred oath, and not in a grubby dormitory or basement here or there, but in principle and openly and often to general applause. 

Divorce does so; as do unwed motherhood, abortion, the proliferation of pornography and its ease of access, and deliberate attempts by teachers to spit slime on a child’s innocence, calling it education, when the same children often cannot read a sonnet or make change from a $10 bill.

What is to be done about it? 

Dike was a conservative progressive. He was progressive in his commitment to social reform and in his willingness to have laws do what they could in obtaining it. But he was conservative in that he wanted very much to conserve good and sacred things endangered by both unforeseen social circumstances and bad currents of thought. He understood that promoting and protecting marriage would require “every resource of society from its four cardinal institutions—religious, educational, industrial and political.” He was too keen a realist to believe that the government could do the work of the church, or of the business place, or the school either, for that matter, nor could the church do the work of law. But that did not mean that they should not act in concert toward a common end. There could be no direction mandated from Washington, but there certainly could be and should be an animating spirit of far-sighted men and women in all stations of society, aimed at the good of marriage and family life.

We are in far worse a state than Dike could ever have imagined, and our cardinal institutions are sickly, incompetent, or perverse. 

Dike did not have the job of turning a barren wilderness into arable land. He did not have to persuade people that there was an immutable moral law, and that that law enjoined duties upon each sex as regarded the other, and upon parents and children mutually. The land, we might say, was fertile and ready to be cleared. Ours is not.

Our first work, first in logical priority and most fundamental, is to persuade our countrymen that the moral law does exist, and that it does not magically disappear with a little excitation from regions below. And all the massive power of the state, the business world, and the schools is against us.

Yet what we must do, we must do. So let us begin to do it.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images

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