Why Free Societies Need Healthy Families

The decline of marriage has created a social divide within the nations of the West, the likes of which have not been seen in over a century.

Basic Books.

Basic Books.

Aug. 27 2020
About the author

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician. He served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

This essay is an edited excerpt from Jonathan Sacks’s forthcoming book. Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times will be published by Basic Books on September 1, 2020.

Almost all civilizations have developed ways of consecrating marriage and the family. Historically, the strength of Jewish families was the source of the resilience of Jewish communities that allowed them to survive the enforced exiles and expulsions, the ghettos and pogroms, of a thousand years of European history. Family in Judaism is a supreme value. It’s how we celebrate our festivals and Sabbaths. A Jewish child always has a starring role at the seder table on Passover night, where we are inducted into our people’s history, and where our parents fulfill their first duty: namely, to teach children to ask questions. Strong families create adaptive communities.

More generally, marriage is fundamental to the moral enterprise because it is a supreme example of the transformation of two “I’s” into a collective “We.” It is the consecration of a commitment to care for an Other. It is the formalization of love, not as a passing passion but as a moral bond. To see what is at stake we need to understand the difference between two things that look and sound alike but actually are not: namely, contracts and covenants.

In a contract, two or more individuals, each pursuing his own interest, come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit. So there are commercial contracts that create the market, and the social contract that creates the state. A covenant is something different. In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone.

A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. Or to put it slightly differently: a contract is about interests, whereas a covenant is about identity. It is about you and me coming together to form an “Us.” That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. Covenant is about the logic of cooperation. This is what differentiates marriage and the family from economics and politics, the market and the state, which are about the logic of competition.

To be sure, a marriage may have the external form of a contract, but its inner logic is that of a covenant. That is how Israel in the biblical era understood its relationship with God, as a covenant. The Hebrew word emunah, often translated simply as “faith,” really means faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, steadfastness, not walking away even when the going gets tough, trusting the other, and honoring the other’s trust in us. The prophets understood the relationship between humanity and God in terms of the relationship between bride and groom, wife and husband. Love thus became the basis not only of morality but also of theology. Faith is like marriage. This is what Hosea meant when he said in the name of God:

I will betroth you to me forever;

I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,

in love and compassion.

I will betroth you in faithfulness,

and you will know the Lord. (Hosea 2:21-22)

Marriage is fundamental to society because throughout history it has been the most fundamental way in which we recognize something beyond the “I” of self-interest: namely, the “We” of the common good, cooperative relationships, shared identity, and collective responsibility.

Alexis de Tocqueville understood this so well. There is, he said, “no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected in America or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated.” In Europe, by contrast, “almost all the disturbances of society arise from the irregularities of domestic life.”

Marriage, de Tocqueville believed, was the foundation of a free society: domestic peace equals social order. Lack of it equals social unrest. As James Q. Wilson put it, “in virtually every society into which historians or anthropologists have enquired, one finds people living together on the basis of kinship ties and having responsibility for raising children.” There are many types of family structure, just as there are many kinds of society, but almost none without some shared norms and forms.

In the 1960s, marriage and the family received the biggest blow they had ever encountered in Western civilization. This was the result of many factors, among them the emergence for the first time in the West of a self-contained youth culture, the availability of birth control, and the passing of the shadow of war that had so strengthened the “We” culture in Britain. The vehicles of cultural continuity had broken down and people felt on the brink of a new age radically different from the old.

It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, writing in the United States in 1965, who first pointed out the enormous social risks that would attend the breakdown of the family unit. He was speaking at the time about African Americans. But what he said eventually proved true about American society as a whole. Everything he predicted came true, but the spirit of the moment was unstoppable. For many, sex was no longer associated with marriage, or commitment, and became instead a leisure-time activity. Over the next generation, in Britain and America, fewer people got married, and those who did were marrying later. In 1968, 56 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one were married or heads of households; by 2012, this was true of only 23 percent. An unprecedented proportion of marriages—rising at times to 50 percent, 42 percent in Britain in 2017—terminated in divorce, and almost one in two children were born outside marriage.

Marriage is often derided as a mere formality, a “piece of paper,” while cohabitation has come to be portrayed as an equivalent or substitute. Sadly, it is not so. In Britain, the average length of marriages that end in divorce is between eleven and twelve years, and the average length of marriages as a whole is 30 years. The average length of cohabitation in Britain and the United States is less than five years. The formal act of commitment that constitutes marriage makes a difference to the strength and durability of the relationship.

Despite the cultural shift, the majority of people do get married. And in recent years the divorce rate and that of teenage pregnancies have declined. But the consequences of those earlier changes are still with us. The collapse of marriage has created new forms of financial and moral poverty concentrated among single-parent families, and of these, the main burden is borne by women, who in 2011 headed 92 percent of single-parent households. In Britain today more than a million children will grow up with no contact whatsoever with their fathers. A 1993 survey in Britain found that children living with cohabiting rather than married parents are twenty times more likely to become victims of child abuse. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that family breakdown must be part of the explanation for the sharp increase among young people of eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, stress-related syndromes, depression, and actual and attempted suicides.

This is creating a divide within societies the like of which has not been seen since Disraeli spoke of “two nations” a century and a half ago. In the past few years, two of America’s most distinguished social scientists published pathbreaking works that came to the conclusion that the American dream—that everyone, given effort and enterprise, could succeed in life—had been broken for at least one-third of the population. The thinkers came from quite different starting points: Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute (on the libertarian right), and Robert Putnam of Harvard (on the political left). The libertarian right tends to focus on individual choice, the political left on collective responsibility. Yet Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012) and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015) were strikingly similar. Each gave dramatic force to their presentation by focusing on two communities, Belmont (in Boston) and Fishtown (in Philadelphia) for Murray, and two groups in Port Clinton, Ohio, one college-educated, the other not, for Putnam.

Their point is that segments of the population that used to live close to one another, interact, and generally belong to the same world, have diverged since the early 1960s. The well-off and well educated have prospered while the less successful and poorly educated have become progressively more deprived. They no longer inhabit the same social space at all. As their careers and remuneration have diverged, they live further apart physically and mentally, and their children have markedly different expectations.

To both Murray and Putnam, this is more than a minor fact. It calls into question the quintessential American proposition that everyone is equal in opportunity, if not in outcome. So great is the gap between the top third and the bottom third that equality of opportunity no longer genuinely exists. Social mobility is declining. The American narrative, which said that anyone with sufficient dedication could reach the heights, no longer rings true for a significant proportion of the population. A nation lives and is sustained by its ideals. But could one realistically say today, in the words of the Gettysburg Address, that the United States is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?

The difference begins in marriage patterns. All groups were affected by the sexual revolution in the 1960s, but the more successful group in each comparison recovered itself quite quickly, and marriage was restored as a social norm. That was not the case with the poorer group, which saw a dramatic rise in cohabitation without marriage, nonmarriage, divorce, and single parenthood. There is overwhelming social-scientific evidence that children benefit from being brought up in a stable marriage by two parents, that divorce is harmful to the children, and single parenthood still more so: whether measured in terms of childhood aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, criminality, illness and injury, early mortality, sexual decision making in adolescence, school problems, dropping out, emotional health, educational achievement, career success, and the ability to make strong and lasting relationships, marriage especially.

In short, Putnam (on the political left) and Murray (on the libertarian right) told a similar story. The top third of society—in terms of financial security and education—had dabbled with the new freedoms of the 1960s, but had more or less returned to the old conventions and pieties. They married, they joined religious communities, they were intensely ambitious for their children. They made a point of living in the neighborhoods with the best schools, or they sent their children to private schools, or gave them private tuition and paid for them to enjoy extracurricular activities.

The bottom third was less able to swim against the current. Today, these people live almost on a different planet from their erstwhile fellow townspeople. There is an enormous burden on single mothers. There is a rise in child poverty, whether measured in terms of relative or absolute family income, or access to facilities. America now has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. There are whole communities without adult role models, where there is no one to discipline the teenage children. Inevitably, without adult role models, many of them are inducted into gangs, and from there into drug culture or petty crime, and find themselves in prison, all hope for a secure future utterly lost. These communities are places of educational underachievement, high unemployment, high incarceration rates, and violence.

This entire lifestyle is not fully of their choosing. It follows directly from decisions made by their parents and grandparents. Some years ago, in the course of making a television documentary for the BBC on the state of the family in Britain, I spent a day with young offenders at a center called Sherborne House. This place was their last chance of rehabilitation. If convicted of crime again, they would be sent to prison. The young men there were mostly eighteen years old. They were all from broken, and many from abusive, families. When I tried to get them to talk about their childhoods, they refused to do so, out of loyalty to their families. So I changed the approach. I said, “One day you will have children. What kind of father would you like to be?” That is when they started crying. They said things like, “I’d be a tough father, but I’d make sure that there were rules, and whenever the children needed me, I would be there for them.” I found the experience deeply moving, and distressing.

These were young men with strong instincts for good, who if they had been born into a different kind of family environment might well be preparing to go to university themselves, instead of being given one last chance before being sent to prison. I believe that the injustice done to them by society is hard to forgive. A generation imbibed the idea of sex without responsibility and fatherhood without commitment, as if there were no victims of that choice. But there are victims, especially the children of dysfunctional and abusive families, who would never really have a chance to pursue their dreams and are mired instead in a culture of poverty, violence, prison, and hopelessness. In both the United States and Britain, one government after another has invested large sums in grants, initiatives, and programs, but none of these has significantly lowered rates of child poverty, and poverty is, in any case, only part of the problem. It is the emotional damage inflicted upon them from which they may well never recover. Having seen only a dysfunctional family in childhood, they have nothing on which to model their own behavior in due time.


What makes the first chapter of Genesis revolutionary in its statement that every human being, regardless of class, color, culture, or creed, is in the image and likeness of God Himself. In the ancient world it was rulers, kings, emperors, and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. What Genesis was saying is that we are all royalty. We each have equal dignity in the kingdom of faith under the sovereignty of God.

From this it follows that we each have an equal right to form a marriage and have children, which is why, regardless of how we read the story of Adam and Eve—and there are differences between Jewish and Christian readings—the norm presupposed by that story is: one woman, one man. Or as the Bible itself says: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Monogamy did not immediately become the norm, even within the world of the Bible. But many of its most famous stories, about the tension between Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel and their children, or David and Bathsheba, or Solomon’s many wives, are all critiques that point the way to monogamy.

What makes the emergence of monogamy surprising is that normally the values of a society are those imposed on it by the ruling class. And the ruling class in a hierarchical society stands to gain from its own promiscuity and polygamy, both of which multiply the chances of their genes being handed on to the next generation. From monogamy the rich and powerful lose and the poor and powerless gain. So the establishment of monogamy goes against the normal grain of social change and was a triumph for the equal dignity of all.

This had huge implications for the moral life, especially in what has come to be known as the Judeo-Christian heritage. We’ve become familiar with the work of evolutionary biologists using computer simulations and the iterated prisoner’s dilemma to explain why reciprocal altruism exists among all social animals. We behave to others as we would wish them to behave to us, and we respond to them as they respond to us. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in his book The Abolition of Man, reciprocity is the Golden Rule shared by all the great civilizations.

What was new and remarkable in the Hebrew Bible was the idea that love, not just reciprocity, is the driving principle of the moral life. Three loves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And, repeated no fewer than thirty-six times in the Mosaic books, “Love the stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.” Just as God created the natural world in love and forgiveness, so we are charged with creating the social world in love and forgiveness. That love is a flame lit in marriage and the family. Morality is the love between husband and wife, parent and child—uncommanded because it is assumed to be natural—extended outward to the world.

The Jews became an intensely family-oriented people, and it was this that saved us from tragedy. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.

More about: Culture, Marriage, Politics & Current Affairs