Conservatives no longer believe in marriage. That is the lesson many took from a Gallup poll recently shared on Twitter, which featured a chart showing that in 2020 only 41 percent of conservatives considered it “very important” for couples with children to get married, down from 62 percent in 2006. Shane Morris, an employee of the Colson Center, expressed the despair many felt upon seeing the chart: “Republicans have given up on marriage as an ideal.”
This news is indeed discouraging, but it is probably wrong to say that conservatives have relinquished marriage as an ideal. The same Gallup survey found that 81 percent of unmarried respondents hoped to be married one day, up from 78 percent in 2013. This suggests that people have not stopped prizing marriage. They have instead become reluctant to judge those who fall short of what is still their ideal.
It is worth looking closely at the survey’s wording. Gallup asked, “When a couple has a child together, how important is it to you that they legally marry?” This was a change from the previous versions of the survey, which asked, “When an unmarried man and woman have a child together, how important is it to you that they legally marry?” (emphasis added).
The survey’s wording was probably changed in the name of inclusivity. But it subtly altered the meaning. The earlier version centers on an “unmarried man and woman,” a description that indicates a lack (“unmarried”) while evoking the traditional responsibilities associated with adulthood and sexual roles (“man and woman”). The new wording replaces the negative term (“unmarried”) with a more positive one (“couple”). It at no point evokes maturity or distinct sexual roles, as the phrase “man and woman” had done.
In both versions, the wording insinuates that the respondent might take too great an interest in other people’s affairs: “When two people (neither of whom is you) have a kid, how interested are you in how they structure their lives consequent to that fact?” In other words, the question could be read as asking less about one’s regard for the marital state and more about how entitled one feels to judge other people’s lives. On this issue, people are probably more reluctant to appear judgmental today than in 2006.
Some writers suggest that the survey’s results reflect the altered composition of the Republican electorate, as members of the professional-managerial class gravitate to the Democratic party and identify as liberal, and working-class voters drift into the GOP. That argument is weakened somewhat by the survey data. Only 25 percent of college graduates rated marriage “very important” when children were present. Meanwhile, 37 percent of people with a high school education or less said the same thing.
This disparity is striking. It shows that Americans of all classes do not practice what they preach. On the whole, those of a lower class are more likely to affirm the importance of marriage and less likely to practice it. Those of a higher class are less likely to affirm the importance of marriage but more likely to uphold it in their personal lives.
A recent study found that 86.5 percent of women without a high school degree have their first birth outside of marriage, compared to 24.5 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Women with a bachelor’s degree are much more likely than those without to marry after the birth of their first child. If anything, the less-educated voters gravitating toward the GOP are making the party more supportive of marriage than it would be with a more upscale electorate.
That may explain how a man like Donald Trump could become the unlikely leader of the family values party. These voters profess support for marriage even though—perhaps even because—they find it hard to live out. So when they see a man take up the banner of social conservatism despite failing to live by socially conservative ideals, they are not surprised. Instead of seeing a smirking hypocrite, they may see an imperfect man like themselves.
Social conservatives have argued against no-fault divorce, gay marriage, and other deviations from the idea of marriage as a lifelong union between man and woman for the sake of childbearing. Some have suggested that the attempts to enshrine conservative beliefs in law and policy are unnecessary, on the theory that social conservatives should live by their own values while permitting others to live by theirs. That view was always naive. Conservatives cannot cut themselves off from the broader culture. When it changes, so do they.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.