This I Believe: A Farewell to Optimism

Maggie Gallagher

1/3/2013 9:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher

A few days ago, going through some memorabilia of my mother's, I found the original promotional material for this syndicated column, launched in 1993. I was billed as "A New Conservative Voice for Young Women!"

More than 17 years ago, I set out to explain how a Yale-educated young woman from a secular Oregon family could become a social conservative:

Every life is precious. It is better to care for your children than to kill them. Divorce hurts children; it also breaks apart life's most precious commitment -- a family.

Men and women are different. A society that pretends otherwise is not going to raise boys to be loving, reliable family men. Marriage is about settling for less but raising up an ideal much bigger and more important even than the most urgent whispered promises of romantic love.

Sex makes babies. Society needs babies. Babies need their mother and their father. Men and women need each other. We all need a strong marriage culture, whether we choose to marry or not.

If it is true that sex makes babies, then that is clearly the most important thing about sex, the thing around which a decent person or society will organize sexual values, behavior and norms.

If they saw clearly. If they were only told the truth. For of all the ways adult society can abandon the young, one of the worst is to ignore the key adult task of creating and sustaining a larger meaning for sex and sexual desire for young people.

My own baby -- the one who was born about the time my syndicated column launched -- will graduate from high school this June and go off to college in the fall.

As I lay down this syndicated column after 17 years, I do not plan to stop writing (readers can find me at MaggieGallagher.com). It is a good time though to reflect on the trends:

On every key measure, marriage is weaker. The consequences are more obviously unsustainable, yet culturally powerful voices are less willing to engage, and the power of porn and Hollywood to create our norms for family life is more triumphant than ever.

Since 1993, the proportion of children born out of wedlock has jumped from 31 percent to 41 percent -- mostly since about 2003. For women with only a high school degree or less, nonmarital childbearing is the new normal. Divorce has declined for the privileged; for everyone else, stable marriage has gotten to be even further out of reach.

Without a powerful ideal of masculinity that points men toward marriage and fatherhood, more and more young men are deciding the hard work of becoming marriageable is not worth it: Porn, beer, video games with the guys, freedom and fleeting sexual encounters are good enough.

The most urgent overlooked need is the deep need of boys for masculine ideals. If civilization refuses to provide any, porn and video-game makers will step in to fill the gap.

Why should young men work hard to become protectors and defenders of women and children when American culture -- and women -- tells them they are not needed in either role?

So in this, my final column, I say my farewell to optimism and my hello to hope.

What is the difference? Optimism is a prediction; hope is a virtue.

My hope rests on this: The truths to which I've dedicated my life, both professionally and personally, are too important to ignore, too foundational to be abandoned, too much a part of reality to be lost forever.

Do not abandon politics. It is one important means to create culture -- to name our shared reality.

But we need, as well, a next generation of culture creators, of storytellers, with the credentials to name reality: empirical social scientists, novelists, poets, preachers and filmmakers.

We need donors to invest in building the networks and communities through which such voices are born, flourish and give meaning to the lives of millions.

The future belongs to those of us with enough hope to rebuild on the ashes of optimism, a new American civilization -- uniting sex, love, babies, mothers and fathers in this thing called marriage.