The building blocks of Western Civilization - Reflections on marriage and the family

Wednesday 7 October, 2015

One of Australia's most senior and experienced politicians, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP, outlined his views on the importance of the institution of marriage for the future of Western civilisation when he delivered the 2015 Warrane Lecture on Wednesday 7 October.

In the lecture, “The building blocks of Western Civilization - Reflections on marriage and the family”, Mr Andrews drew on views he outlined in his recent book Maybe ‘I do’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness.

He argued the greatest threat facing the western world was not global warming, the financial crisis or the threat of radical Islam, but “the steady, but continuing breakdown of the essential structures of civil society – marriage, family and community”.

Mr Andrews, who was first elected to the Australian parliament almost 25 years ago, has served as Minister for Ageing, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Opposition spokesman for Families, Housing and Human Services, Minister for Social Services and, most recently, as Minister for Defence.

He told a large audience in Warrane's Main Common Room that the breakdown of civil society continues with little indication that most policymakers are aware of the causes or consequences or are equipped to address it.

Changes bringing about “a decline in marriage and a weakening of family life included:

- A decline in the number of people getting married;

- Couples who are marrying are doing so at an older age and increasingly to a person from their own socio-economic background;

- The spread of premarital cohabitation;

- An increase in cohabitation as a substitute for marriage, despite the fact that cohabitation is less stable than marriage;

- A dramatic increase in separation and divorce;

- Growth in the number of children involved in separation and divorce since the early 1970s;

- A fall in the rates of remarriage over the past 30 years;

- Families having fewer children;

- A dramatic increase in the proportion of children born out-of-wedlock; and

- A marked increase in the proportion of single-parent families.

In addition, in most nations families increasingly have both parents in the paid workforce and  populations are ageing rapidly.

“As thousands of studies now indicate, these trends have had many negative economic, health and social consequences for adults and children and have had a significant impact on society more generally, Mr Andrews said.

“How we preserve marriage – against the cultural and the economic pressures that threaten to overwhelm it – as the foundation of healthy family life, the protective institution for children, the crucible of the free market, and the essential condition for democracy, will determine the health and longevity of the critical institutions of the western liberal experiment.

“The future of individuals, families, communities and nations is tied to the outcome.”

Mr Andrews argued that the negative trends endangered Western civilization itself. This was something that had been predicted by the Russian-American sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, who has influenced more recent thinkers, including Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and Niall Ferguson.

Sorokin, the founding chairman of the inaugural Department of Sociology at Harvard University and author of The American Sex Revolution, noted the radical change in sexual mores and practices that had emerged in the 20th century.

He linked easier divorce and the decline in family stability with domestic unhappiness, juvenile delinquency, depression and mental disorders.

His concerns were confirmed by the consequences of the great social experiment during the 1920s in his native Soviet Russia when the Leninists set out to destroy ‘bourgeois’ marriage and family.

“During the first stages of the Revolution," Sorokin observed, "its leaders deliberately attempted to destroy marriage and the family. Free love was glorified by the official ‘glass of water’ theory: if a person is thirsty, so went the Party line, it is immaterial what glass he uses when satisfying his thirst; it is equally unimportant how he satisfies his sex hunger.

“The legal distinction between marriage and casual sexual intercourse was abolished. The Communist law spoke only of ‘contracts’ between males and females for the satisfaction of their desires either for an indefinite or a definite period – a year, a month, a week, or even a single night.

“One could marry and divorce as many times as desired...  Bigamy and even polygamy were permissible under the new provisions. Abortion was facilitated in state institutions. Premarital relations were praised and extramarital relations were considered normal.”

Mr Andrews noted that within a relatively short period of time, the Soviet nation descended into the social chaos of widespread divorce, fatherless families, abandoned children and juvenile delinquency, leading authorities to reverse their policies by the end of the 1920s.

He said that Sorokin also prophetically predicted that the changed pattern of relationship mores would result in a significant decline in the birth rate - a fact now true of most countries. 

Even before the advent of the medical, pharmacological and surgical advances of the past few decades, Sorokin predicted that the combination of low birth rates and increased longevity would result in stationary, and subsequently, depopulating societies. This, he said, would be economically, technologically and militarily disastrous.

“Family instability and an ageing population have real economic costs for nations,” Mr Andrews said. "They negatively impact on economic growth, a fact that most Western nations are yet to realise.

Noting the important role religion played in helping to establish and maintain a culture, Mr Andrews emphasised that Western civilization is founded on European Christendom and he added that human dignity and freedom are the core ethical values upon which the West is founded.

He said Sorokin believed there are two cultural supersystems: “Ideational culture” and “Sensate culture” which describe two different ways of understanding and interacting with the world:

“[For the sensate] reality is that which can be perceived by the organs of sense; it does not see anything beyond the sensate being of the milieu,” Sorokin wrote.. “Those who possess this sort of mentality try to adapt themselves to those conditions which appear to the sense organs, or more exactly to the exterior receptors of the nervous system.

“[The Ideational] perceive and apprehend the same sensate phenomena in a very different way. For them, they are mere appearance, a dream, or an illusion. True reality is not to be found here; it is something beyond, hidden by the appearance, different from this material and sensate veil which conceals it.”

Mr Andrews said a dominant culture influences the outlook and mentality of all who live within it. Sorokin’s studies of civilizations, especially ancient Greece, the Roman, and the modern Western civilizations, led him to the conclusion that civilizations move through a pattern over centuries from an Ideational culture to a position that integrates both the original Ideational and the Sensate, before the Sensate dominates.

“A culture in the sensate phase increasingly tries to be ‘progressive, dynamic,’ seeking forever new empirical values. . .,” Mr Andrews said. “It values the latest fashion instead of the old-time consecrated tradition. It tears down the building just erected to replace it by a new one. It puts a premium on everything swift, fast, dynamic, modern ‘up to the last minute’ and even beyond it. Hence its feverish tempi of change, its insatiable lust for change, its never-resting Becoming.”

“Sorokin viewed the history of 20th century Europe with its two great wars and revolutions as a manifestation of the dying Sensate culture of the West. Unless it reclaims an integrated balance, he argued, its creative vigor and cohesiveness is lost in a demoralizing fog of self-absorption, hedonism and egoism...

“The more a sensate man has, the more he desires to have, whether it be riches, popularity, or love experience; or fame or power or charm; or anything else.”

In such a society, the values of truth, love, beauty, and  even fatherhood and motherhood could not continue to function, Sorokin argued.

Mr Andrews said the social science of the past few decades indicated that the evidence of family and community dysfunction upon which Sorokin made his judgment over half a century ago has accumulated and grown.

“There is no social science indicator, of which I am aware, that points in the other direction,” he said. “Liberals and conservatives alike - in the American understanding - now generally agree on the data, even if they disagree on the solutions.

“It is difficult therefore, to conclude that Sorokin was mistaken. Indeed, there are a series of reasons to suggest that it is easier, more convenient, and less troublesome to ignore warnings than to act upon them.”

An example was the way in which many people had remained sceptical about the economic downturn ushered in by the financial crisis that swept the world in 2008-09. There had been a disbelief that the world’s financial structure could so rapidly disintegrate and in a similar way there was now a belief in the immutability and immortality of the present civilisation.

Against this background, social problems were being “downplayed, ignored or excused”. Increasingly rights – established as a bulwark against totalitarianism, including the right to life and freedom from oppression – were claimed without consideration of corresponding duties and obligations.

“Over time, personal interest and convenience have become a dominant public ethic,” Mr Andrews said.

He pointed to three issues which needed to be addressed for western civilisation to recover from its present malaise - an increase in birth rates, better taxation support for families and better “relationship support” for couples trying to raise a family.

On birth rates, Mr Andrews said it was essential that nations retained replacement, or close to replacement, levels of their birth rate if they were to thrive.

“As I demonstrated in Maybe ‘I do’, it becomes almost impossible to increase the birthrate once it falls below a certain level, which I estimate to be about 1.5 births per woman. Lower birthrates result, over time, in depopulation, constrained economic growth, and falling living standards,” he said. “This may take a few decades to occur, but it is inevitable.”

On taxation, Mr Andrews said families should be better recognised in the taxation system.

“Prior to the 1996 election, the then Opposition considered a range of taxation policies that would support families, including income tax splitting, a system that operates in various other countries," he said. "Due to the cost involved – then estimated to be about $7 to 8 billion – and the dire state of the Commonwealth finances, it was not adopted.

“However, the new Howard government did raise tax free thresholds for families with children, an initiative that was intended to be a step towards income splitting, allowing further increases in the thresholds as the nation’s finances improved.

“This approach was subsequently replaced by the Family Tax Benefits scheme. Although designed to achieve the same outcome, the new benefits were perceived by both government and the community as welfare, and treated accordingly. Instead of allowing families to retain more of their income in recognition of the responsibilities for and costs of raising children, government provided handouts, which have eventually been treated as another payment that can be cut if necessary.

“There is a need to re-examine the way in which the taxation and welfare system supports the family, as my colleague, Senator Matt Canavan, has advocated recently.”

On “relationship support”, Mr Andrews pointed out that at present both marriage and cohabitation offered many of the same benefits.

“Yet non-marital cohabiting relationships are far less stable than marriage and largely for that reason, the two partnership forms do not provide equally favourable environments for raising children,” he said.

“The most recent World Family Map shows that the greater the prevalence of marriage among reproductive-age adults, the more likely children are to live with two parents. The greater the prevalence of cohabitation, in contrast, the more likely children are to live with one parent or no parents.”

In conclusion, Mr Andrews said it was necessary for mainstream political parties to represent the views of mainstream families and to defend mainstream values, but this was increasingly a challenge in the Australian political landscape.

“These are just a few of the practical measures that I believe are important if the trend of marriage and family breakdown is to be addressed,” Mr Andrews said. “But alone, they are insufficient.”

So how were the corrosive trends of social disorder in the West to be countered, especially when a common moral language seems to have escaped our grasp, and the political virtue of toleration turned on its head?

“At a time when opinion passes as news; assertion as fact; entertainment as analysis, 140 often-emotive, characters as compelling argument; and the popular media reinforces the sensate, it is challenging not to conclude that the task is impossible," Mr Andrews said. "But it is not. As (Czech writer, philosopher, dissident) Václav Havel said, the only struggle that is lost, is the one we have given up on.

“None of us know the answer to Sorokin’s predictions, but the consequences for individuals, communities and Western civilization, if he is correct, are dramatic. While some doubt the cyclical nature of civilizations, we should be prepared to address the issues, and discuss the challenges."

Mr Andrews argued that a starting point could be, as the modern historian Niall Ferguson argued in his book Civilization, “a belief in ourselves and the foundation principles of our Western culture” and, as Havel said, “an acknowledgement of the transcendental”.

Mr Andrews encouraged College students present at the lecture to embrace the “ethics and religious beliefs that motivated the founders, Council, staff, and supporters of Warrane College”. He said they were the same ethics and beliefs that created and continue to sustain Western civilization.

“This is your inheritance,” he said. “Do not hide it under a bushel, but grasp the opportunities for leadership presented to you, regardless of the field of study upon which you have embarked or the career you follow.

“You are in a unique position to act for the good of Western civilization and the values its represents. Ultimately, the survival of Western civilization will be less about grand actions and major political programs, and more about personal commitment, courage and dedication to the cause of human dignity and liberty.

“And that, is a cause worth fighting for!”

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