Most of us have heard the refrain that to reduce poverty in the U.S., we need to get young people to “graduate, get married, and have children” in that order.
An article by the Brookings Institute several years ago supports this idea suggesting almost anyone can avoid poverty by:
- Graduating from high school.
- Waiting until age 21 to get married and not having children before being married.
- Having a full-time job.
Their research shows that if you do all three things, your chance of falling into poverty is just two percent and you will have nearly a 75-percent chance of being in the middle class.
Pushback on the “Success Sequence”
Recently, this common-sense idea was reintroduced by two law professors, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.” Wax and Alexander argue for a return to some of the practices of the 1950s that prosperous Americans still silently subscribe to (as chronicled by Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart):
Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness…Eschew substance abuse and crime.
Because these practices have been abandoned in popular culture, the fallout, according to Wax and Alexander, is low workforce participation, education gaps within the U.S., and the opioid epidemic.
Their conclusions should not really surprise anyone. Yet, Wax and Alexander’s op-ed has caused a firestorm of controversy, including reactions from the deans of the law schools of their respective institutions (University of Pennsylvania and University of San Diego), half of Wax’s colleagues at Penn, and Penn students and alumni. Wax and Alexander have been accused of white supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia, and student and alumni petitions recommend that she not be allowed to teach first-year law classes.
What raised the most ire was not their first premise:
The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.
Instead, it was the following observation, which others have made since the 1960s:
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script—which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach—cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.
Multiculturalism Through a Biblical Lens
This last paragraph crosses the cultural Rubicon of our current, distorted national value system. For years we have heard a familiar refrain in the media, our educational system, and from a host of others (including some church leaders) that multiculturalism is the most important of values. This idea states that all cultures are equally good and is, “based on the humanistic belief in the inherent goodness and self-sufficiency of humankind—a not so subtle repudiation of the Christian view of humanity as a God-created race corrupted by sin,” writes Ken Boa in his book Unchanging Faith in a Changing World.
As believers, we should celebrate racial and other diversity because it is an important part of God’s creation. All people are made in God’s image with equal dignity and value. But we must reject the idea of multiculturalism when it is inclusive of culture that rejects God’s principles. Boa goes on to suggest that as Christians we must look upon the cultures we see around us in light of the work of Christ. He suggests the following three perspectives:
- Christ is the Reconciler of cultures—he is the one who can bring people of different cultures together.
- Christ is the Redeemer of cultures—he brings wholeness and hope to people of all cultures.
- Christ is the Ruler of cultures—he is the one who establishes the standards by which all cultures are ultimately to be judged.
Taking Captive Every Thought (On Culture)
Therefore, to live believing Christ is “Ruler of cultures,” we must be obedient to his call over the culture. While we are called to love one another, regardless of culture or race, we must still be discerning with culture, even our own, and measure it against God’s word.
This is what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote to the Corinthians:
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
It is the calling of all believers to not only embrace God’s design and desire in our own lives, but to share it with others. These principles are unchanging and absolute and extend across all cultures. The moral authority of scripture is absolute and, as N.T. Wright suggests, “The gospel is public truth.”
As we can see, this truth will not be easily received because we live in a culture that can best be described by the last verse in Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
But be encouraged. What we cannot do, God can do.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).