The moral cliff

As everyone knows, we’re fast approaching the fiscal cliff, the combination of steep tax increases and mandatory spending cuts that will take place if Congress doesn’t act by the end of the year.

But America is also quickly approaching a moral cliff, and it’s something that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

Recent data provide a bleak forecast for the moral future of our country. In November, the Pew Research Center released the findings of a study on marriage. It found “no reversal in the decline of marriage.” In 2011, 4.2 million adults were newly married, about the same number as in 2010 and significantly fewer than the 4.5 million newlyweds estimated in 2008.

Today roughly half of adults are married, compared with nearly three-quarters of adults in 1960. It’s not the highly educated and well-off who are eschewing marriage, but rather the poor and less educated. Pew found a 14 percent decrease in marriages among adults without a high school degree just since 2008.

Fewer children grow up with both biological parents in America than in any other affluent country in the world. Out-of-wedlock births are at an all-time high. In 2009, 41 percent of births occurred outside of marriage.

Obviously, marriage is not a synonym for morality. But stable marriages and families do encourage moral behavior.

Here’s a troubling fact: the U.S. crime rate increased last year for the first time in nearly two decades. According to the U.S. Justice Department, last year saw a 22 percent rise in assaults, which pushed the overall violent crime rate up for the first time since 1993. It’s not surprising that crime increased at a time when families are more fragmented.

America used to have a strong “moral safety net” for its people. Today that net is badly frayed, not only because families are disintegrating but also because the church doesn’t play the same role that it once did in many Americans’ lives.

A December Gallup survey found that the share of Americans who do not identify with a specific religions denomination has increased, while the share who identify with some traditional churches has declined.

In a related study, Gallup found that Americans’ confidence in organized religion is at a low point. Eleven years ago, 60 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in “church or organized religion.” Now just 44 percent of Americans have that confidence. “This follows a long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in religion since the 1970s,” according to Gallup.

Americans are no longer as engaged with their communities, their churches or their families. Recent studies find that more and more people spend less and less time at home with their families. It’s not that their not at home, it’s that family time is being replaced by time alone and online.

The antidotes are well known if hard to apply. Being engaged and involved with your community and family matters most.

A 2011 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that teenagers from families that eat together at least five to seven times a week are four times less likely to use drugs or alcohol.

Reliable standards of right and wrong also matter. Actions that were once stigmatized are now commonly accepted, encouraged and even celebrated. A 2010 Gallup survey found that unmarried sex, out-of-wedlock birth, gambling and divorce are all seen as morally acceptable by majorities of Americans.

I’m glad women who get pregnant outside of marriage are no longer hidden from view or sent out of town so as not to shame their families, and I’m glad we no longer have laws that make it difficult for women to dissolve abusive marriages.

But the stigma that was once attached to things society deemed unhealthy served the purpose of making them undesirable. With the stigma gone, many people see little reason not to do whatever feels good at the moment.

More and more, government tries to stand in to take care of people where civil society used to provide support and guidance. But no government program can make up for the breakdown of the family.

Guided by nothing but pop culture values, many children no longer learn how to think about morality and virtue, or to think of them at all. They grow up with no shared moral framework, believing that the highest values are diversity, tolerance and non-judgmentalism.

These can be important virtues, but they cannot replace the reliable standards of right and wrong at the heart of the Judeo-Christian value system.

The fiscal cliff looms, and the country’s leaders are working hard to avoid it. It’s time to give as much attention to the fast-approaching moral cliff. The future of the American experiment depends on a virtuous people at least as much as it depends on a balanced budget.