Interview: Political Scientist Charles Murray on Class, Marriage, and the Christian Right

Political scientist Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke Monday with The Christian Post about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010(2012).

Murray compares changes that have taken place among working class and upper middle class Americans. He finds among the working class, dubbed "Fishtown," an increase in crime and deterioration in marriage, religiosity and industriousness. Among the upper middle class, dubbed "Belmont," he finds an increased separation from the lives and problems of the working class.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

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CP: What was your goal when you began this project?

Murray: The goal, when I began the project, was to start a conversation. I didn't have an agenda of policy solutions in mind, but I also thought that would be premature. I think until we recognize the nature of this problem, there is not a chance of any important policy solutions being devised at all.

CP: What was the most significant part of your findings?

Murray: First, we have a white working class that has dropped out of some of the core institutions and values of American civic culture. And second, we have a new upper class that is increasingly isolated from and ignorant about the rest of America.

CP: Were either one of those results surprising to you?

Murray: No. The reason I started the book was, over the years I had been seeing a lot of these signs going on. So, I was assembling data to flesh out some perceptions I already had. I was pretty far along to understanding the nature of the problem before I ever started to write the book.

CP: One of the things you found was a difference in religious participation, lower class participates less than upper middle class.

Murray: There is a confusion here that is easy to make. There is the new upper class and the new lower class and those groups are at the very top and the very bottom, but the comparisons about religiosity that I do, or between marriage and the rest of it, is between Belmont and Fishtown.

Belmont stands for the upper middle class, which is a much broader group than the new upper class, and Fishtown stands for the working class, which is a much broader group than the new lower class. So now we're talking about Belmont and Fishtown in comparing religiosity. It did come as a surprise to me, in white working class America, secularization has been going on much more rapidly than it has in upper middle class America.

CP: Do we know the direction of that influence? Are the working class less religious because they are poorer, or are they poorer because they are less religious?

Murray: Well, first, this is not defined by poverty. When you're talking about the white working class, you're not talking about a group that is predominantly poor. They aren't. So, I don't think that money has much of anything to do with it in any case. The religiosity of Americans I don't think has ever been determined by how much money they make.

I think, rather, it reflects a kind of moral disorganization that has gone on in working class America that cuts across a variety of things. I think that kind of moral disorganization is reflected in the very low marriage rates in working class America. The deteriorating work ethic in white working class males and, for that matter, the rapidly increasing crime rates that occurred in the 1960s, 70s and 80s that occurred in working class America. The fall in religiosity is of a piece with all of that. It signifies a kind of common theme.

CP: You're saying "moral disorganization," meaning there is less clarity in the difference between right and wrong?

Murray: Yes, less clarity is a good way of putting it. Suppose you went to working class America 50 years ago and asked them about marriage, for example. I think you would have found a fairly clear statement that, yes, people ought to get married and marriage is the family's most important thing – family referring to father, mother, taking care of kids, and so forth. You would have found a fairly clear, broad understanding of what marriage is all about and why people should participate in it.

If you go to the working class now and ask that same question, you'll get a blank stare, or you'll get statement of, "well, you know, lots of marriages break up and it's just a legal fiction anyway." You'll get much less of an understanding of the role of marriage in a community, and probably the same thing goes for religiosity.

Of those who even say they believe in God, if you ask, "do you belong to a church?", "no, I don't think it's really necessary to go to church to be religious," that kind of disregard of the role of institutions that used to be taken for granted.

CP: What are the important policy lessons from your book?

Murray: None (laughs). There are two things. One, how did this all come about? And yes, there is a narrative there that I think is convincing. I think that, in the 60s, you had lots of things going on in the culture which tended to decrease attraction to marriage, attraction to religion, and which tended to increase attraction to crime. But you also had a variety of things that the government did that changed incentives in ways that made it easier not to get married or made it easier to commit crimes and not get caught or not get punished. It made it easier to become isolated from your community.

So, I think there were policy decisions that were made then that were wrong and exacerbated the trends, but that doesn't necessarily tell us what we do now. That is why I am saying that policy solutions are, in a sense, premature. Because, until you get people to say what's going on in the working class portends a serious problem of this nation continuing to be a self-governing people, you can't even have a fruitful conversation about policy solutions.

CP: For one of your previous books, The Bell Curve (1994), you were accused by some critics of expressing racist sentiments. This book is subtitled, The State of White America, are you trying to tease on your critics?

Murray: (Laughs) You are the first person to ask me that, and there was actually an element of that, but it wasn't the real reason.

The reason was very simple. You talk about things like falling marriage rates and out-of-wedlock births, guys not getting jobs, that really becomes confused in people's minds with the different problems of different ethnic groups.

So, for example, it is very well known, and has been known for decades, that the rates of out-of-wedlock births in the black community are very, very high. So, if I were to say in the working class as whole there is a rise in out-of-wedlock births, you could say, "well he's really talking about blacks." By limiting the data just to whites, I can avoid all that. I can concentrate my reader's attention.

No, I'm not talking about blacks, I'm not talking about Latinos. These are problems among plain vanilla white people. We have to come to grips with the fact that the problems there have been growing very rapidly and are now very serious.

CP: OK, so you would say that in non-white working class communities they have the problems of the white working class on top of other challenges like racism or, for new immigrants, learning English?

Murray: That's the last chapter. I take the trends I've shown in graphs earlier in the book for whites only and I expand the graphs to include the entire population. You look at the two lines side-by-side, entire population and whites only, and those two lines are very, very close. I use that chapter to say, look, the data in this book have been about white America, but, in fact, the message is about all of America.

CP: You are a libertarian. So, you don't agree with the Christian Right on some issues like abortion, same sex marriage ...

Murray: I don't think there is a libertarian position on abortion. Maybe if you took a poll of libertarians, it might be that a majority would be pro-choice, but, the libertarian position is to protect the rights of individuals against the use of force and fraud. Well, a libertarian who says that life begins at conception is going to be an absolutely ardent anti-abortion person because he is preventing the use of lethal force against a living person. So, there is no natural libertarian position.

CP: Your book confirms a lot of what those in the Christian Right have been saying for a long time regarding the degree to which liberal values have impacted working class communities.

Murray: Yeah, it does. The evidence is very consistent with that position. Absolutely.

CP: Since publishing this book, have you had any Christian Right figures invite you over for dinner?

Murray: (Laughs) No, you're the first representative of the Christian Right that I have talked to at all about the book.

Editor's Note: The Christian Post does not consider itself a "representative of the Christian Right." CP covers a wide range of Christian views and seeks to fairly represent the diverse opinions in the Christian community.

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