I’m always looking for historical background that puts our present situation in new light. We often don’t realize, for example, how different was the world before and after the Second World War. The 1940s and 1950s was a strange time.
There was a brief moment around the mid-century when the number of marriages shot up and people married younger. So, when we compare marriage rates now to those in the post-war period, we get a skewed perspective because that post-war period was extremely abnormal by historical standards (Ana Swanson, 144 years of marriage and divorce in the United States, in one chart). It’s true that marriage rates never returned to the level of that brief marriage (and birth) boom following the war, but then again marriage rates weren’t ever that high earlier either.
In the 1990s, during the height of the culture wars when family values were supposedly under attack, the marriage rate was about the same as it was from before the Civil War and into the early 1900s, the period I’ve referred to as the crisis of identity. In the decades immediately before that starting around 1970, the marriage rate had been even higher than what was seen in the late 19th century (there isn’t dependable earlier data). Nor is it that premarital sex has become normalized over time, as young people have always had sex: “leaving out the even lower teen sex rate of GenZ, there isn’t a massive difference between the teen sex rates of Millennials and that of Boomers and Silents” (Rates of Young Sluts).
As another example from this past century, “In 1920, 43 percent of Americans were members of a church; by 1960, that figure had jumped to 63 percent” (Alex Morris, False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump). Think about that. Most Americans, in the early 1900s, were some combination of unchurched and non-religious or otherwise religiously uninvolved and disinterested. A similar pattern was seen in the colonial era when many people lived in communities that lacked a church. Church membership didn’t begin to rise until the 1800s and apparently declined again with mass urbanization and early industrialization.
By the way, that is closely associated with the issue of marriage. Consider early America when premarital sex was so common that a large percentage of women got married after pregnancy and many of those marriages were common law, meaning that couples were simply living together. Moral norms were an informal affair that, if and when enforced, came form neighbors and not religious authority figures. Those moral norms were generous enough to allow the commonality of bastards and single parents, although some of that was explained by other issues such as rape and spousal death.
Many early Americans rarely saw a minister, outside of itinerant preachers who occasionally passed by. This is partly why formal marriages were less common. “Historians of American religion have long noted that the colonies did not exude universal piety. There was a general agreement that in the colonial period no more than 10-20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church” (Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, The Churching of America). This was at a time when many governments had state religions and so churches were associated with oppressiveness, as seen with the rise of non-Christian views (agnosticism, atheism, deism, universalism, unitarianism, etc) during the revolutionary period.
And don’t get me started on abortion, in how maybe as high as one in five or six pregnancies were aborted right before the American Civil War. That might be related to why fertility rates have been steadily dropping for centuries: “Extending the analysis back further, the White fertility rate declined from 7.04 in 1800 to 5.42 in 1850, to 3.56 in 1900, and 2.98 in 1950. Thus, the White fertility declined for nearly all of American history but may have bottomed out in the 1980s. Black fertility has also been declining for well over 150 years, but it may very well continue to do so in the coming decades” (Ideas and Data, Sex, Marriage, and Children: Trends Among Millennial Women).
Are we to blame commie liberal hippies traveling back in time to cause the decline of America practically before the country was even founded? Nostalgia is a fantasy and, interestingly, it is also a disease. The world is getting worse in some ways, but the main problems we face are real world crises such as climate change, not namby pamby cultural paranoia and fear-mongering. The fate of humanity does not rest on promoting the birth rate of native-born American WASPs nor on the hope that theocracy will save us. If we want to worry about doom, we should be looking at whether the rate of moral panic is experiencing an uptick, something that often precedes the rise of authoritarian mass violence.