PRESIDENT BUSH IS proposing a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" that will devote $1.5 billion to promote marriage. The money will be used for projects such as advertising campaigns to push the value of marriage, interpersonal-relations classes for couples, premarital education programs for high-school students, and programs for unmarried couples having a baby to encourage them to get married.
The focus will be on lower-income groups, recognizing the research that shows that marriage is the biggest factor in breaking out of poverty. What this will include and how the program might work remains to be seen. A few caveats, though, might be in order.
Simply turning social scientists loose on a problem and backing them with lots of money did not work in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. This approach is also unlikely to solve America's marriage problems.
And while measures to educate people about how they should live and to advertise virtuous living are well-intentioned, they often rest on flawed assumptions. It is not necessarily true that "to know the good is to do the good." That notion comes from Plato, who believed that bad behavior is simply a matter of ignorance, that if people could just learn what is right, then they would inevitably do it.
Christians have always considered Plato's educational approach to ethics to be na•ve. People basically know the right thing to do, but refuse to do it. The problem is not lack of knowledge, but sin.
Drug education programs, for example, have been notoriously unsuccessful. Studies have shown that young people who have gone through the most well-intentioned of them all-the D.A.R.E. program, run by police officers-actually have a higher rate of drug use than those who don't.
It isn't that kids don't know that drugs are bad. They know that very well, and joke about it. But drugs make them feel good, so they don't care. In fact, there is reason to think that part of the attraction is the thrill of transgression, something advertising campaigns and classroom instruction can actually increase.
There are lots of reasons why couples-including couples who have a baby together-do not get married. It is doubtful that lack of knowledge about marriage is what holds them back.
Government is ill-suited to solve people's moral problems. That's what churches are for, who, by the power of the gospel, can change people from the inside out. It may well be that the president's new program includes enlisting the aid of churches and other faith-based organizations.
What government is equipped to do is to pass and enforce external laws for the common good. If the government wants to help the institution of marriage-and it should-it could amend the constitution to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. It could make getting a divorce more difficult and lower tax rates on married couples. We can hope that measures like these will be part of the new marriage initiative.