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Cultural Policy for 2021

| Mar 08, 2021 | Culture

American society suffers from de-composition and de-consolidation. We are increasingly atomized. People have an attenuated sense of belonging. They are less integrated into family and community. This isolation makes us less resilient and more vulnerable. And it also makes us less stable and more susceptible to ideological infections.

American Compass is developing a menu of economic policies designed to shore up the middle class and anchor us in productive work. The general idea is to re-consolidate the country economically, providing a more varied eco-system of industries and job opportunities for high-school-educated Americans.

But we also know that the problems facing our country require cultural policies. Our libertarian habits of mind sometimes rebel against this notion. But this is a mistaken response. Every society has educational policies. There are arguments to be had about what those policies should be—and whether they should be formulated at the local, state, or federal levels. Nevertheless, we must have them.

Because we are suffering from problems of de-consolidation, we will need to think about cultural policies in other areas as well. These policies, like our economic ones, should aim at renewing the consolidating crucial institutions in the body politic.

For example, a consensus is growing that we also need to have family policies. To that end, Oren Cass and Wells King argue for a Family Income Supplement Credit. Mitt Romney offers a different formula, as do others. But the larger policy judgment is widely shared: Our economy has evolved in such a way that median wage-earners have difficulty funding the family sizes and ways of life they prefer. We need to find ways to close the financial gap.

To my mind, family finances are only part of the picture. Marriage is an institution, not a business contract, and its health depends upon the moral support provided by society as a whole. That support has declined over the last two generations. We need to think creatively about how to reverse this trend of de-moralization.

Here’s one idea: a divorce tax that assesses a penalty of 10 percent of a divorcing couple’s net worth for those with assets in excess of $500,000 excluding home and retirement accounts. Another idea: reduce tax rates by one or two percent for those married 25 or more years.

Perhaps these ideas are non-starters, which is fine with me. I’m not a policy guy. My goal is draw attention to the fact that we have the tools for cultural policy. We take it for granted that we should use tax policy to encourage (and discourage) certain kinds of behavior. The charitable deduction is a blatant example of cultural policy. It’s designed to encourage what we regard as socially beneficial behavior. Why not do the same in order to encourage marital stability, which social science shows to be extremely important for securing good outcomes for children? Moreover, stable households also anchor strong communities.

To my mind, we also need to revise public policy when it comes to religion. Faith can supercharge communal attachments, which we need right now. But religion does more than that. A sense of the transcendence has a paradoxically anchoring or “grounding” effect. Religion offers consolation. It blunts ideological fanaticism, because it tells us that life is about more than what one can gain or achieve through politics. And it mitigates the great frenzy of getting that can characterize our commercial society.

Our constitutional framework prohibits installing a single religious tradition as our “established” religion. But this limitation (a wise one, to my mind) has not inhibited lawmakers from devising ways to encourage religious practice. Tax exemption is an obvious example. Special treatment in laws of incorporation is a less visible pro-religion policy, but it is also important, as are carve outs for houses of worship in zoning restrictions.

For generations, many localities encouraged religiosity among children by mandating a moment of prayer to open the school day. In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court deemed this practice unconstitutional. One policy goal should be to secure the reversal of these precedents. Another policy for schools: mandating biblical literacy as a core competence for high school graduates.

Many clergymen tell me that youth sports now schedule games on Sunday mornings, which is not surprising, given the fact that “blue laws” restricting commerce on Sundays were repealed a generation ago. But perhaps their repeal was a mistake. Serious thought needs to go into how to design local policies that can rebuild some of the fences around the Sabbath.

We are a diverse nation. But this evident fact about our common life need not impair the intelligent and sensitive design of cultural policies suited to our time.

And our time is not 1965. We are not overrun by Stepford wives. Our society is not dominated by a large and complacent middle class that cruelly marginalizes outsiders. Rather, we lack stability and are drowning in fluidity. Which is why we need reconsolidating cultural policies, not the de-consolidating ones of the last two generations.

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R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.

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