Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy opens his magnum opus, "Anna Karenina," with the line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

It turns out he was on to something.

Strong marriage stability not only affects economic outcomes but also the long-term success of children, according to new data from the American Family Survey, unveiled Thursday at a Brookings Institution event in Washington D.C.

While the survey — which was jointly sponsored by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy — suggests that most Americans still support marriage, not everyone in American society is reaping marriage’s rewards.

The idea of marriage is still a matter of “intellectual debate” among today's elites, according to University of Virginia sociologist, W. Bradford Wilcox, who spoke at the Brookings event.

Yet, as Wilcox observed, marriage is “not a matter of debate for (elites) in practice.”

Pointing to the work of renowned social scientist Robert Putnam, Wilcox noted that "elites get and stay married and make sure their kids enjoy the benefits of stable marriage. They generally live and move in neighborhoods, schools, soccer leagues and social networks that are dominated by married families.”

He continued: “At some practical level many elites understand that they and their kids are more likely to flourish socially and economically if they manage to get and stay married.”

The problem, however, is that educated elites tend not to preach what they practice. That needs to change.

With fractured families under grave financial stress (the American Family Survey shows that 40 percent of families experience a financial crisis each month) it is precisely moral leadership from our nation’s most educationally advantaged that America needs.

A 2012 report by Carl Desportes Bowman at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, for example, distinguished between two successful parenting groups — conservative religionists or “the faithful” and a group the report dubs “engaged progressives.”

While the former espouses strong normative moral commitments about marriage and parenting, more than half of “engaged progressives” say that “as long as we don’t hurt others, we should all just live however we want.” Moreover, 83 percent agree with the statement, “we should be more tolerant of people who adopt alternate lifestyles.”

While many “engaged progressives” do not seem to tolerate failed marriages or flagging family relationships in their own lives, they are very cautious to impose on those who seem to need those values the most.

Although “engaged progressives” and “the faithful” may diverge on certain moral commitments, as noted, in practice they act in similar ways — with higher marriage rates, greater time spent with children and “very close” family relationships.

Undoubtedly, society should not impose such personal choices as marriage and parenting styles on families. However, the prevailing trend among educated elites toward enlightened indifference regarding family choices that lead to anti-social outcomes is itself a moral failure.

Religious leader and legal scholar, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, noted during an address at Harvard that, “The academy can pretend to neutrality on questions of right and wrong, but society cannot survive on such neutrality.”

The data seems to support the assertion. And while there are undoubtedly social benefits to increased tolerance and moral ecumenism, none of this prevents the most educated and successful among us from being candid about those things, such as stable families and committed parenting, that help foster well-acclimated families.

Given the financial stresses which American families face, especially single parents, it is perhaps time for those with education and strong families to stop feigning neutrality and start preaching what they practice pertaining to marriage and parenting.

Like many religionists, a critical mass of society’s most educated have come to understand what Tolstoy calls the “eternal error,” i.e. the false belief that happiness depends “on the realization” of fleeting ”desires.” Long-term marital fidelity, stability, and strong family bonds come from jettisoning that which is ephemeral for that which has lasting worth.

For the sake of many Americans who struggle, we need society’s elites to not only admit it, but to also help their fellow Americans embrace it.

Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News. Email:, Twitter: Halrboyd