Alexander Riley, the most recent addition to the list of senior fellows of The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), has had a busy month. On 3 June, Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute published Dr. Riley’s “Who Knew Émile Durkheim Was a Conservative on Sex and Marriage?” On 5 June, Minding the Campus, a journal devoted to an open and honest conversation about the state of higher education, published his “Visit to a Woke Bookstore.” For the June issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Riley explored the importance of monogamous marriage in “The Case against Divorce.”
Dr. Riley teaches sociology at Bucknell University. He notes that Émile Durkheim, whom many scholars regard as the founder of the discipline of sociology, “offered a rigorous scientific and philosophical account of sexuality, marriage, and the family that affirms the traditional view.” His criticism of modern marriage decried the increasing radical individualist precepts that have now come to dominate discussion of it. Thus, marriage has become for postmoderns a mere lifestyle choice.
While the sacredness of monogamous marriage between a biological man and a biological woman helps to firm up larger social bonds, the logic of radical individualism eats away at them by permitting an endless variety of marital possibilities in the name of gender fluidity and happiness. For Durkheim, “[t]he question of sex” could not be “addressed outside of a moral context.” Riley insists that modern thinkers on sex and marriage could benefit from a close reading of Durkheim. “Today, the field is dominated by radicals who question the very existence of biological sex and view monogamous heterosexual marriage as at best an antiquated relic of the past and at worst a patriarchal tool for enslaving women.”
With the Covid restrictions lifted on his campus during commencement, Dr. Riley decided to pay a visit with his family to the university bookstore. “[T]he signs of the ever-intensifying Woke Revolution,” he observed, “were everywhere.” Although university bookstores typically emphasize visual displays that smack of progressive politics, “things have clearly accelerated, to judge just from the visual architecture and content of the displays.” The emphasis on books that advance a progressive agenda appeared not only in the shelves loaded with books on social science and history but on those with children’s books and works of science fiction. His wife pointed out to him that the section of the store with religious books featured displays on witchcraft.
In “The Case against Divorce,” Dr. Riley begins by lamenting the campus cultural climate that makes serious discussion of the value of Christian marriage a topic either verboten or akin to the discussion of medieval alchemy. Thus, “the cultural destruction of divorce goes mostly unremarked upon by our expert class.” The decade of the 1960s, he argues proved transformative. The divorce rate in 2021 is about seventy percent higher than it was in 1960. The social costs of that divorce rate are enormous. Progressive elites downplay these results because agenda-driven, they seek no less than the destruction of the traditional Western nuclear family itself. Many of the youths rioting in cities like Portland, Seattle, and Chicago, with tattoos, piercings, and edgy haircuts, advance this cause along with a broader radical agenda.
From the time that children enter kindergarten, they are taught “that any claims that some familial and marital practices might be more effective at producing happiness than others are to be rejected in advance as nothing more than ignorant prejudice.” Overwhelming evidence exists of the importance on in-tact monogamous marriages between a man and woman to the mental health of children.
“In the Christian perspective,” Riley writes, “sexual intercourse is a sacred undertaking, which means it must be regulated by ritual and proscription. It is no accident that the divorce culture that demolishes the eternal perfection in marriage also desacralizes sex, turning it into one more bodily pleasure among others to be engaged in however an individual wills. Alienation, conflict, and disease are among the most obvious consequences of a culture that profanes sex in this way.”