Piketty begins chapter eight of Capital in the Twenty-First Century with a case study from Père Goriot on the critical importance of marrying money. His disquisitions on literature are, in part, explanatory aids, rooted in the reader’s cultural memory. It should be no surprise that marrying an heir/ess was the best way to move up in the world in prewar Europe; a study of Pride and Prejudice, for example, offers an affective sense of what Darcy’s ten thousand pounds a year would mean to Elizabeth, even to readers (like me) who had never calculated that income’s inflation-adjusted value. A Balzac novel draws the reader’s thought-world together with the text’s horizon. The narrative makes the match seem natural.
Piketty’s reading of a novel, however, depends on the historicization of the present: his point is to exploit the fusion of horizons for the contrast of political economies. It was this way, for Rastignac; it isn’t, for us, for now—but neither of these approaches to marriage and wealth was inevitable. The world of Austen and Balzac and James, of inherited wealth as the one and only key to a decent life, didn’t just happen, and neither did our world of relative opportunity. Economy is political. By invoking the novels, Piketty makes it clear that the relationship between money and marriage can be reimagined.
Piketty shows that what American racism did to Black households, financial capitalism threatens to do to the middle class as a whole.
For theologians, marriage is a classic disciplinary trap. As a religious rite (“holy matrimony”, for Anglicans like me), it demands a theological account; as a social institution (“marriage”), it likewise requires a social ethics. As a theologian writing about marriage and para-marital blessing in America, I am at the mercy, not only of Scripture and tradition, but of a rapidly shifting legal and cultural situation. Religious advocates of marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples think it obvious that marriage and holy matrimony change together: I think of Tobias Haller’s witty illustration of Biblical marriage. As marriage changes now, it becomes evident that the idea of marriage is subject to history.
Perhaps no group in today’s society is worse-served by marriage than poor inner-city women. Their perspective on marriage is, therefore, ethically the most crucial of all. One way to hear their voices is through the work of sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefelas. Their years of interviews with single mothers in Philadelphia (White, Black, and Puerto Rican) are digested in 2005’s Promises I Can Keep. In that book, we hear a view of marriage no less class-linked than any in Piketty’s novels. These women value marriage as a lifelong commitment, seeing divorce as one of the greatest personal failings. They likewise realistically see that economic stress and intimate-partner violence are the major causes of divorce in their communities. To protect against both possibilities, therefore, they put off marriage until they have established their own economic independence. The key markers of that independence are ownership of a house and a car—those of the American postwar middle class. To join that class is to make marriage workable.
The deck is stacked against these women’s prospects, especially if they are Black. A major body of literature, recently popularized by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations”, has shown how decades of redlining, slum clearance, mob and police violence, and government policy have worked against Black households’ building wealth through homeownership. Lives of dignity and worth are, of course, absolutely possible without access to middle-class economic and sexual respectability—womanist theologians and ethicists from Delores Williams to Kelly Brown Douglas have offered models for thinking Black women’s lives along just these lines. Their writing both names and mourns the loss of poor Black women’s lives and human potential to American classism and racism, even as the ethic of survival offers those same women the means to carry on. Reading Edin and Kefelas through womanism links ordinary and extraordinary voices on race, class, and sexuality.
The greatest threat to marriage in America is economic inequality, just as the greatest threat to individual marriages is economic stress.
Piketty, in turn, shows that what American racism did to Black households, financial capitalism threatens to do to the middle class as a whole. As he demonstrates, a White patrimonial middle class had existed in America from the founders’ days (enabled and buttressed, it must be said, by White supremacy and its policies of genocide and enslavement). Its share of national capital grew and shrank over time—less in the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, more in the postwar decades—but even today, about a quarter of national wealth is held by the “middle 40%”. The problem is that nearly all of the middle class’s wealth is in their homes. Only larger, more diversified fortunes are able to fully benefit from r > g, especially in a generally low-growth environment. A patrimonial middle class built on homeownership alone will gradually, inexorably lose wealth share and with it access to the political means to preserve themselves. The Belle Époque rentiers failed to adjust their standards of living to what their reduced capital could support and so committed class suicide. As Elizabeth Warren has argued, the middle class is in the same danger today, but from the costs of basic necessities (health care, housing, education, childcare). What Edin and Kefelas’ informants struggle to gain, the middle class as a whole stands to lose.
Socio-ethically, then, the greatest threat to marriage in America is economic inequality, just as the greatest threat to individual marriages is economic stress. A theological account of holy matrimony, in turn, must respond not only to marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples, but to marriage equality for poor people. I see three possible interlocking liturgical and theological responses to this threat. Churches, and the theologians and ethicists concerned with them, can reimagine holy matrimony apart from the signifiers of middle-class marriage—a tall order, since those same signifiers also provide actual economic stability for the couples who possess them. They can seek to change our economic life for broader security—a worthy, prophetic project, but probably decades in the making. And they can creatively deploy other resources, like the para-marital blessings developed for lesbian and gay couples before marriage equality, to honor all relationships in the meantime and bring them into common prayer.
Christopher J. Ashley is a Ph.D candidate in systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He has taught homiletics as well as historical, philosophical, and contextual theologies at Union, and undergraduate humanities at Seton Hall University.
Empty church from Flickr via Brook Ward