February 16, 2002
CHURCHES UNABLE AND UNWILLING TO SUPPORT
WASHINGTON -- America's houses of worship
"traditionally the most important institutional custodians of marriage
in the nation have been both unable and unwilling to foster the beliefs
and virtues that make for a strong marriage culture."
That grim assessment is the conclusion of a
young scholar, W. Bradford Wilcox, a research fellow at Yale's Institute
for the Advanced Study of Religion and a professor at the University of
Virginia, reported to the Institute for American Values this week.
"Unable?" Although two-thirds of Americans are
members of a church or synagogue, nearly half of all marriages end
in divorce and a third of all children are born out-of-wedlock.
What's more chilling, Protestant church members are more likely to
divorce than the unchurched, (while Catholics divorce at the same rate),
reports Pollster George Barna..
On the other hand, couples who attend church
weekly are 35 percent less likely to divorce according to Larry Bumpass
at the University of Wisconsin.
Sadly however, most churches and synagogues
have been unwilling to confront the forces undercutting marriage.
Mainline Protestant churches, who pride themselves on their commitment
to children, have become embroiled and distracted by a debate over
homosexuality "that obscures the social and moral consequences of family
breakdown for children," Wilcox asserts. "Many Catholic clergy, wary of
provoking debate and dissent in their churches, don't even attempt to
articulate Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce."
"Black Protestant churches are reluctant to
address marriage because the family behavior of their members is in such
tension with their theologically conservative outlook. Even evangelical
churches, which devote more attention to married life, tend to take an
overly sentimental view of marriage that doesn't prepare their members
for the challenges of married life.
Using data from the National Congregational
Survey, Wilcox estimates that "only seven percent of Catholic, mainline
and evangelical Protestant churches offer some kind of formal group
dedicated to marriage preparation and support. It's worse in the black
churches where virtually no congregations offer such ministries."
Those numbers seem low to me. Most Catholic
churches do require a minimum of six months before a wedding takes place
and the taking of a premarital inventory, but the feedback from it
varies widely in quality. Precana classes are required but often weak.
Protestant churches often require no more than a meeting or two with the
pastor before a wedding. Only 400,000 of the 2.3 million couples
who marry take a premarital inventory, when it should be universal.
Virtually no church has regular programs for
marriage enrichment and nothing for troubled marriages, except referral
to counselors who often recommend divorce!
This column has regularly pointed to what some
churches are doing that is helping people prepare for a lifelong
marriage, strengthen existing ones or save troubled marriages. I hoped
to inspire others. Perhaps I gave the impression that quality is
widespread, when in fact, it is rare.
Brad Wilcox argues that houses of worship
"need to show men and women how marriage is a lifelong vocation of
service to God, to spouse, and to the children that usually follow."
This message needs to be made attractive to a culture which worships the
"Programs run by lay couples with good
marriages are particularly valuable, insofar as they are able to impart
knowledge won in the school of ordinary life." He also notes that "More
than 150 cities and towns in 39 states have established Community
Marriage Policies that strengthen marriage norms by setting common
standards for premarital preparation and marriage enrichment." His
research of inner city congregations reveal that 60 percent of urban
couples who have had a child out of wedlock "would be willing to attend
a church-sponsored relationship class."
However, Wilcox's overall conclusion is grim:
"Religious institutions have lost their status as the pre-eminent
custodians of marriage and they are not likely to recapture that
position anytime soon." That is more harsh than I would put it. However,
those who read this column who are members of a congregation need to
evaluate the quality of their commitment to marriage. (See the website,
Alexis de Tocqueville , who visited America in
the 1820's accorded religious a crucial role in this democracy. In
his view, churches cultivated the "habits of restraint" that keep a free
people from abusing their liberty. Wilcox notes that de Tocqueville
worried that a decline in religious life with its attendant habits
of restraint, would inevitably mean the rise of a "soft despotism" where
a paternalistic government takes over an ever larger set of social
responsibilities as its citizens fail to fulfill their own
Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.