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February 16, 2002
Column #1068


     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 individual. How? 

     "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, for ideas.)

     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 responsibilities

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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