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November 12, 1999
Column #950


     Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has become the first leading public or religious leader in America to declare a ''marital emergency'' in his state and to call for a ''50 percent cut in the divorce rate'' beginning in the state and across the country by the year 2010.

     How? He proposed that a ''new Community Marriage Policy'' be established in ''all communities of Arkansas.''There is a limit to what a government can do. Government cannot pass laws to change the hearts of men and women, but it can encourage churches, synagogues and people of faith to unite together to help people prepare for marriage,'' he said to hundreds of pastors and lay leaders who gathered to attend a Governor's Conference on the Family Oct. 23.

     In Wisconsin a proposal by Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen became law last week that will hire a person in state government to work with the clergy and civic leaders in developing  Community Marriage Policies across Wisconsin. It was the first such job in America.

     ''We spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year in our state dealing with the fallout of failed marriages and broken homes,'' said Jensen. ''It just makes common sense that we make an investment on the front end to strengthen marriages around our state.''

     In Louisiana, another state-wide initiative to create Community Marriage Policies came from the Louisiana Family Forum, a non-profit group affiliated with Focus on the Family. It organized clergy in Baton Rouge and Alexandria to sign a CMP last week and gathered two clergy groups in Shreveport to consider a similar step to cut the divorce rate.

     A rabbi joined Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in Alexandria, for example, signing  the Central Louisiana Community Marriage Agreement which pledges an end to quickie weddings, by requiring ''a minimum of four months of marriage preparation'' that includes ''a minimum of four premarital counseling sessions utilizing the scriptures, a premarital inventory and intensive education.''

     They also pledged to ''train mature married couples to serve as mentors to those who are engaged, newlywed or experience marriage difficulties.'' Among those to be recruited to help troubled marriages are Mentor Couples ''whose own marriages were once in trouble.''

     In fairness, I must disclose a personal interest in these developments. Each of these leaders asked my wife and I to speak about how Community Marriage Policies are bringing down divorce rates in dozens of cities. We have helped the clergy of 116 cities adopt these reforms and have been in awe of the results which are not wholly explicable.

     Nationally, there has only been a 1.3 percent decline in the number of divorces nationally from 1,179,000 divorces in 1979 to 1,163,000 in 1997. But with a CMP in a two county corner of Northwest Arkansas, they fell 6 percent in one year, saving 150 marriages and 7 percent in Eau Claire in two years. In Kansas City, Kansas and two suburban counties, divorces fell from 1,530 in 1995 to 1,001 in 1997, a remarkable 35 percent plunge in two years.

     Most astonishing is El Paso, which had 5,126 divorces in 1996 when clergy adopted a Community Marriage Policy (CMP) in September of that year. There were 5,009 the next year, a big drop to 4,041 in 1998 and if the pattern of the first eight months of 1999 holds up for four more months, there will be only 1,919 divorces this year according to the county clerk's office.  ''That is a 63 percent drop. I am incredulous,'' said Barney Field, Director of El Paso for Jesus.

     The CMP is only partly responsible for that enormous plunge in divorces. Field convinced the El Paso Times to publish the entire New Testament, in daily segments through 1997, so that a person could read each segment in five minutes, during a ''Year of the Bible.'' In 1998, ''The Year of the Family,'' the paper published a daily story featuring a key family value such as honesty.

     These steps have transformed the culture in El Paso from selfishness - which destroys marriages - to selflessness, which builds them.

     It is proof that Gov. Huckabee's dream of cutting the divorce rate in half is realistic. In fact, Bishop Kevin Mannoia, President of the conservative National Association of Evangelicals,  attended the 50th anniversary meeting of the liberal National Council of Churches of Christ in Cleveland this week and challenged them and Roman Catholics to join in making marriage such a priority that the nation's divorce rate would drop by 50 percent, saving 600,000 marriages a year by 2010.

     It is achievable. If only one-third of America's 300,000 churches trained 10 Mentor Couples each, there would be one million Mentor Couples who could easily save 600,000 marriages.

     This is a goal that America's Christian churches might pledge to work toward at an American Marriage Summit to be held next year, in honor of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, who said, ''What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.''

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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