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July 13, 2002
Column #1089

(first of two parts)

So Religious, So Cohabiting

     In the two decades I have written this column, I have been continually struck by the paradox that America is the world's most religious nation, and often its least ethical.

     George Gallup reports that 70 percent of Americans are members of a church or synagogue and 60 percent attended services in any month.

     Yet the number of divorces tripled between 1960 and 1980, and have hung at that very high level ever since. There were 1,181,000 divorces in 1979 and 1,163,000 in 1997, the last year with available data. The United States cares so little about divorce that the Federal Government stopped counting the number of divorces in 1997! 

     To me that is astounding. God's first institution has become America's last institution.

     How can we be so religious and so unethical?

     The divorce rate of those in the church is actually higher than that of the non-religious, according to pollster George Barna. Only 21 percent of unbelievers are divorced, but 25 percent of church-going people (29 percent of Baptists, 34 percent of non-denominational Christians).

     We must acknowledge that the church is partly responsible. 

     At a conference yesterday in Washington, I asked 90 activists working to reduce the divorce rate in their churches and communities, ''How many of you have ever heard a sermon on cohabitation?'' Only one hand went up. I have asked the same question of clergy in scores of cities, and typically only one hand in 50 rise. 

     In 1960 430,000 American couples were cohabiting. By 2000 the number shot up 11-fold to a stunning 5 million couples. There were only 2.36 million marriages in a year. Thus, cohabitation has become the dominant way male-female unions are formed in America.

     Yet pastors have not preached on it! 

     If the church is not going to speak on this moral issue, who will? The mayor, the school superintendent? No, it is the job of those who speak for God to articulate what He said:

     ''It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper for him...For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.''

     In 1960, two-thirds of all people over age 15 were married. Today it is 52%. Nearly half of American adults are alone, due to divorce or non-marriage.

     And cohabitation lies at the bottom of both sickening trends. 

     America's marriage rate (the percentage of people who marry in a given year) has plunged 37 percent since 1960. If there were the same percentage of people marrying in 2000 as in 1970, there would have been 3.2 million marriages, not 2.3 million. Why is this happening? 

     Cohabitation has diverted millions from getting married at all. In 1970 only 5.9% of people aged 35-to 44 years old had never married. By 2000, that figure tripled to 15.5 percent. 

     Thus, cohabitation is a cancer at the front end of marriage.

     It is also is a cancer at the center of marriage.

     According to the University of Wisconsin, those who cohabit before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 50 percent. And at least 40 percent break up short of marriage. Of 100 couples who begin cohabiting, only 15 percent are married after a decade.

     And as the number of cohabiting couples has soared, so has the illegitimacy rate. The number of babies born out of wedlock has jumped from 224,000 in 1960 to 1.35 million in 2000. Why? Because 41 percent of cohabiting couples have children.

     Thus, the silence of the church is abetting destructive behavior. The failure of clergy to take a stand has made the church an unwitting accomplice to soaring cohabitation rates, which is destructive of marriage and the family.

     Pastors, priests and rabbis have not only failed to preach on the subject, but close their eyes when cohabiting couples ask to be married. Most churches say nothing to the couple who is living together. A few pastors will say, ''You must separate before we begin working with you.'' But vastly larger numbers never mention the issue.

     Why not? The same reason they have not preached on divorce or marriage. Fear of offending, perhaps. But that makes organized religion an accomplice to these destructive trends.

     There is an alternative. Next week's column will outline what some clergy are doing in challenging the culture on cohabitation and divorce.


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