Culture Friday – America’s great marriage divorce


NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Friday the 8th of May, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. 

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that the U.S. marriage rate has tumbled to an all-time low. And it is a plunge. Marriage rates dropped 6 percent in 2018 alone. 

Several factors may have contributed to the drop.

One, removing the stigma from pre-marital sex and living together has taken some of the pain out of delaying wedlock. Two, young women may be unwilling to commit to young men who increasingly have less education and poorer career prospects than they do. Three, studies show that most Americans no longer view marriage as intrinsically good for society.

EICHER: It’s Culture Friday and time to welcome John Stonestreet, the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Good morning!

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning!

EICHER: So John, that Pew study Megan just referenced is pretty stark. We see that half of respondents agree with this sentence, “Society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.”

Of course we know, purely factually, that that is just not true. 

We know that marriage researchers have been loudly sounding the alarm about our declining marriage rate and how it’s an objectively bad thing. We know that married people, for example, are more financially stable. We know they’re healthier. We know their children experience much, much better emotional and educational outcomes.

But let me zero in on this: Kids of married parents are 80 percent less likely to live in poverty.

So, John, I want to get your take on how we got here and how can we encourage more people to get married?

STONESTREET: Well, I think this would be the greatest tragedy if this COVID-19 pandemic closed Christian colleges. If you want more young people to get married, send them to Christian colleges. I’m serious. I’m not saying that’s the only reason to send them there, but it’s a significant reason to send them there.

Look, there’s a lot behind this. This isn’t a new trend. This is a longtime decline. This is clearly associated with two things: a growth in a more secular worldview across culture. For example, we’ve seen that throughout Europe where marriage rates and childbearing rates have been in steady decline. Not only that, but with the growth of the sexual revolution. And both of those things are directly connected. I often say when I speak to students, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is the divorce rate is going down. The bad news is it’s because, and they all know, fewer people are getting married. 

The thing behind it, though, ideologically, is essentially that marriage itself has lost its distinctive. I got a private message on Facebook from a lesbian pastor, I guess, in the United Church of Christ denomination the other day chiding me on my views on traditional marriage. And she made the statement that marriage is basically nothing more than a loving relationship between two humans. And when you reduce it down to that, then marriage is no more distinct than, you know, if you have strong feelings of camaraderie with your tennis partner or your neighbor or your siblings or anything else.

The distinctive of marriage is its inherent connection with procreation. The fundamental divorce of the sexual revolution has been to divorce procreation from marriage. And when you do that, then you redefine marriage. That’s why extending marriage to same-sex couples is a redefinition, it’s not just an expansion. That’s also why the idea that marriage can be easily replaced by cohabitation, which is a much bigger problem, by the way, than same-sex marriage in my view just because it’s much more pervasive. 

And that leads to another finding that a Pew study found several years ago which I think really gets to the heart of this where for the first time in history a majority of Americans thought marriage to be irrelevant. And that’s different than even seeing it as good or bad. That’s different than saying it needs to change so that it’s not an instrument of, you know, patriarchy. That’s saying that it actually doesn’t play a role in the world, assuming that it’s a social construct rather than as much a part of the created world as, say, gravity.

BASHAM: You know, John, I read a great piece about all this from Andrew Walker titled, “Undoing the Genesis Mandate.”

I mention it because I’ve seen a number of think pieces in Christian publications recently saying: hey everyone, let’s stop overvaluing marriage and family. Now they may have a point in the abstract—we don’t want to make idols of our spouses or children or diminish those who aren’t married or parents. But every time I see an article like that I do kind of wonder, what culture are they talking to?

Because from where I sit, and from where the research sits, we have a lot of people, including young Christians, overvaluing singleness. Not as God’s rare calling for a few, but as a casual and increasingly popular option. 

It reminds me of old “affectionate uncle” Screwtape’s advice to young Wormwood: “Direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger…have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.”

So what do you think John, has the church been bringing fire extinguishers to a flood? Or maybe better for this situation, are we bringing diet books to a famine?

STONESTREET: Well, I’ve kind of had the same feeling whenever I hear that. It’s kind of like one time when someone said, you know, I think the problem with youth groups is that they’re too intellectual. And I’m like, please take me to the youth group that is spending too much time on apologetics. But, anyway, it’s similar to that but I think it might actually be a little different. I don’t buy the “we worship marriage and family,” but I get where it’s coming from. It’s coming from the fact that we have not elevated our calling as human beings at every stage of life in a cultural context in which people are getting married later and later and later. So you have kind of the lost generation of, you know, you’re out of youth group, you’re supposed to go to big boy church, and what’s in it for me? Singles are not treated as adults because largely so many churches have bought into the perpetual adolescence of our cultural norms, which is really a damaging thing, and basically put them on the shelf unless they, of course, have gone outside of the traditional church context to something like YWAM or something like that where they’re immediately mobilized to go kind of live out their 20s on mission. But there’s not a value of the work and that sort of thing. So I know where it’s coming from. I really do. It basically means there’s not enough programs or not enough emphasis on the calling of singleness in that time period of life, particularly for young women. 

But I don’t think what’s true is that we worship marriage and family. I think the much more accurate description of what’s gone wrong is that we’ve fundamentally misunderstood marriage and family as a society, and that fundamental misunderstanding has come into the church. So, what you hear is, for example, marriage talked about in all kinds of functional, practical ways. We have marriage seminars on how to have marriage, how to do marriage, how to do marriage better, how to love your spouse, how to have better finances and a better sex life and everything else. And what’s been missing is a fundamental teaching, a catechism on what marriage itself is. So, the culture has been defining marriage, so most evangelical people in the pews often will then think of marriage in the same way that the culture does. That it’s an institution of adult happiness. That it’s completely untethered from anything like procreation, so that’s why premarital counseling essentially never deals with that topic other than to say, “Now, do you guys want to have kids or not?” And, “Do you agree?” Well, look, the idea of an intentionally childless marriage until the last maybe 50 years in Christian denominations would have been unthinkable. It would have been unheard of because there was a fundamental understanding that marriage itself is a creation ordinance. And because we’ve lost that sort of understanding, I think that’s led to far more problems. So, you know, Andrew’s piece that marriage is connected to the Genesis Mandate is exactly right. I share some of this skepticism on the worship of marriage.

But I think the problem is different. I don’t think we worshipped it or not worshipped it. I think we’ve just fundamentally misunderstood it, so we’re teaching it almost in an exclusively functional way. Including, by the way, in trying to prepare young people for marriage, the emphasis is on abstinence. And so often the sales pitch is if you play by God’s rules now, we’ll guarantee you a healthy and happy marriage and sex life later on, as if there’s some kind of sexual prosperity gospel. As if the point is our happiness, again. See, it starts with a fundamental misunderstanding of marriage to begin with. And I think it’s at the source of almost all of our problems. But the most important thing the church can do is backup—it’s kind of like Vince Lombardi in the Green Bay Packer locker room backing up and going, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” And we need to back up and say, “Gentlemen, this is marriage,” because that’s what we’ve forgotten.

EICHER: Well John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  John, thanks for being with us.

STONESTREET: Thanks guys.


(Photo/iStock)

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3 comments on Culture Friday – America’s great marriage divorce

  1. Russell Board says:

    Excellent interview, and John Stonestreet gets to the heart of the issue. He mentions the lack of a “catechism” in churches on what marriage is. I wonder, could you recommend a curriculum or books on this topic suitable for use in catechizing youth in Evangelical churches?

    1. Jenni says:

      I was hoping for the same thing as Russell. I would love some book or curriculum recommendations on this topic as well.
      Thank you so much for covering this topic!!

  2. Karrie says:

    Thank you for talking about this important topic. It hit a chord with me. The first wedding I planned was my own 27 years ago. The second wedding I worked closely with my 22-year-old son’s 3 years ago. I am now planning (during a pandemic) a third wedding – that of my 22-year-old daughter. I have attended many weddings of different sorts and sizes. I have some additional thoughts re: declining marriage culture.
    ———
    – COST – The average cost of an American wedding according to The Knot is over $35,000.
    – DECISION-MAKING – As parents have increasingly been excluded from the decision-making of young adults starting at age 18, the consumer markets for weddings, college education, and healthcare – to name a few – has become young, inexperienced, gullible and overwhelmed with big decisions. Parents and adult mentors are marginalized. Young adults are not equipped during their formal education to make these decisions without their adult mentors, but that is exactly what we are expecting them to do – often without guidance from an experienced adult who cares about and personally knows them. Society turns these young adults over to the counsel of paid representatives or vendors who seem interested in their well-being, but are supported and driven by the dollars they represent.
    – FINANCIAL RESOURCES – Young people do not have the financial means to fund a modern American wedding. (Visit The Knot and review vendor pricing options.) Therefore, they wait until they are career established. By the time they are in the financial position to afford a wedding, they may have already successfully established a household with their partner and do not see a need for such a large expense.
    – VENDORS & THE MARKET – NOT FAITH COMMUNITIES – DRIVE CULTURE – Wedding culture is defined more by the many marketing efforts around selling of vendor services than by faith communities coming around a shared celebratory event in the life of their community. The phenomenon of the “wedding planner” augments this culture, rather than the older family and community members stepping up to help the couple plan and carry-out their wedding.
    – MEGA-CHURCHES – I attend a small faith community that celebrates and fosters marriage culture. But I have heard from family members who attend large, multi-campus urban mega-churches that they do not perform marriage ceremonies or even offer complimentary pre-marital counseling to their community.
    – OFFICIANT ELIGIBILITY – States often have no specific clerical or public office requirement for ceremony officiants. When there is an ordination requirement, it is easy to circumvent the pattern of pre-marital counseling and mentoring. Anyone can send $45 to an online vendor church to obtain an ordination certificate for their state so they can officiate a wedding.
    – CULTURAL MOBILITY – With young people leaving home for work or college, often to distant locations, the centralized family-and-faith communities weaken and often break away from the young adult’s life. These communities have historically been the cornerstone of marriage culture, but it is increasingly difficult to hold to communal traditions when community fractures at high school graduation.
    – DUAL WORKING PARENTS and ADULT CHILDREN – In a work-centered culture where all adults are expected to bring in a paycheck, there is little extra time to think about and plan a wedding ceremony. For those who can afford it, this responsibility can be managed by hiring a wedding planner. For others, this responsibility falls to the couple and – if they are fortunate – an assisting older adult mentor who can bring resources and experience to the table. Many just can’t afford or handle the stress – or are simply not equipped for the task.
    – SEPARATION FROM THE COMMUNAL FAITH LIFE – As described previously, faith communities do not always focus on marriage or have developed infrastructure in support of marriage. In addition, the wedding day focus is now on what the couple – especially the bride as she is the primary consumer – wants. In general culture, the day is more about planning a beautiful event and party for the guests than it is about celebrating God’s faithfulness and blessing to two young people.
    FINANCIAL & LEGAL INCENTIVES – Marriage can bring financial and legal benefits to individuals. Individual couples will factor these pieces into their daily life when making a decision to marry or not marry – without doing an analysis, these factors may be changing.
    ——
    Summary – In my opinion, the decreasing marriage rate is complex and multi-faceted and multi-generational – we all share in the state of affairs today. The marriage and divorce rates reflect so much more than young – and even older – adults making a conscious decision to eschew marriage. If marriage is important to the Church and to society, it will take much thought and work on behalf of our communities to figure out how to strengthen the culture by equipping all of us in this aspect of our corporate and individual lives.

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