I’ve long believed marriage can be strengthened, and nonmarital birth rates measurably reduced, if we find ways of taking greater advantage of our nation’s religious institutions and traditions. More than a few observers think I’m wrong for thinking as I do: some because they gauge the power of faith as insufficient in such matters, and others because they believe marriage as we have come to know it in the United States and other key parts of the world is beyond rescue.
How to resolve such matters? Easy. Just ask about 850 of my closest friends how they would answer questions such as “What should our religious leaders, institutions, and traditions do to strengthen marriage?” and “What should they do to reduce nonmarital births?” Here’s what the 36 men and women who eventually contributed to a just-published Center of the American Experiment symposium actually said.
A quick note about method before going on. Fragmented Families and Silence of the Faithful: How Religious Leaders and Institutions Must Speak Up and Reach Out is the ninth symposium the Center has published in which I’ve asked, via email, large numbers of people in Minnesota and across the country to tackle important and often unorthodox questions. Each time I’ve asked great numbers of people to write, a remarkably consistent average of 25 to 45 men and women have done so, frequently brilliantly, as is the case this time around too.
Here are illustrative excerpts—little more than first bites—drawing on eight of the pieces, starting with thoughts on religion as bedrock.
Stephen B. Young is global executive director of The Caux Round Table, a worldwide organization dedicated to “moral capitalism”: “Because religious institutions, traditions, and leaders—or the lack thereof—shape the beliefs, virtues, and habits that constitute personal character, they load the dice of life for or against success in social relationships. . . . To re-balance our culture towards responsibility, religions must reform themselves to provide individuals with more inner-direction. This will not be easy, as traditional intellectual and cultural supports for religion have dissipated. Revelation has not the power to sway our minds and hearts as it once did.”
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs: “It is certainly not narrow-minded or mere sentimentalism to say that any community’s humaneness rests on how it cares for the family. For every essential community asset flows directly or indirectly from thriving and expanding families. The family certainly does involve love and appreciation for the other, as well as a sense of self-satisfaction, but it cannot long survive without an overarching narrative that transcends the group, the village, and the nation. Thus, the parts of our nation that still enjoy and benefit from strong families are those with a vibrant, substantive, and historically transcendent story flowing from a robust religious faith.”
‘Every essential community asset flows directly or indirectly from thriving and expanding families.’
How should the demands of denominations be observed? Joe Rigney is assistant professor of theology and Christian worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis: “In concrete terms, I believe it is necessary for the church to recover and utilize church discipline with respect to its own members. Expecting the broader culture to conform to God’s pattern for marriage when half the church is neck deep in sexual foolishness, father hunger, and unchecked divorce is a perfect example of putting carts before horses.”
What about reaching beyond denominational home bases? Paul D. Allick is a parish priest in the Episcopal Church of Minnesota: “The first step is for Christians to get out into our communities. We focus on finding clever ways to get people to come to us. Why not go out and experience what is happening in our neighbors’ lives? After all, this is how Christianity started: Jesus and his disciples went out to the people and lived with them. . . . He did not water down his message; at the same time, he showed great compassion toward people. He did not kick people who were down; he lifted them up and showed them how to move forward.”
Or what about class-based home bases? David Lapp and W. Bradford Wilcox have been known to write for Family Studies: “In an era when America is coming apart along class lines, religious congregations have an opportunity to become places where people from across class lines can come together for a common goal. Creating that space, however, may not happen without the ingenuity of risk-raking religious leaders who are willing to go out and meet the very people—working-class men and women who are divorced, cohabiting, and rearing children outside of marriage—whom few congregations are reaching.”
What about reaching out to young people in particular? Todd R. Flanders is headmaster of Providence Academy in Plymouth, MN: “Religious schools have always taught and defended traditions of faith, which connect rational purposes of love, sex, and marriage with the transcendent. It’s ironic that now religious schools must, virtually alone, teach and defend a traditional understanding of rationality itself. . . . We who run religious schools must open our arms to any family, whatever tolls the sexual revolution may have taken on them, if they want their children to learn the truth of a better way. It is no surprise that many parents who are either products of divorce or divorced themselves look to religious schools as partners in forming the next generation.”
‘We who run religious schools must open our arms to any family.’
What about reaching out to the black community in particular? Don Samuels, who is African-American, is a Minneapolis politician and ordained minister: “Even though I had been a weekly churchgoer, across six cities, for the first 25 years of my professional life, I do not recall one single sermon or presentation from the pulpit promoting marriage, helping marriages work, encouraging fidelity, delaying childbearing till marriage, or even helping parents be better together. How could it be that the religious leadership of my community, with its highest rates of single heads-of-household, the lowest rates of marriage, and the greatest loss of social stability, also has so little advocacy for the proven solution?”
And what can be done so that marriage ceremonies, regardless of whether services are held in a church, synagogue, or other house of worship, increase the chances that a new husband and wife will remain forever committed to the new life they may create? Elliott Masie is chair of The Learning CONSORTIUM, headquartered in Saratoga Springs, NY: “Most of our marriage ceremonies are focused on partners’ desires to spend the rest of their lives together, but most leave out the even more important contracts that two people starting a family should affirm to each other. Why can’t religious institutions transform marriage and wedding preparation and affirmations into a contracting and commitment process to assist, coach, and validate a strong contract about creating, raising, and supporting a family together? What if our wedding vows were to include a public commitment to bind each other to raise a child together—to create a family setting with both parents present and with financial, emotional, and educational support for each child from birth onward?”
In interviewing National Public Radio’s Krista Tippett for a recent book of mine, I asked the host of On Being how we might take greater advantage of our religious institutions for various purposes—not just fortifying marriage—while also fully respecting the Constitution and American variety. “I really want the traditions,” she said, “to begin fully articulating what they know, what they’ve known for generations and centuries about what it means to lead a worthy life, about what matters in life, and about who we are to be for each other.”
In one shape or form or faith or another, the symposium’s 36 essayists would seem to seek the same.
Mitch Pearlstein, Ph.D., is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His most recent book is Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future. Fragmented Families and Silence of the Faithful: How Religious Leaders and Institutions Must Speak Up and Reach Out can be downloaded at www.americanexperiment.org, and individual and bulk orders are available by contacting Peter Zeller (firstname.lastname@example.org).