A new survey out this week from the National Marriage Project shows that marriage is an institution in decline in many parts of American society. This “retreat from marriage in Middle America” will have wide-ranging social and economic consequences, say the survey’s authors.
Another recent study of marriage, administered by the Pew Research Center, showed that nearly 40% of Americans believe marriage is becoming ‘obsolete.’
What is marriage? Is it a civil union or is it a religious institution? How do you define it? Is there a marriage crisis in America today?
Last weekend, at a dinner party of mostly ministers, we regaled each other with stories of wedding mishaps. All ministers have had them. My own personal favorite was the three year old flower girl who so didn’t want to be in a dress that, once free of her parents’ prodding, proceeded to undress down to her underwear as she walked down the aisle. But, when we finished laughing at the foibles, we all agreed that performing marriage ceremonies for couples is one of the blessings of our ministerial vocations.
Rather than seeing marriage as obsolete, I see it as changing and evolving, both as a religious and a civil institution. My reading of the Pew Report and the National Marriage Report is not that we have a marriage problem, but rather that unemployment, educational and economic deprivation is causing both the “moderately educated middle” and the poor to delay and/or struggle in married life. In contrast to the headlines, the Pew Report found that more than two thirds of Americans are optimistic about marriage, and that the definition of family is expanding.
From a religious perspective, marriage is about entering into a holy covenant and making a commitment with another person to share life’s joys and sorrows. From a civic perspective, it is about offering more than 1,100 benefits and protections to both partners. From both a religious and civic perspective, marriage is valued because it creates stable committed relationships; provides a means to share economic resources; and nurtures the individual, the couple, and children. We know and affirm that good marriages are based on responsibility, justice, and love.
The irony is that many of the organizations committed to promoting marriage seek to exclude same sex couples from these benefits. In the past, marriage was primarily about property and procreation, while today according to the Pew Report most believe it should be based on love, commitment and companionship. In the past, neither the state nor most religions recognized divorce, remarriage, or interracial marriage, although today, it’s hard for young people to believe that those restrictions could ever have existed. Today, we are beginning to embrace another change, the freedom of same sex couples to marry.
Religious and civic leaders should promote and support marriage without restrictions based on the biological sex, procreative potential, or sexual orientation of the partners. We indeed should be alarmed that economic injustices in our society mean that many do not have the supports to enter into and build strong marriages. Surely we can understand that whether it’s economics, prejudice, or homophobia, as people of faith we should work for justice for all who seek to express their love in the commitment of civic, and if desired religious, marriage. Our commitment must be for legal and relational justice for all.