Thinking Locally

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Thinking Locally

Jun 16th, 2011 4 min read

Ryan Messmore studies and writes about how religious commitment improves public discourse...

Is strengthening marriage a church or state affair? Both church and nation-state.

How should Christians do better? Christians should do a better job preparing the emerging generation for courtship, marriage, and sex. We should be able to talk about these things ­candidly in the body of Christ. Sadly, in many churches today the larger culture exercises more influence in shaping sexual and familial norms among young people. The next generation is approaching serious physical relationships misinformed about romance, love, and finding Mr. or Ms. Right. Christians need to shape better expectations about what the adventure of marriage actually looks like.

Why should the national government have a position on marriage? Marriage and divorce are not solely private issues. They affect the common good of society, and the public cost of family breakdown is astounding. Social science research shows that healthy marriages benefit all persons, and especially women and children, in many dimensions of well-being. If the nation-state has a legitimate interest in things like good education, physically healthy citizens, and avoiding child poverty, then the nation-state has a legitimate interest in promoting marriage because marriage is the context in which education, physical health, and financial prosperity tend to flourish.

What should be done? We can at least stop penalizing people financially when they get married. This happens when our tax code requires a married couple to pay more than an unmarried cohabiting couple earning the same amount. Obamacare, for example, allows cohabiting couples without employer-sponsored health insurance to receive a higher number of subsidies for healthcare than their married counterparts. Other government welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid reduce eligibility and benefits for those who tie the knot.

Some politicians talk a lot about how "we" need to tackle social problems like family breakdown together. A striking phrase to me in the last presidential campaign was, "We are all in this together," but it's important to ask who was being referred to by the "we."

What's your take on that? When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used that phrase in 2008, they seemed to mean a national family organized around government with the president as the figurehead, the father. That's very dangerous language.

What's a better way to discuss this? One alternative would have been George Herbert Walker Bush's language—we are a nation of communities. We are the USA, and there's a lot to be proud of about this single political entity, but one of the reasons that we love America is that it provides room for other social institutions and forms of community—like families and churches—to exercise moral authority.

That's a good concept for Christians . . . Yes . . . it allows our ultimate authority to be Jesus Christ, while recognizing that we can give proper, rightly ordered allegiance to our president, our mayors, to our school board.

What would you like to see done on the state government level? State governments need to evaluate whether their welfare rules and regulations encourage or discourage marriage. By threatening to revoke government benefits, many welfare programs discourage single mothers from marrying the employed fathers of their children. Discouraging men and women from enjoying the financial and emotional supports of marriage in order to keep a monthly government check not only hurts these impoverished adults, but adversely affects their children, who are more likely to continue the cycle of poverty for another generation.

And local governments? They could draw attention to the importance of marriage in fighting poverty and improving education. Targeting teens and residents of low-income communities especially, local officials could promote public awareness campaigns and other efforts to reaffirm the importance of the family for healthy neighborhoods.

What are the best examples you've seen of civil society institutions lowering the divorce rate? One example is an effort to bring pastors in the same town together in agreement about a minimum level of premarital counseling they will require of couples asking to be married in their churches. This prevents couples who don't want to bother with it from being able to go "down the street" to find another pastor with looser counseling requirements.

Many young Christians have told me that they wish there were more "transparency" among members of the older generation. How should churches encourage the long-term married to talk frankly about the ups and downs of marriage? Some churches partner recently engaged couples with married couples in the congregation and encourage them to share meals and spend time together in other ways. This provides a context in which engaged couples can ask honest questions about marriage and parenting. They also can learn a lot just by observing the daily rhythms and challenges of married household life with an eye toward their own future.

personal approach

From "Does Advocating Limited Government Mean Abandoning the Poor," a paper by Ryan Messmore published last month:

Many people either have no family to support them or have needs that are so severe that they overwhelm a single family unit. In these cases, people require the help of larger institutions that can bring more resources to bear without losing the personal approach that makes families so effective. In this way, churches and ministries can play important roles in combating poverty.

Like families, local congregations are well equipped to cultivate and restore the foundational relationships of life. Churches and ministries provide personalized help. They can connect those in need with others who understand the problem, can offer innovative solutions, and can observe the direct effects of their efforts. If they find that their approaches are not effective, local ministries can quickly change course and use different approaches as necessary.

Local congregations can address a wide range of emotional, spiritual, social, material, and financial needs. Beyond providing just money or food, they can offer accountability, discipline, modeling, and a sense of belonging in a supportive community. Similar to families, religious communities and ministries can also address problems at the level of the human heart, the level at which change is often needed to overcome the broken relationships and patterns of behavior that trap individuals in poverty. By pointing people to a source of meaning and purpose in life, these faith-based institutions can foster hope, strength, and perseverance in the face of difficulties.

Ryan Messmore is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in World Magazine