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July 22, 2011

America’s Marriage Debate Depends on Civil Society

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As recent events in New York show, the marriage debate in America takes place amid serious political and legal fault lines. But efforts to defend and strengthen this bedrock institution ultimately depend on how marriage is understood, articulated, and practiced in civil society.

As an undergraduate at Duke University, I spent the better part of senior year preparing for two related challenges: my senior thesis and marriage. My thesis, written for the public policy department, focused on the effects of marriage and divorce law.

While I was writing it, my soon-to-be fiancée and I were going through pre-engagement counseling with our pastor. A month before graduation, I submitted the thesis for Duke’s approval and popped the question to Karin.

Thankfully, both said yes.

Since those days, social scientists have mounted more and more research confirming the substantial social and economic effects of marriage and divorce. Studies show that a healthy marriage is associated with higher income, home ownership, and accumulation of assets and savings.

Strong marriage also correlates with positive outcomes for children, including higher academic achievement; improved mental and emotional health; lower risk of substance abuse and violent delinquency; and delayed sexual activity and risk behavior. Being raised by married parents reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent. And according to a joint report from the Institute for American Values and several other organizations, family fragmentation costs U.S. taxpayers at least $112 billion each year.

On these social and economic grounds alone, government has a significant interest in safeguarding, respecting, and protecting traditional marriage. In his new paper, “A Marshall Plan for Marriage,” Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Chuck Donovan outlines how federal and state officials could do just that.

Such policy recommendations send important signals about the significance of marriage for the welfare of society. But when it comes to strengthening marriage, government can do only so much.

Marriage, after all, is a pre-political institution. It wasn’t created by civil government, and doesn’t depend on civil government for its existence. Marriage is a relationship that deserves the protection of government, but the current debate is about much more than the public benefits and legal definition of marriage.

At its heart, the marriage debate in America is about the meaning of a certain relationship. This is a conversation about the purposes of a particular kind of commitment and how our most basic views about the meaning and purpose of love, sex, and marriage are formed in civil society—by what we observe from our parents growing up, what’s discussed around the dinner table, what’s heard and practiced in our places of worship.

Any hope of strengthening marriage and reducing the prevalence of divorce and out-of-wedlock births must rely on institutions such as the family and church. These are the kind of institutions that are well equipped to form habits, shape opinions, mold desires, cultivate healthy relationships, and exercise moral authority. Pastors and church leaders, especially, wield great influence in shaping parishioners’ understandings of and expectations for marriage. Premarital counseling likely is where they encounter the most pointed instruction. This was true for Karin and me in the months before our engagement and marriage.

Unfortunately, only 25 percent to 33 percent of marrying couples receive premarital counseling. Although a majority of clergy rank premarital counseling as high in importance, couples often don’t leave enough time before the wedding date to go to more than three one-hour counseling sessions.

This is one reason why, in the attempt to strengthen marriage in America, the nonprofit organization Marriage Savers focuses primarily on pastors and the way they prepare members of their congregations for marriage. Since 1986, Marriage Savers has helped more than 200 churches form Community Marriage Policies. Participating pastors pledge to recruit and sustain “mentor couples” within their congregations. The pastors also agree to refuse to marry any couple who hasn’t had significant premarital preparation from both clergy and a mentor couple. The results are impressive: Churches with Community Marriage Policies have seen reduced divorce rates and improved marital relationships.

By strengthening marriage, private counseling sessions significantly contribute to the common good. Successful community-based efforts such as Marriage Savers not only shape hearts, minds, and relationships, but also help provide spouses and their children with a buffer against poverty or other social ills.

Policymakers need to understand the public good of traditional marriage. They need to work to protect and encourage it in law. Winning the public debate over the meaning of marriage, however, also requires the effective engagement of civil society.

Before Karin and I married, my research on the negative economic and social effects of divorce sobered me. But even more effective was the positive instruction about successful marriage that we received in pastoral counseling before we got engaged. We learned not only the purposes of marriage, but also how to create a budget, communicate effectively, and avoid personal insults when arguing. Just as important as public efforts to fight for marriage may be the need to train couples to fight well within it.

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in First Things

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