The announcement that Al and Tipper Gore are separating after forty years of marriage has captured the attention of the American public to a rather surprising degree. After all, divorce is hardly uncommon these days, and the Gores are famously part of the Baby Boom generation - the generation of couples with the highest divorce rate in history.
The Gores made their announcement in an email sent to friends and associates, and released also to the press. Their statement was short, expressing the separation in straightforward, but rather final, terms. The couple had simply moved in different directions, they explained. They described the decision as one "that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration." Their statement was released jointly, and the couple pledged to say no more.
Nevertheless, the entire nation soon began talking about the Gore's separation and marital breakdown. Some political pundits jumped immediately to the emergence of the Gores who, along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, were catapulted onto the world stage as the ultimate Baby Boomers. Who would have guessed, asked columnist Margaret Carlson, that it would be the Gores, and not the Clintons, who would make such an announcement?
The Clintons' marriage is famously conflicted, but the Gores seemed to be the ultimate power couple. Al Gore, not known for public displays of emotion, famously kissed his wife in a rather amorous embrace as he accepted the 2000 Democratic nomination for president. But here it was, the separation announced in the cold digital form of an email. Go figure.
The breakup of the Gores caught attention at least in part because it came after four decades of marriage. This couple had endured the climactic highs and terrifying lows of political life. They had spent virtually their entire adult lives together. They had leaned on each other as they experienced the near death of their son, Albert Gore III, as a boy. They had been the stalwartly married couple standing alongside the humiliated Clintons. They had forged a new life after Al Gore's loss in the 2000 presidential race. Al had gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and became the most visible celebrity face for the campaign against climate change.
But now, after spending forty years together, raising their family, and surviving political life at the heights, they announced that their lives had been moving apart and their mutual decision was to forge their futures apart from each other.
Gil Troy, who teaches American history at Canada's McGill University, told The New York Times, "In a sense, getting divorced is the iconic baby boomer act." A few days later, along came Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania to report that couples who married in the 1970s were the "greatest divorcing generation." Stevenson acknowledged sadness in the Gores' announcement, but suggested that we should celebrate "how much optimism they have for the rest of their lives."
Writing at The New Republic, Michelle Cottle was even more cheery, arguing that it is just fine that middle aged couples divorce. Forty years of marriage is "an impressive chunk of time to spend together," she asserted, but the expectation that marriage means staying together into the next phase of adult life is unreasonable. The story of the Gores, she insisted, "is a classically American tale, with its themes of hope and promise and new beginnings."
Perhaps the most interesting analysis of the Gore announcement and its meaning for marriage came from Jeffrey Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal. Consider this paragraph from his report:
The Gores aren't offering explanations, but marital therapists and divorce attorneys say the breakup of long-term marriages is routine these days - for reasons of longevity, economics and cravings for happiness and self-expression that were less prevalent in previous generations. People are living longer, and they're less willing to spend their last decades with someone who leaves them unfulfilled. At the same time, working wives are less dependent on husbands for financial support, and husbands have Viagra and other new incentives to find other romances.
An entire moral revolution is found with those words. As Zaslow explains, we now face the reality that, as people are living longer, older couples are breaking up because of the desire of spouses to find happiness and self-expression. Add money and Viagra to the mix, and a whole new world of possibility beckons.
Zaslow cites anthropologist Margaret Mead (herself a moral revolutionary), who argued that marriage "was designed for a time when people died in their 40s and 50s, after raising children together." Constance Putzel, a retired divorce attorney, told Zaslow "we're living longer, we're healthier, and couples are bored with each other."
Ms. Putzel, author of the book, Representing the Older Client in Divorce, told Zaslow: "We have to ask ourselves: Is 'ever after' too long?"
The modern age has been toxic to marriage. Its economic and cultural transformations have changed marriage as an institution and as an experience, and the cults of self-expression and personal autonomy have done their work as well. The knowledge of marriage as an enduring covenant has been replaced with the concept of marriage as a contract of unknown duration - with terms to be determined later.
Christians observing the conversation in the culture spawned by the Gore separation should note carefully how this chatter reveals the fundamental transformation of marriage in the modern age. Those who are committed to the biblical understanding of marriage as an enduring and holy covenant cannot even entertain the notion of marriage as a commitment open to future reconsideration.
If anything, the cultural conversation about the breakup of the Gores' marriage indicates something of how difficult it is to contend for Christian marriage in the context of modernity. Nevertheless, this is the battle - and the commitment - to which we are called.
Perhaps the marriage of Al and Tipper Gore may yet be saved. We must prayerfully hope that it might be so. But their announcement has revealed a break-up on an even larger scale - the break-up of a cultural commitment to marriage as an enduring institution.
We have become a culture that believes that staying together unto death is just too much to ask.