A recent Time magazine article asks the question, "who needs marriage?" Apparently the answer is fewer and fewer Americans. At least, that's the finding of a recent study by the Pew Research Center. It's findings ought to concern anybody who cares about the state of this essential institution, and what we're doing about it--or perhaps more to the point, what we're failing to do about it.
According to the study, the cultural changes of the last 50 years have led to a sharp decline in marriage. In 1960, two-thirds of all Americans in their twenties were married. Today, only one-quarter is. Overall, only 52 percent of American adults were married in 2008, compared with 72 percent in 1960. Part of the reason, Pew notes, is that new family forms have emerged as cultural and legal alternatives to marriage.
The most obvious of these is cohabitation. More than half of those from the ages of 30 and 49 say that they have cohabitated at some point. And now more and more Americans-55 percent-now view cohabitation as a good, or at least neutral thing. So it's no surprise that nearly four in ten Americans see marriage as becoming "obsolete."
I don't need to be a statistician to guess where these trends are headed. There's one more disturbing trend that the Pew study points out. Pew calls it the "marriage gap." Among those with a college education and good income, marriage remains the norm. But marriage is not markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the soci-economic ladder. And lower income families are very likely to be headed by a single parent, almost always the mother. It's difficult to imagine a better way to perpetuate the income gap between the affluent and the poor than this trend.
The list of what social scientists call "adverse outcomes" associated with single parenthood is long and well-documented, including the soaring prison population we deal with here at Prison Fellowship.
So what are we to make out of all of this? Clearly, the trends are running against traditional marriage-the foundational institution of any civilized society. The last thing the institution of marriage needs is yet another legally sanctioned "new family form." I'm talking, of course, about so-called gay "marriage." Should so-called gay "marriage" become the law of the land, barring a miracle, I don't see how these trends can be reversed.
Closer to home, the church has to ask itself if and how we've contributed to the trends documented in the Pew study. While few churches sanction cohabitation and some of the other new family forms Pew describes, our record on divorce and re-marriage leaves a lot to be desired. Advocates of these new family forms take delight in pointing out that divorce rates are higher in the Bible Belt than they are in more liberal parts of the country. They don't hesitate to point to studies showing that Christians aren't that much better at marriage and family than their non-religious neighbors.
Fair enough, they have a point. If we're going to lead the fight to preserve traditional marriage, we need to start by creating a place where there is no question of its being "obsolete." That is, our homes and our churches.