Features

Marriage matters

"Marriage matters" Continued...

Issue: "The yoot vote," Aug. 4, 2007

WORLD: You point out how important it is for more marriages to succeed and fewer children to be born out of wedlock, and you present 13 ideas for pushing the success rate for first marriages back up to 75 percent (from the current 60 percent) and the rate of unwed childbearing back down below 30 percent (from the current 36 percent). Which several are most important?

BLANKENHORN: There is no one magic bullet-or even two or three! We need to make lots of changes, at every level, from the kitchen table to the halls of Congress. I personally would like to start with rethinking no-fault divorce laws, which I think are unfair, since they automatically put the law on the side of whoever wants a divorce, irrespective of circumstances, and irrespective of who in the marriage has or has not remained faithful to the marriage vows, and since these laws have almost certainly contributed to higher rates of divorce. Obviously, I also think it's important to resist the push for gay marriage. I suppose, if I had to name the one most important social change that we need, it would be to agree as a society that unwed childbearing is morally wrong.

WORLD: One of your 13 ideas is to "encourage churches and other houses of worship to incorporate marriage mentoring as a regular part of congregational life," but you don't say anything about whether those most at risk will be coming to churches. What changes in religious belief, if any, may be needed to preserve and strengthen marriage?

BLANKENHORN: I don't think we need any changes in religious belief-our religious traditions already teach us very clearly about the meaning and importance of marriage. Maybe we just need to pay more attention to the teachings.

At the level of the institutional church and of practical ministry, however, I do think that a lot of churches could do a lot better. Just one example: When my wife and I married in 1986, we composed our own vows. They were pretty good! But looking back, I think it's better for couples to use the vows of their faith community, rather than make up their own. If you make up your own vows, the not-so-subtle message is that the couple is bigger than the vow-the couple, in that sense, is the God of their marriage.

But isn't it more true and beautiful to say that the vow is bigger than the couple? That the vow makes the couple, rather than the other way around? I wish more ministers who officiate marriages would insist that the couple, in this sense, try to conform to the vow rather than imagining that they are creating the vow.

WORLD: You write, "I am a Christian. I take the Bible seriously." Yet your book tries to make an exclusively secular argument against gay marriage. Why did you take that path, and is it necessary when discussing an issue of this sort to downplay the biblical case?

BLANKENHORN: For people of faith, it is certainly not necessary to downplay the biblical case for marriage. Quite the contrary. The church and its teachings are probably our society's most important custodians of marriage as a social institution.

In my book, I wanted to enter the broad public square and speak to everyone-Christians, Jews, Muslims, non-believers, everybody. I wanted to make as broad a case for marriage as possible. If I were to speak only as a Christian, citing mainly Christian and biblical texts and offering basically theological reasons for my conclusions, that would be effective communication for many Christian readers, but probably not for others. So I chose to make essentially secular, and not religious, arguments in this case.

WORLD: You argue that marriage "was not created by religion, and it certainly does not owe its definition or existence to any particular religion or to religion in general." What do you say to Christians who state that the clearest reason to defend marriage is that God created it, in chapter 2 of Genesis?

BLANKENHORN: To me, the two points are not in conflict. Marriage is what scholars call a natural institution-it exists everywhere, in all human societies, across history. It's part of who we are as a species. It certainly exists independently of any particular religious creed or tradition, and, though typically connected to religion, also seems to exist somewhat independently of religion in general. These are matters of scholarly and historical fact.

At the same time, as a Christian, I think of the Genesis story as true and beautiful. Saying that marriage is a natural institution does not deny or negate its religious meanings within particular traditions.

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