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Thinking locally

Q&A | The United States is a nation of communities, says Ryan Messmore, and the moral authority of families and churches is a key to its greatness

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

Ryan Messmore, 36, gained theology degrees from Duke and Cambridge University and then created in 2001 the Trinity Forum Academy, which every year hosts a small group of recent college graduates who study applied Christian theology while trying to build community. In 2006 he became a fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where part of his task is to assess the future of small and local within a national culture committed to big. He has just completed his doctorate in theology from Oxford.

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.

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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.

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