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The Future of Christian Marriage

Mark Regnerus
Published by Published by Oxford University Press in 2020

Probably by most Westerners’ reckoning, the institution of marriage has changed dramatically from what it was even seventy years ago. While a majority of Westerners still get married, it is becoming less common; young adults are delaying marriage longer (the age in developed nations now averages around 30); sexual activity is no longer reserved for marriage by most adults, reflected in the increasingly popular option of just living together; the definition of marriage has changed, for example, gay marriage has become legal in many countries; and divorce has skyrocketed (though rates have remained pretty constant during the last 40 years). Mark Regnerus, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas-Austin, is as well informed about these trends as anyone, having conducted some of the research documenting them. He insists, nonetheless, that these interconnected sociocultural developments tell us nothing about the institution of marriage, which, given its biologically based and socially reinforced defining features, is necessarily a culturally universal, inviolable social structure, regardless of how those features might be altered by specific cultures: the desire for lifelong, mutually committed partner-love, the nature of sexual reproduction, the psychological benefits of marriage to most spouses and their children, the need for intimacy, and the compelling beauty of self-sacrifice for another

What we are observing, then, today, according to Regnerus, are the consequences of massive, worldwide modifications in technology and fundamental beliefs and behaviors that affect contemporary practices that bear on marriage. The increasing ease of domestic chores, the growing education of women and their consequent economic power, the sexual revolution and its norms, and advances in effective birth control and reproductive science have contributed to a gradual increase in the economic power of women, and a consequently greater sense of autonomy. This has led to anxiety among at least some men, and, more broadly, a new, cross-cultural ethos in which marriage is seen as more of a utilitarian exchange of individual capacities and resources, than an interdependent sharing of complementary competencies based on sex differences, as was typical throughout most of human history.

Most Western intellectuals today would probably consider these trends uniformly positive, and long overdue, whereas Christians will undoubtedly differ among themselves regarding their respective value. Regnerus nevertheless argues that their cumulative effect has led to a growing focus among young adults on economic gain and material consumption (in spite of the relatively greater wealth of present generations over previous ones), and the interpretation of marriage, therefore, as a capstone of successful early adult investments in education and vocational experience, instead of as a foundation for a life together. The enhanced economic and technological power of both sexes in our day has, in turn, made it easier for each to be choosier about their potential spouse and also to have higher expectations regarding the quality of their marriage than earlier generations.

But this is just a summary of the cultural backdrop to the primary focus of the book, which is based on a study Regnerus and his research team conducted in 2016-2017 on the marital beliefs and values of almost two hundred young-adult Christians from seven countries around the world: Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Spain, and the United States (specifically Austin, Texas).

As one might expect, most of the young-adult Christians held beliefs and values about marriage that have characterized the Christian tradition for most of its history. For example: God is an important part of a Christian marriage; one’s spouse should be central to one’s earthly concerns; sex should be reserved for marriage, so spouses should be sexually faithful to each other; children are an expected outcome; and marriage is supposed to last for life. However, the actual values and practices of this fairly diverse sample (though no Asians), on the whole, tended not to diverge that much from those of their broader cultures. For example, Christians are having sex outside marriage, cohabiting, and divorcing at rates far higher than seventy years ago, and much closer to mainstream cultural trends. And like their majority-culture peers, Christians are tending to treat marriage more like a capstone, than a foundation, and so seek financial stability before getting married, resulting in later weddings and fewer children.

He suggests these results support the “moral communities” theory, which says that a moral community shapes one’s beliefs and actions the more that that community is within one’s cultural world. As Regnerus summarizes it: “In general, people want to be normal more than they want to be good” (193). As a result, the Christian-worldview-minority subculture in our media-saturated, sexually permissive, global village is finding it nearly impossible to be a countercultural “city on a hill.” On the contrary, their beliefs and actions seem to be inexorably conforming to the “new normal,” with the possible exception, he grants, of a more radical minority of Christians.

Following the standards of contemporary social science, most of the book describes the results of his study, and related research, but in Chapter 6, he offers some recommendations for revitalizing Christian marriage. He suggests that Christian subcommunities need to hold up exemplary, happy marriages as role models; develop a marriage-supportive ethos where the positive potentials of marriage are demonstrable; make their homes an enjoyable refuge for their families (and we might add, those who visit); institute sound marriage preparation programs; help those in difficult marriages; more controversially, allow emerging adult children to stay at home for the purpose of saving money for a future marriage; and finally, experiment with promising pro-marriage, government policy proposals.

If being a Christian social scientist in our day means allowing one’s Christian values to affect one’s choice of research topics and interpretation of the results, regardless of their unpopularity, then Regnerus has been exemplary. At the same time, the Catholic Regnerus is not afraid to criticize modern capitalism for harming marriage by intensifying desire for material goods, that, in turn, ratchets ever higher what counts as an income adequate to gain a satisfactory quality of life. He argues that this dynamic helps to explain why even Christian marriages now require a longer runway to get off the ground, and why spouses increasingly fly side-by-side in their own economically independent planes.

So, we are not surprised that he favors “familism” over modern individualism, defining the former as “a social structure wherein the family is prioritized over the individual in practice, norm, and law” (202), which became a dominant theme of Christianity in the early Middle Ages. Regnerus doesn’t address the degree to which familism has been more or less compromised by a patriarchy that justified the sinful oppression of women. Without distinguishing the creation norms from the fallen norms embedded in a habitus like familism, Christian traditionalists will never persuade others of their warranted concerns.

Perhaps most controversially, Regnerus believes the future of Christianity is tied to a resurgence of familism, arguing that the (public) cohabitation of Christians “is more corrosive to the social practice of Christianity” than (private) sexual promiscuity, “because cohabitation mimics, and arguably mocks, marriage, tacitly encouraging others to endorse the imitation by publicly recognizing the union” (199).

In the final chapter, Regnerus reflects on the future of Christian marriage. He thinks that marriage will likely continue its slow recession among most Christians, despite the tenacity of a faithful remnant. He is persuaded that the queering of the family will eventually reach the limits of its own viability. Finally, he senses that marriage will increasingly become a mark of the most religious people around the world because they have the beliefs, values, virtues, and resources to pursue the greater goods of human life that marriage offers. Though not terribly optimistic about the prospects of Christian marriage and, therefore, Christianity, he would likely not have written the book if he did not have some hope that the current course of the Christian community could be reversed and Christian marriage renewed.

After reading this worthy book, I have been wondering if we evangelicals were too naïve about our ability to resist the influence of mainstream media. Thinking we were “stronger” than those overprotective fundamentalists, many of our families watched for hours every week television and movies where sex before marriage was celebrated and normative, while the goods of marriage and the difficulties intrinsic to their attainment were much less frequently discussed (mea culpa). Perhaps we need to ask God to forgive us for judging those fundamentalists in our own way, and to empower us to be more like them in cultural resistance, while keeping us from the perfectionism and arrogance we so wanted to avoid, and to pour out his Spirit on us and the world in a new way in these challenging days.

Eric L. Johnson

Eric L. Johnson, Assistant Director, Gideon Institute of Christian Psychology and Counseling, Professor of Christian Psychology, Houston Baptist University.