In a series of essays I am exploring the sociological reasons that the prosperous democracies with high levels of religiosity – the conservative and creationist USA most of all -- tend to have high levels of social dysfunction. In the last essay we looked at teen sex. This time around it is marriage and divorce.
The Christian right would have us believe that the nuclear family as per Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best is Christ’s way for all humans. In reality the 1950’s family unit was an invention of the 20th century. Marriage as described in the Bible was a standard property relationship for the time, in which the husband essentially owned the wife, who could be a literal slave forced into marriage. Unless you subscribe to the notion that Jesus was secretly married to Mary Magdalene, the Biblical Christ had little use for the institution. He thought the end times were nigh, so why bother? In Luke 12 Jesus says that he had come to earth to divide father against son, mother against daughter and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. The modern idea of marriage as the end result of romantic love between a boy and girl who decide they want to be with one another 24/7 came in during the, well, Romantic Period. Ever since commentators have observed that this arrangement is a recipe for instability. If a couple gets hitched because they like one another rather than as part of a practical, arranged social contract, then what happens if they can’t stand one another anymore?
This problem is displayed in another classic 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy. Ricky and Lucy get along well enough despite the latter’s ditzy ways, but their friends and landlords Ethel and Fred are another matter. Their love, sparked when Fred was a “gay young blade” on the vaudeville tour, had long since soured, (that the actors, the relatively liberal Vivian Vance and the old Irish misogynist William Frawley loathed one another in real life aided the effect). Maybe Fred could have used some Viagra. Because social and legal barriers to divorce were still so strict, the Mertz’s were stuck with one another. When frustrated with their mates, Fred and Ricky occasionally entertained the notion of having an affair, a threat their wives take seriously.
Divorce was rare prior to WW II. During the war strictures against sex outside marriage were still severe enough that lots of hormone driven couples got married so they could enjoy intercourse before he left for duty. Immediately after the war the divorce rate soared as countless quicky couples decided they were not about to spend the rest of their lives together. But the divorce level soon settled back down to prewar levels. It was during the 60s that divorce started its long-term rise. Notice to the elements of the right. The divorce boom did not, repeat did not, arise among 60s baby boomers corrupted by the elimination of school prayer early in the decade combined with the hedonistic individualism of the counterculture. The BBers were just starting to get married. Divorce American style had its beginnings among the “Greatest Generation”, the WW II veterans who were in their fortysomething prime at the time.
The people over on the religious right would like for us to believe that the age of divorce is the fault of the masses falling away from the ways of the Biblical God. There is a little problem with this thesis. Among the western democracies, the religious USA has an exceptionally high level of divorce among married couples, matched only by the Swedes. And don’t blame the secular liberals for this. Within our country, born-again evangelicals are splitting up at sky-high rates that are exceeded by no other major cohort. The collapse of divorce as a legitimate issue of social traditionalists started a few decades ago. As divorce became common the right quickly turned it into a wedge issue, denouncing it as another example of modernity’s secular amorality. It was one of their main lines – until something awkward came up.
Ronald Reagan was once married to Jane Wyman. After some years they got a Hollywood divorce; seems she was having an affair, and their politics were diverging. Not long after that Ronnie married another actor, Nancy, who eventually thought it would be a great idea if her hubby became president. Had Reagan not divorced liberal Jane, he might well never have become the chief executive. As Reagan became the darling of the right, the right’s obsession with divorce as an intolerable sin all of a sudden tailed off into its being a serious but excusable flaw. Convenience trumped conservative principle – again. Oh, traditionalists still like to bring up the divorce thing when it serves their purposes to do so. But failed marriages, often mixed with adultery, has become a common habit among conservative leaders. It has been a feature of most of the leading Repub presidential candidates. A feature that may have contributed to Giuliani,’s problems, but has not done McCain much harm.
Why are working and middle class born-agains doing the splits? Leslie Bennett in The Feminine Mistake describes the problem. Young couple takes the theocon path to familial bliss, and she stays home and raises the kids. The pair get older and their kids leave the nest. Devout Christian husband comes home and announces he is dumping middle aged her in favor of his hot secretary or whoever he has been having his latest affair with. Since he has the money she gets a raw deal all round. Or, she gets fed up with living the dull patriarchal life, wants a career and interests of her own, and takes off leaving him wondering what happened.
Even the theocon elite recognizes that they have a serious credibility gap when it comes to divorce, so they came up with an idea that seemed brilliant. Covenant marriage. This heavy duty version of hitching up requires premarital counseling, oral and written affirmation that the happy couple really is marrying for life, plus narrower grounds for divorce combined with a longer waiting period before a final split is finalized. Three southern states, Arkansas, Louisiana and Arizona, passed covenant marriage laws. Traditionalist leaders calculated that with hundreds of thousands, nay millions, wedded tight as Siamese twins, evangelical divorce would die on the vine. Meanwhile, the liberal fools, still wedding under the looser, secular rules, would continue to suffer from high levels of divorce, demonstrating once and for all the superiority of His ways.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Although governor Mike Huckabee occasionally likes to cite his rule in the adoption of covenant marriage under his watch in Arkansas, the movement as withered as no additional states have adopted the system. That’s because in the states with covenant marriage, 1% have been under the new rules. That’s a few thousand people. About the same number of gays joined one another in wedded bliss in Massachusetts, and tens of thousands have signed up for domestic partnerships in California. So gays are showing more commitment towards being as committed to one another as the law allows than are Bible believers. Most conservative Christians don’t want to have anything to do with a rigorous marriage contract. Here’s why. They want the option to opt out if it comes down to it. This is America after all, land of the free – free to move on.
Let’s not be holier than thou when it comes to the right-wingers over the divorce dilemma. Divorced secularists are not exactly a rare species, and no one including me seems to have a good solution to what has become a chronic trait of modern western life. The problem with the theocon elites is that they continue to arrogantly proclaim that only their Bible based ideology leads to sound marriages, when it is painfully obvious they have no clue how to address their own divorce troubles much less that of society at large, and if anything the structure of right wing marriage exacerbates the problem. They really should knock off lecturing the rest of the culture until they get their house in order (since they never will that would keep them quiet for a long time!). In the next essay we’ll take a look at why European families seem to be doing reasonably well despite, or perhaps even because of, low rates of marriage and significant levels of divorce.
Further reading –
This essay is a follow on to “Why is Secular European Society Doing so Much Better Than God-Fearing America? Lets Start With Sex.” www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_gregory__080131_why_is_secular_europ.htm and“Why the Claim that Progressive Secular Values and Policies Are Bad For Societies is a Great Big Lie,” www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_gregory__080118_why_the_claim_that_p.htm
In God in the White House Randall Balmer (HarperCollins, 2008) describes how the religious right manipulated the divorce issue as Reagan became the leader of their cause.
The sad state of born-again divorce is described by unhappy conservative evangelical pollster George Barna in“Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just as Likely to Divorce.” (2001) Barna Research Online. www.barna.org.