An Uncalled for Low Blow

Last night I participated in a Facebook discussion in the wake of the Prop 8 court decision.

One guy who was for same-sex marriage kept bringing up divorce, using it to hammer Christians and conservatives over the head.  I have seen this time and again in discussions on same-sex marriage: “I don’t hear any Christians campaigning about divorce, yet Christians get divorced just as much as non-Christians.  Why doesn’t anyone get up in arms about that?  You all need to get your own house in order before hating on gays.”

Some even tout the 50% statistic: that 50% of Christian marriages end up in divorce.

One area of housecleaning before I talk about divorce: enough with the false dichotomies.  As my friend Neil recently noted, just because we do not buy into 100% of the gay agenda doesn’t mean we “hate” gays, and just because we don’t support same sex marriage doesn’t mean we are “anti-gay.”

The folks who bring up divorce skip over some huge points.  First, I know what Barna says, but there is some other data and studies out there that need to be taken into account.  Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, notes,

Mere religious affiliation may not reduce divorce, but religious practice clearly does. One longitudinal analysis of the National Survey of Family Growth found that couples who attended church as often as once a month had divorce rates less than half that of couples who attended church once a year or less. Similarly, a recent study of the National Survey of Families and Households found that marriage in which both couples attend church regularly have the lowest divorce risk (David B. Larson and James P. Swyers, 2002, “Does Religion and Spirituality Contribute to Marital and Individual Health?” in John Wall et al (eds.) Marriage, Health and the Professions).

The National Marriage Project, a research arm of Rutgers University, found that Religious affiliation does indeed lower one’s risk of divorce.  In the link, see the section titled “Your Chances of Divorce May be Much Lower than you Think.”  Religious affiliation lowers one’s risk of divorce by 14%.  Granted, they do not specify which religious affiliation, but the reduction is telling.  The NMP is an authoritative research group; anyone who wants to get to the bottom line would do well to pour over their data, rather than be content with a second-hand report of a few general stats from Barna.

Often, the people touting the statistic just heard one small sound bite in passing from a news report on a study, thus failing to take into account the details.

Yes, no matter which way you cut it, the divorce rate in the church is very high…too high.  Among evangelicals, for example, while it is lower than the national average (26% for evangelicals, 33% national average), it isn’t much lower.  I am not excusing divorce in the church by any means.  I just get bugged when vague stats are thrown around so cavalierly in an attempt to discredit an argument.  Best to get an accurate handle on the facts first.

Next, many fail to realize what, exactly, has caused the divorce rate in the Church to get so high.  Hint: it is not following the Bible’s teachings!  It is no coincidence that the divorce rate, both inside and outside the Church, has gone up up up since the 1960s.  The secular ideology brought on by the sexual revolution has unduly influenced the Church.  Divorce is just a natural consequence when you put your own desires above serving and obeying God.   Self-gratification was what the sexual revolution was all about.  The Bible’s got nothing to do with it, therefore it’s a stretch to try to lay the blame at the Bible’s door.

The folks at the NMP hint at this when they say:

The recent family trends in the Western nations have been largely generated by a distinctive set of cultural values that scholars have come to label “secular individualism.” It features the gradual abandonment of religious attendance and beliefs, a strong leaning toward “expressive” values that are preoccupied with personal autonomy and self-fulfillment, and a political emphasis on egalitarianism and the tolerance of diverse lifestyles. An established empirical generalization is that the greater the dominance of secular individualism in a culture, the more fragmented the families. The fundamental reason is that the traditional nuclear family is a somewhat inegalitarian group (not only between husbands and wives but also parents and children) that requires the suppression of some individuality and also has been strongly supported by, and governed by the rules of, orthodox religions. As a seeming impediment to personal autonomy and social equality, therefore, the traditional family is an especially attractive unit for attacks from a secular individualistic perspective.

All of what I’ve said so far are small points compared with the next three.  Divorce is a tragedy.  If you have been divorced, you have my sympathies.  I know that doesn’t help a bit, but I can’t imagine the pain you’ve gone through.

A past error in law (in this case, laws that made divorce easier), though, does not justify making another error in law.  I’ll say it again:  loosening laws in the past does not justify loosening them more now, especially if we have good reason not to loosen laws further now.  A third time: just because The Family has been weakened by lawmakers in the past doesn’t mean we cavalierly continue to do so now.  To suggest we continue down the slippery slope just ‘cuz, and to suggest I have to keep my mouth shut merely because lawmakers of the past decided to grease the skids in the first place is just plain silly…it’s a very large non sequitur.

If one grants the assumptions used to justify things like no-fault divorce, those assumptions might, indeed, be used to justify other changes to the institution of The Family, but that is not a problem for me, since I don’t buy into those assumptions.

I, as well as a throng of other Christian conservatives, happen to think that no-fault divorce laws and the worldview that justified them were horrible errors in thinking, so it is pointless to us for anyone to argue for same-sex marriage by bringing up the errors of the past.  Telling us to shut up because of the errors of the past falls on deaf ears.

Most  importantly, many who bring up the divorce canard, for some reason, bring it up as if Christians are for divorce!  They act like Christians think no fault divorce laws are ok!  I have no idea why they assume this.  What church are they going to?  What Bible are they reading?  Must not be the same Bible I’m reading.  Must not be the same Bible that almost every other Christian I know reads.  You can find churchgoers that attempt to justify their own adultery by slithering past a verse or two, true enough….but it’s wise not to set fire to straw men.

Geez, look around at churches and you will find countless individuals and organizations committed to helping married couples stay married.  You will find a cacophany of voices that hails divorce as an absolutely terrible tragedy.  You will find a great number of sermons dedicated to uplifting the virtues of a solid marriage and preaching the vices of divorce.  In fact, my pastor just had a sermon on divorce last week, and I will be blogging on it soon.

By the way the detractors beat their chests about the state of marriages in the Christian Church (which, I already admit, is in a sad state of affairs), you’d think they truly cared about divorce.  Ok, I’ll call their bluff: you, my friend, will you join me in the fight against divorce?  Will you write blog posts about how it has affected children?  Will you agree with me that divorce is a blight on society?  Will you financially support ministries and groups that help strengthen marriages?  If someone in a marriage is thinking about calling it quits (outside of abuse and egregious adultery), will you stare them squrely in the face (as my pastor did a few weeks back) and counsel them to seek help and not throw in the towel?  Will you aplaud with me all that James Dobson has done to help marriages thrive?

Chances are: no.

These folks who bash the Church over the head with divorce…I just don’t get it.  It is so uncalled for and represents a serious ad hominem + straw man.  I wish they’d take a closer and more charitable look at the Church when it comes to this subject.  I have a hunch that it’s not a serious point they really care about; my gut tells me it’s just their way of shaming and silencing those they disagree with.

Lastly, the reason why you hear so much talk about same-sex marriage relative to divorce is elementary: same-sex marriage is where the battle is currently waging.  No-fault divorce was decided years ago.  If there was a serious  chance that those laws would be repealed, you bet your bottom dollar that you’d see a strong push from many conservative Christians in that direction.  Same-sex marriage proponents write letters to the editor, appear on Larry King Live, and march in the streets today.  We want to answer those arguments.  Simple as that.

In conclusion: those who bring up the Church’s record as to divorce are changing the subject; they are merely distracting folks from the arguments for and against SSM itself, and they should drop the tactic.

9 responses to “An Uncalled for Low Blow

  1. AOA;

    very nice blog…

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  3. I’d like to thank you for a well-reasoned post that mostly avoids the usual Christian ranting over the subject of same-sex marriage (SSM). In that spirit, allow me to take issue with it.

    First, I have a hard time fathoming the Christian view of the family and marriage as so fragile, that both require the power of the government to preserve them. If mature adults are granted greater freedom to initiate a divorce, it’s seen as an assault on marriage. This is akin to the liberal argument that rules which make it easier for workers to leave a union constitute an attack on unionization. If a voluntary arrangement, like marriage, is upheld only by laws which restrict one’s ability to leave it, then those who decry a loosening of those laws are actually conceding the weakness of the arrangement. Free societies are not built on restrictive rules and regulations concerning with whom we may or may not associate; that is the province of repressive societies.

    Second, you say that divorce is tragic. In some instances, it is, but the far greater tragedy is essentially being forced to share your life with someone you do not wish to be with, particularly if that person is abusive, unloving, or a deadbeat. Many Christians like yourself regard marriage itself as the supreme good, but this confuses an end for a means. The supreme good is actually one’s happiness; marriage is simply a means to it, one of many, and not universal for everyone. If marriage is the supreme good, why not advocate for laws which compel everyone to marry at a certain age, say, 21?

    Finally, and more to the meat of the matter, you regard SSM proponents’ pointing to the fact of a high Christian divorce rate as a “lowblow,” and basically irrelevant to the debate over SSM. Actually, the criticism is appropriate, as it lays bare their underlying motive of prejudice against gays, which is as old as the religion itself. If Christians were truly motivated by their concern to preserve marriage, then as fervently as they advocate for laws against SSM, they would just as fervently seek to repeal laws which make ending marriage easier. Granted, Christians seek to reduce the incidence of divorce through counseling services, but the difference is that these are voluntary to all parties, whereas their opposition to SSM relies on compulsive legal measures. The fact is, Christians feel free to oppose SSM and not no-fault divorce because the former impacts them very little while the latter is a freedom they widely – and sometimes frequently – exercise (just look at Newt Gingrich, for example).

    Fortunately, many Christians who once stridently opposed gay marriage are changing their tunes (Rick Warren, Ted Haggard) as they realize the prejudice and hypocrisy which underlies it is irrational and something they can no longer countenance.

  4. Only problem with Robert’s post is that he didn’t tail it with Quod erat demonstrandum.

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  6. Robert,
    Thanks for offering your thoughts.

    There is something right about your first point: the institutions of marriage and family actually predate any government. Marriage is recognized by governments; it was not created by governments. No matter what government does with marriage, certain particular families will stay intact. There will always be healthy families around.

    However, you fail to acknowledge two things: 1) that government policy does shape the worldview of the culture, and 2) if a government makes it easier to divorce, it’s not a stretch to think more divorces will occur. In fact, that is exactly what happened..see the whole National Marriage Project report here:

    As to 1), there is a society-wide shift toward secular individualism. This shift is present at all levels: education, media, entertainment, government, etc. The National Marriage Project report acknowledges, “Marriage has fallen by the wayside, in part, because it receives less and less social recognition and approval. Any norm of behavior requires for its maintenance the continuing support of the community, including active social pressures to uphold it. When social approval and pressures wither, the norm weakens. Today’s young people have been taught through the schools and in their communities a strong message of tolerance for ‘alternative lifestyles.’ ‘Thou shalt not make moral judgments about other people’s family behavior’ seems to have become a dominant message in our times. The reason for this is completely understandable; children and young people come from ever more diverse family situations which are not of their own doing, and they should be fully accepted and not be penalized. The problem is that this moral message is carried on into adult life, where it is applied not to children and young people but to adults who do have choices about how they shape their lives. In an effort not to judge much less stigmatize any adult life style, we have all too often become virtually silent about the value and importance of marriage. This silence is extremely damaging to the promotion of a pro-marriage culture. ”

    The point here is that though there will always be particular families that stay healthy no matter the cultural milieau, the stability at a macro-level will continue to erode as long as the culture itself has all these eroding elements in it. Government laws are one part of this, though not the whole–government policy communicates a ton about what people should and should not value. It has nothing to do, really, with the “Christian view of marriage.” It’s just that marriage and family are society-level institutions, so duh, they require the support of society to stay strong. When a society, at multiple levels, fails to uphold the institution, it weakens…it’s the nature of the beast, and one doesn’t need to be a Christian to see this.

    As to 2),
    The more divorces occur, the more children are harmed. Marriage, after all, is not about the happiness of adults (more on that in a bit)–it is about creating a stable environment for the raising of the next generation. That is why the state has an interest in marriage in the first place–the common good of future generations.

    As Patrick Lee (Public Discourse contributor) notes, “The state has an essential interest in the health of marriage. Generally speaking, children will receive the best and most loving care if they are raised by their biological parents, who have formed a community aimed at providing the most suitable environment for any children they may help bring into being. Almost always, children can count on their mothers to care for them when they are young; the institution of marriage is dedicated to ensuring, as much as possible, that fathers also will fulfill their responsibilities to the children they help procreate, and to the mothers of their children. Furthermore, where the institution of marriage is strong, people’s sexual passions and energies—frequently difficult to control, often leading to self-centeredness and exploitation—are channeled toward intelligible goods, namely, marriage and family.”

    The National Marriage Project report notes recent trends, “There can be no doubt that the institution of marriage has continued to weaken in recent years. Whereas marriage was once the dominant and single acceptable form of living arrangement for couples and children, it is no longer. Today, there is more ‘family diversity:’ Fewer adults are married, more are divorced or remaining single, and more are living together outside of marriage or living alone. Today, more children are born out-of-wedlock (now almost four out of ten), and more are living in stepfamilies, with cohabiting but unmarried adults, or with a single parent. ****This means that more children each year are not living in families that include their own married, biological parents, which by all available empirical evidence is the gold standard for insuring optimal outcomes in a child’s development.****” (emphasis mine)

    Also, you misstate things a bit when you say, “Free societies are not built on restrictive rules and regulations concerning with whom we may or may not associate; that is the province of repressive societies.” People are free to associate, live with, and sleep with whomever they wish, whether or not no-fault divorce laws are in effect….it’s just that without no-fault divorce laws, the government isn’t going to affirm your choice. There are all sorts of laws that make dissolving *any* government contract difficult, Robert. That doesn’t mean we are a “repressive” society. In fact, today, a marriage contract is perhaps one of the easiest contracts to dissolve (due to lack of means for one party to contest a divorce).

    I am not claiming that no fault divorce laws were the only (or even main) culprit of today’s woeful state of marriage. Just by reading the Wiki page on no fault divorce ( I can tell that the erosion started long before that (otherwise couples wouldn’tve perjured themselves in court in order to get around the law at such great numbers). NFD seems to have been a perhaps ill conceived solution to a very sticky problem–a large increase in perjury in order to obtain a divorce. All I’m saying is that NFD laws inched us down the road to where we are now.

  7. In your second point, I absolutely, positively, 100% reject your notion that a person’s happiness is the supreme good, and marriage is simply a means to it…well, let me back up a bit: I reject happiness as the supreme good if it is defined a certain way. If it is defined classically, as Aristotle defined it, then I have no beef. According to Aristotle, happiness is a well-lived and well ordered life. A character of integrity is key here. But defined the way we define it today, as a certain subjective feeling of pleasure, then I definitely have a beef. Why is *that* kind of happiness the supreme good? It might be nice to have it, and I might even prefer to have that kind of happiness, all other things being equal…but I have absolutely no reason to think it’s the *supreme good.*

    I’m not the center of the universe. You aren’t either. It is completely preposterous for me to think *my personal happiness* or anyone else’s personal happiness is the supreme good. Only by accepting secular individualism could one’s own happiness plausibly be seen as the end of all ends….but I think S.I is a bunch of bunk too.

    I don’t even hold marriage as the supreme good….don’t know where you got that from. Marriage *is* a very unique way to mature a person and hence bring about the character I mentioned above. It is a rather intense crucible for the development of selflessness and responsibility because in marriage, one finds out s/he is most definitely *not* the center of the universe. His happiness (in the contemporary sense) is secondary at best…a man (and woman) must live for the other–> spouse and children.

    I also hold that heterosexual marriage is the best environment for the raising of a child. Boys and girls need both a mother and father, for both parents bring something to the table that the other cannot offer. This is why it is important on a societal level.

    As to your last point about divorce “laying bare our prejudice” against gays, there is a simple reason why you don’t see a whole lot of campaigning for the repeal of NFD laws (while there have been some calls for divorce law reform): it wouldn’t do any good; NFD aren’t going anywhere, no matter how hard anyone campaigns against them. SSM, though, is a current debate, and it is still an open question as to where things will go. The majority of the public still advocates for a traditional view of marriage. Even with abortion, where Roe and Bolton have been the law of the land for 35 years, the prospects of a Roe repeal are (well, *were,* up until November 4, 2008) good. There are also many pro-life laws on the books that reduce the incidence of abortion (those laws might be in danger the next four years, especially if FOCA passes)…not so with NFD.

    Moreover, it is not true that SSM would impact others very little. True enough, SSM wouldn’t impact my individual marriage or the marriage of any one individual, but no one is making that argument. The impact such laws does have is that through my tax dollars, I must support relationships that I have good reason not to support. When government changes the definition of marriage, it gives the implicit approval and affirmation of society to those relationships. Plus, for pastors, church leaders, and anyone involved in the wedding industry, it will be awfully hard for them to opt out of actively performing wedding services for such couples. The law will force them to….this has already happened in certain cases in the U.S.

    When you say, “The fact is, Christians feel free to oppose SSM and not no-fault divorce because the former impacts them very little while the latter is a freedom they widely – and sometimes frequently – exercise (just look at Newt Gingrich, for example)” you completely disregarded about half of my post. I gave good reason to hold the divorce rate among committed Christians is lower than the populace at large. I gave good reason to hold that the high divorce rate among Christians is *not* because of anything in the religion itself but instead is due to the influence of an alien worldview–secular individualism. I made a point that it is unwise to attack straw men and hold them as representative of Christians and Christianity (Newt Gingrich…is the guy even Christian? I don’t know.). And lastly, you sidestep the arguments against SSM themselves and jump straight to attacking Christians themselves. Motives are one thing–the actual arguments are something different, and more relevant to the debate.

    It would be more profitable if you’d deal with the arguments offered against SSM and for the traditional view. Contra Fox, ending your comment with QED would not be appropriate.

    By the way, I’m just curious: what do you think are the arguments for the traditional marriage view over SSM? You insinuate hatred and prejudice on my (and other Christians’) part, but I don’t see anywhere in your comment where you actually recite the views of your opponents then critique them. Can you do that for me?

  8. Greetings again, Rich. I enjoyed your thoughts which enabled a greater appreciation of your position, though I cannot say I agreed with them. We have fundamentally different views on government and marriage, and the proper interplay between them. Nonetheless, I would like to respond to your latest reply because I don’t think it made substantial headway against the core of my critique. Before I explain why, allow me to offer a brief recap of the chief points of the conversation.

    Your initial post was aimed at rejecting the notion that because Christians divorce just as much as anyone else, their criticisms of SSM as weakening traditional marriage ring hollow. You made two points:

    1) Past mistakes don’t justify making further mistakes.
    2) SSM proponents themselves are not interested in strengthening marriage, so their criticisms of SSM opponents boil down to an ad hominem attack and an attempt to silence debate.

    I responded by noting that if Christian opponents of SSM were truly motivated by their desire to preserve traditional marriage (as they define it), they’d campaign against laws they believe weaken it (e.g., no-fault divorce), just as energetically as they campaign against SSM. The reasons they don’t are because 1) opposition to SSM is driven strongly, if not primarily, by long-standing prejudice against gays; 2) it would greatly inconvenience Christians if divorce was harder to obtain, while it personally costs them little to oppose SSM. This demonstrates that the criticisms against Christian SSM opponents are valid; their position is not primarily based on the one they publicly declare.

    You countered by explaining that 1) the reason Christians don’t oppose laws making it easier to divorce, like no-fault divorce, is because it would be futile, unlike, say, legalized abortion, where there’s a good chance repeal can happen. You further say that 2) SSM would have a negative impact not just on you personally, but the wedding industry in general. Next, you claimed that 3) committed Christians don’t divorce as much as popularly believed. Finally, you chastised me for 4) not addressing the actual arguments against SSM.

    I hope I’ve fairly and adequately covered the conversation so far. Consequently, allow me to explain why I believe your last reply is inadequate.

    As to 1), it puzzles me that you justify the lack of a Christian campaign against easy divorce laws by saying, in essence, that it’s not politically expedient. You spent a great deal of space explaining how critical “traditional” marriage is for the raising of children, criticizing the “worldview” which fuels divorce, and justifying the view that “government policy does shape the worldview of the culture.” How, truly, can political expediency override these? Either Christians like yourself lack the courage of your convictions, or the political expediency argument is a red herring. Is not truth, truth? Do you really care if politics and popular opinion are against you? Work to change them, at all levels, including legal!

    As to 2), I think you misunderstood my argument. I claimed Christians feel free to oppose SSM because the costs (not all costs are monetary) to them are negligible, unlike the case if stricter divorce laws returned to the books. That WOULD hurt them, so they remain silent. Conceivably, there could be increased social costs if SSM were legal, but that’s unrelated to my claim. On the one hand, I’m speaking of the lack of costly consequences to Christians who oppose SSM. On the other hand, you’re speaking of costs that some Christians might have to bear if SSM became legal as a basis for their opposition. The fact that the two are unrelated is demonstrated by considering the situation in which legal SSM translated into no costs to Christians or anyone. Christians would still oppose SSM, because it remains costless for them to do so.

    A perfect illustration of my point is Dick Cheney, who, as you probably know, has a lesbian daughter. If Cheney opposed SSM, it would cost him dearly in the form of family strife and possible enstrangement. If more Christian families were like Cheney’s, their opposition to SSM would be far more muted; some, like Cheney, would probably support SSM.

    As to 3), you’ve performed a bit of sleight-of-hand. So now it’s “committed Christians,” as you define them, who constitute the real Christians. We should consider the divorce rates of “committed Christians” when assessing whether Christian opposition to SSM is undermined by their frequency of divorce, you suggest. Malarky! For one, this is an ad hoc categorization of Christians. For another, what’s to stop you, or anyone else, from playing the game even further by defining “committed Christians” as those who’ve never divorced? Voila! The criticism of SSM proponents is completely nullified! They can’t point to high Christian divorce rates because “committed Christians” don’t divorce!

    As to 4), your post didn’t actually contain your arguments against SSM. In the interests of a focused conversation, I was responding to your charge that criticism of Christian SSM opponents based on Christian divorce rates constituted a “low blow”. Point me to your case against SSM and I’ll consider responding to it, but that’s a whole different conversation.

    Finally, as far as I can tell, you didn’t reject my argument that Christians were motivated by their long-standing prejudice against gays. You merely dismissed the idea that if Christians were motivated by their desire to preserve “traditional” marriage, they’d also work to repeal laws like no-fault divorce. Even if that were true, it doesn’t nullify the claim that prejudice strongly motivates them.

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