The National Marriage Project out of the University of Virginia recently released a substantial report on the current state of marriage in America. The report has received a good bit of attention and plenty of different interpretations. One of the more insightful commentaries I read came from Ross Douthat in the New York Times who views the data as evidence of new cultural divisions.
But as religious conservatives have climbed the educational ladder, American churches seem to be having trouble reaching the people left behind. This is bad news for both Christianity and the country. The reinforcing bonds of strong families and strong religious communities have been crucial to working-class prosperity in America. Yet today, no religious body seems equipped to play the kind of stabilizing role in the lives of the “moderately educated middle” (let alone among high school dropouts) that the early-20th-century Catholic Church played among the ethnic working class.
As a result, the long-running culture war arguments about how to structure family life (Should marriage be reserved for heterosexuals? Is abstinence or “safe sex” the most responsible way to navigate the premarital landscape?) look increasingly irrelevant further down the educational ladder, where sex and child-rearing often take place in the absence of any social structures at all.
Douthat is referencing two of the Marriage Project’s eye-opening finding. First, moderately educated Americans are becoming less likely to form “stable, high quality marriages,” while “highly (college) educated” Americans are becoming more likely to form such marriages. Second, religious attendance has dropped most significantly among the moderately educated. Unlike past decades, it is the highly educated who are now most likely to attend church on a weekly basis.
While it may be common to think of marriage and religion as priorities of middle America, this report shows how these values and practices have shifted further up the socioeconomic ladder.
What do you make of this?
As a person who stands generally within evangelicalism, there are two primary themes that surfaced as I read through the report.
Within evangelicalism there have been emphases on gaining influence among the highly educated. Among other examples this can been seen in the priority of higher education and efforts to plant churches that reach “cultural elites.” An important assumption behind these priorities is the belief that influencing those in positions of privilege and power will lead to influence throughout the entire culture. Is this assumption correct? The report from the Marriage Project seems to show that Christianity’s influence is gaining ground among the privileged, yet that same influence is actually shrinking among the rest of the country. Is it possible that we’ve misplaced our desire to influence with a desire for influence?
My second thought is related to the ongoing societal debates about gay marriage. My evangelical tribe often energetically defends the traditional view of marriage against those who would extend marriage to same-sex couples. Without getting into that debate here, this report does raise questions about the wisdom in directing so much energy towards defending against gay marriage while the institution itself continues to lose credibility, especially among middle Americans. Is fighting a lengthy culture war the best way to breathe life into marriage as an institution? Might there be more helpful and strategic ways to bolster cultural commitments to marriage?