Two interesting articles appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer today:
- More and more, French go about life without marrying (courtesy the Washington Post)
- 4 in 10 babies in US born to unwed mothers (courtesy the Associated Press)
The first article reports that marriage is on a steep decline in France and in other European nations. A noticeably increased number of couples are living together, buying property together and having children together, though choosing not to get married. From the article:
Sandrine Folet and Lucas Titouh have two children, a stylish Paris apartment, and a 15-year-old partnership.
They have no intention of getting married.
"We don’t feel the need to get married," said Folet, 36, who has
known Titouh, 40, since she was a teenager. "I don’t know many people
in our age group who are married." . . .
. . . The trend in France is driven by a convergence of social transitions in
both the demographic and cultural landscapes, including this
generation’s nearly universal estrangement from religion, especially
the Catholic Church.
In a related article on the next page, federal health officials reported yesterday that births to unwed mothers is on the rise in the United States, even as births to teenage mothers had declined.
Births among unwed mothers rose most dramatically among women in their 20s.
Experts said the overall rise reflected the burgeoning number of
people who were putting off marriage or living together without getting
married. They said it also reflected cultural changes that make having
a child out of wedlock more acceptable . . .
. . . More single women in their 30s and 40s, hearing their biological
clock, are choosing to give birth, she said, and younger women are not
as worried about being unmarried.
And just because a mother is not married does not mean the father is
not around, Ventura noted. She cited 2002 statistics showing that about
20 percent of all new mothers under 20 were unmarried but living with
the father at the time of the birth. That was also true of about 13
percent of all new mothers ages 20 to 24.
Marriage is on the decline. Though this is not encouraging news, I do not think this is such a horrible thing. Don’t get me wrong – I think that marriage is a powerful and needed building block of society, and I am a fan of marriage. But marriage is not the only building block of society. Our society will not spiral into never ending decay because of the declining marriage rate (there are other reasons we may be heading into never ending decay). I am postmodern enough (and just plain realistic enough) to recognize that it is altogether possible for couples to have healthy relationships and raise families without being married. Many couples do so every day across this country. Marriage is no guarantor of morality, stability or sanctity.
Yet I can hear the conservatives gnashing their teeth, tearing their garments, and heaping blame on liberals for the falling marriage rate. But do not worry. They have a powerful ally on their side. The church? No. I said powerful. Who is this ally? The $72 billion/year wedding industry. Just wait for the strategic alliance between James Dobson’s conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family and David’s Bridal, one of America’s leading bridal retailers . . .
To be fair, Americans gave about $88.3 billion to religious organizations in 2004 (more than we spent on weddings) – stats available on Lake Family Institute on Faith and Giving website – and most religious groups support and advocate for marriage. But somehow I believe that the for-profit wedding industry could do more to encourage marriage than could the disparate religious groups to which Americans variously adhere.
(The ELCA has several paragraphs dedicated to marriage in its 1996 message on sexuality entitled Sexuality: Some Common Convictions. Though I think the section on marriage is a little thin in this document, I appreciate the honesty, integrity and reality with which it is written. This, and all of our Lutheran social statements, are written with a keen appreciation of the inherent brokenness of people and their relationships. Marriage is also part of the ongoing conversations about sexuality, Journey Together Faithfully.)
Of course, for a growing number of Americans their own wedding is one of the few times in their lives that they participate in a religious ceremony. That’s regrettable, for several reasons. Why do non-religious people feel a need to celebrate their marriage with religious signs and symbols, when these signs and symbols otherwise have little meaning for them? Are they being unduly pressured by society or family to do something they don’t believe? I’d strongly encourage such people to be honest with themselves, go to a justice of the peace to be legally married, and celebrate their marriage in a way that best fits their beliefs, their personality, their love for each other. You don’t need religion to get married.
In addition to marriage, many people who are otherwise not religious feel the need to have their children baptized. Just yesterday a woman at my daughter’s day care, after hearing me tell about my daughter’s upcoming baptism, said to me, "Gosh, I haven’t gotten my child done. Perhaps I can come to your church to do that?"
My point is this – I do not want to discourage people from celebrating their marriage in church nor from baptizing their children. However, I want these people to know that they do not need the church for their marriage to have legitimacy or for their child to have a good life. I want them to know that they have permission to not come to church to celebrate rites of passage. Church blessings at a wedding and the baptism of children are practices of faith for people of faith. If you are not a person of faith then I would ask, why do you want to do this thing at church?
I regret that vestiges of Christendom continue to exert a significant cultural pull in our society. Once upon a regrettable time, the church was the one and only power in town. But that is not the case any longer, thank God. Our society and our church are better for it. But the vestiges linger. And that is our challenge – to navigate, discern, and remove those meddlesome vestiges that interfere with people’s live, our civic life, and the life of our religious communities.