Friday, October 1, 2010

"The Privatization of Divorce" in Evangelicalism

Al Mohler has posted on a sad irony: the curious absence of divorce as a top issue for evangelicals in the 'family values' debate. Why is it that since the days of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority divorce is rarely mentioned as one of the most significant threats to 'traditional family values'? It seems that the evangelical church has made an uneasy peace with divorce. It is recognized now as a common reality among Christians and therefore not nearly as problematic as, say, homosexuality or abortion. And yet it can be convincingly argued that divorce is a far greater threat to marriage and the family than is homosexual marriage (which, by the way, I firmly oppose). It seems ridiculous to argue the contrary.

Mohler writes:

In the most general sense, the culture war refers to the struggle to determine laws and customs on a host of moral and political issues that separate Americans into two opposing camps, often presented as the religious right and the secular left. Though the truth is never so simple, the reality of the culture war is almost impossible to deny.

And yet, as Professor Smith [University of Washington] surveyed the front lines of the culture war, he was surprised, not so much by the issues of hot debate and controversy, but by an issue that was obvious for its absence — divorce.

“From the standpoint of simple logic, divorce fits cleanly within the category of ‘family values’ and hence hypothetically could represent a driving force in the larger culture war,” he notes. “If ‘family values’ refers to ethics and behavior that affect, well, families, then divorce obviously should qualify. Indeed, divorce seems to carry a more direct connection to the daily realities of families than do the bellwether culture war issues of abortion and homosexuality.”

That logic is an indictment of evangelical failure and a monumental scandal of the evangelical conscience. When faced with this indictment, many evangelicals quickly point to the adoption of so-called “no fault” divorce laws in the 1970s. Yet, while those laws have been devastating to families (and especially to children), Smith makes a compelling case that evangelicals began their accommodation to divorce even before those laws took effect. No fault divorce laws simply reflected an acknowledgment of what had already taken place. As he explains, American evangelicals, along with other Christians, began to shift opinion on divorce when divorce became more common and when it hit close to home.

When the Christian right was organized in the 1970s and galvanized in the 1980s, the issues of abortion and homosexuality were front and center. Where was divorce? Smith documents the fact that groups such as the “pro-traditional family” Moral Majority led by the late Jerry Falwell generally failed even to mention divorce in their publications or platforms.

“During the 10 years of its existence, Falwell’s organization mobilized and lobbied on many political issues, including abortion, pornography, gay rights, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, and sex education in schools,” he recalls. Where is divorce — a tragedy that affects far more families than the more “hot button” issues? “Divorce failed to achieve that exalted status, ranking so low on the group’s agenda that books on the Moral Majority do not even give the issue an entry in the index.”

Read the entire post HERE.

Again, it is a sad irony that the conservative evangelical war to defend family values has all but ignored the family's greatest threat.


Jase and Melissa said...


Mohler gives Prof Smith far to much credit and buys into some unfair (typically liberal) lines of attack upon Evangelicals.

Smith claims that divorce is a matter of “family values” as a matter of “simple logic.” To Mohler, “That logic is an indictment of evangelical failure and a monumental scandal of the evangelical conscience.”

I could not disagree more with what I’d suggest is rather generic "logic." There are a host of issues that fall broadly within the realm of “family values” and certainly affect the family, but to discredit or attack evangelicals (Falwell, etc.) for only advocating on homosexuality and abortion, while neglecting divorce, fails to account for a monumental difference. Adultery, fornication, and divorce are sins that do not violate the rights of a person to their person or property. Whereas, murder, rape, kidnapping, theft, and yes, abortion, are all acts that violate personal rights to one’s person and/or property. Evangelicals rightly press the public to ban the legalized murder of the most innocent group of human beings because they view abortion as a heinous act that should be illegal because it violates the rights (of person/property) of another.

I don’t see the evidence in Mohler’s claim in regard to divorce that “evangelicals allowed culture to trump Scripture.” Mohler is certainly right to press this as an issue for teaching emphasis, greater accountability and discipline within our churches, but public law/polciy is a different matter. While religious groups are free to make anything they’d like a religious ceremony, marriage also has a civi/legal component. A society has every right to make legal distinctions on all sorts of matters as it deems apprropriate. And there are certainly appropriate and valid reasons to restrict the legal definition of marriage to a consensual relationship between an adult male and female.


Jerry F said...

Divorce affects public policy, especially among the poor. Its effect on the children of the poor is more profound than any other social issue. it creates poverty which is certaiinly a public issue. You can tie the growth of the welfare state directly to divorce, if you look at the increase of the welfare state as the divorce rates increased in this country over the past 50 years.

Mike said...

Jason, if there are "appropriate and valid reasons to restrict the legal definition of marriage to a consensual relationship between an adult male and female"....what would that be?

Jase and Melissa said...

I agree with you that divorce has profoundly negative consequences. But my point is that it is a mistake to classify divorce in the same group of ills as abortion and to scold evangelicals for making more of an issue of abortion. I’d suggest: abortion is far worse than divorce (it kills children, rather than emotionally harming them) and it violates one’s right (to life) whereas divorce is a non-violent sin that doesn’t warrant legal prohibition.

Reasons to protect the traditional definition of marriage:
The Biblical role of government is to promote order and protect against crimes of oppression/fraud/force.
1. Traditional marriage promotes order and has been a fundamental institution of society for thousands of years, with the priority of promoting the institution in which children are naturally born and raised, and thuse society is preserved.
2. A non-traditional definition of marriage will lead to a lack of order and legal chaos. It will further lead to other definitions as one could easily imagine a bisexual wanting to have a “spouse” of each gender, those who support polygamy wanting multiple spouses, etc.
3. The gay/lesbian/transgender (GLT) community seeks, in part, “marriage” status for personal affirmation of their relations and to destroy marriage. The motive is personal, not for the social good/order.
4. For whatever problems traditional marriage has, the GLT community has much more rampant promiscuity and unique public/personal health risks/issues associated with GLT behavior.
5. While the GLT crowd has shifted the debate from behavior to identity as a way to engender public sympathy, the American Psychiatric Association (until they bowed to public GLT pressure) and many psychotherapists had for years maintained that homosexuality was a “personality disorder”, a “perversion”, a “defense mechanism” or a psychopathology.

Jerry F said...

J?M I agree that the destruction caused by abortion should not be minimized. I just think that divorce has equal-or greater impact. I think divorce can actually lead to more abortions.I think the deemphasis of traditional marriage, which really started with the liberalized acceptance of divorce, has led to an increase in abortions.

Mike said...


thanks for your response...if you argue that marriage is defined by the bible and for that reason we should accept it then I am OK with that approach. But from a strictly legal POV the argument holds no water. In countries where SSM is allowed (e.g. Canada and other EU countries) where is the "lack of order and legal chaos"? In those countries don't people still marry? Have they legalized polygamy?

This tired old argument has never been evidence-based but is rather a scare-tactic approach.

The answer to the question is that I believe that the biblical parameters are good for us as individuals and as a society...because the Bible says so. any argument outside that framework (based on evidence)is going to be problematic

Todd Pruitt said...

Abortion is an unmixed evil. It is wicked. It is a disgrace to our country.

I think it would be hard to argue however that anything has been more devestating to the family than has divorce. Certainly illegitimacy ranks high as well.

Harley A. said...

Mike, it begs the question, though, why have progressive governments like Canada, Europe, etc. banned (or not legalized) polygamy on a purely “legal” basis? I think it is because it is not, in fact, a legal issue – rather it is an ethical issue – based on the ethics and morays of the progressive secular mind. They see polygamy as an out-moded patriarchal construct, demeaning to women (which it is), and typically attached to a religious framework. All three things a taboo to them. So, it is a bit disingenuous for the progressives to pretend that they are making these decisions on any basis other than their own ethical premises. They do, as Israel in the days of the judges, “what is right in their own eyes”. I will agree that the social costs are not so evident on the surface (even that could be argued) – but I strongly disagree that society doesn’t suffer for the folly of ignoring God’s commands.

Mike said...

Harley A...good points. I think the ban on polygamy is one of those issues that we as a society generally agree on and therefore it becomes a legal issue, just like marrying a close relative. So you are correct when you say progressives are making these decisions on their own ethical premises..based mostly upon the mores of the society.

I think there is this idea out there (at least held by some christians) that if we throw out laws about some issues...such a sodomy or homosexuality, then we completely collapse in the area of what we consider taboo or illegal sexual relations and I don't think it necessarily means that. We don't throw all caution to the wind and allow everything.

Jase and Melissa said...

Excellent point: liberals are indeed making these judgment calls based on their own premises, not some abstract, legally neutral framework.


There are a number of books, major studies, law review articles etc, that cite a variety of evidence to support or oppose SSM. Some of the most prominent attorneys, conservative & liberal, are on both sides of the issue. To claim that my position or reasons are not evidenced based, are scare tactics, & hold no water from a legal POV is sheer blindness. Even former constituional law professior Obama and lots of Democrats oppose SSM, and I doubt they are doing so because they are part of the “vast right wing conspiracy.”

The LGBT community isn’t just for same-sex marriage, but an anything goes definition of marriage that could include multiple spouses for the bisexual, etc., and the pressure for such openness in countries that have SSM is mounting.

As legal scholars point out in The Future of Family Law: “It [SSM] will hurt children and weaken our civil society…. A ‘close relationships’ culture fails to acknowledge fundamental facets of human life: the fact of sexual difference; the enormous tide of heterosexual desire in human life; the procreativity of male-female bonding; the unique social ecology of parenting which offers children bonds with their biological parents; and the rich genealogical nature of family ties and the web of intergenerational supports for family members that they provide. These core dimensions of conjugal life are not small issues.”

If you look at the countries that have adopted SSM, their social/civic cultures are hardly to be envied and most of these countries have birth-rates below replacement level. In addition, studies have shown that in most traditional marriages, there is about a 75% rate of sexual exclusivity, while in homosexual relationships, the majority of these “couples” that are married or in a “committed” relationship don’t believe in or practice sexual-exclusivity. The notion of marriage equality for the LGBT community is a farce. They don’t actually believe in marriage, they’re only seeking the title as a ruse on the way to diminishing the institution.


Mike said...


I would not necessarily look to Obama or other democrats to say "look even some left-leaning people oppose this..." because they have only so much political capital to spend and SSM would exact a high price for very little political gain. I am not so naive to think that they do not see this issue from a legal/ethical POV as much as a political risk-benefit. There is no political pay off for supporting it at this point.

Whether we should regard countries that have legalized SSM as to be envied or not as compared to the U.S. ...that is a matter of opinion. I have not seen evidence that outlawing it produces any great societal benefit either. People still marry, people still have kids and perhaps any change you may see in cultures where SSM is legal are due to other factors such as the economy. Conservative conventional wisdom would tell us that it is harmful to traditional marriage...I just have not seen any real evidence of that..perhaps time will tell and I will be wrong but at this point I just don't see it.