Can America’s religious traditions strengthen marriage?

Minnesota Leaders Say “Yes” and Propose How

Can America’s religion traditions strengthen marriage? is Mitch Pearlstein’s fourth effort in the last five years to think through how we might take greater advantage of our religious leaders, institutions, and traditions in reducing family fragmentation.

The first two (short) discussions were in books of his: From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation, released in 2011; and Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future, released in 2014.

The third was in an American Experiment symposium, Silence of the Faithful: How Religious Leaders and Institutions Must Speak Up and Reach Out, which was released in 2015 and included 34 brief essays by 36 men and women from across Minnesota and the country.

And now this installment subtitled Minnesota Leaders Say “Yes” and Propose How, in which Dr. Pearlstein draws on five intellectually rich roundtable discussions involving nineteen Minnesotans, both lay and clergy, held at American Experiment in the late summer and early fall of 2015. Conversations moved smoothly from theology to earthly, from abstract to programmatic.

All five roundtable conversations went their distinctive ways, but always started out with American Experiment’s Founder asking what participants thought clergy should say if they had a minute-a robust sixty seconds-to tap to all Americans about marriage. As is the case throughout the report, answers to this first question ranged from the conceptual to the specific. They also branched out a lot, profitably.

How severe is family fragmentation? In rounded numbers, about 40 percent of all American babies come into life outside of marriage, with rates roughly 30 percent for whites, 50 percent for Hispanics, and 70 percent for African Americans. As for divorce, between 40 percent and 50 percent all first marriages end that way.

What follows is a small sampling of excerpts from this new publication, which can be found online, for no charge at Individual hard copies are also available for free, with bulk orders for churches and other institutions at prices not much higher. For information, please call (612) 338-3605.

If clergy could speak to the whole country about marriage for one minute what should they say?

  • “If the question is religious leaders talking to the whole country about the religious aspects of marriage the first thing you’d have to do is sell the whole country on the concept of religion in general. Because if you try to talk about the religious dimensions of marriage to people for whom religion is either off-putting or if they simply don’t grasp that religion is a legitimate topic for intellectual inquiry, it’s not going to be a very fruitful conversation. So I guess there are really two ways that anyone, including religious leaders, could talk about marriage to the whole country. One is from a secular, practical perspective, in keeping with a billboard I once saw that said ‘Marriage people are richer.’ But if we are talking to people who are able to process messages about religion, then they have to be tailored to their respective religious traditions.”
  • “What I would say a religious or spiritual person might have to offer as opposed to a parent or an educator is that marriage is a very spiritual undertaking. We have a culture that emphasizes flash, fun, and instant gratification. But marriage is a profound exploration of who you are and how someone else mirrors that to you and pushes on your painful buttons. And who shows you who they are and what happens when you push on their painful buttons. The spiritual unfolding during a marriage makes it what it is. The enterprise needs to be thought of as a spiritual one rather than a self-gratification one.”
  • “It would be good if clergy emphasize they know’ stuff happens’ and that life is complicated. But at the root, they might say ‘We’re not being fair to our kids, we’re not being fair too ourselves, and we’re not being fair to our country. We love you. C’mon, let’s try a little harder.'”
  • “I would keep it under 30 seconds to help avoid finger wagging. I would have clergy say that partnering is important for success in life and that no partnership exceeds marriage. Marriage is hard, but we’re here to help you.”

How can clergy retrieve their voice about marriage?

  • I’ve learned over the years that people are more willing to listen that I used to give them credit for. I talk about marriage. During the announcements people come up for special prayers, and they will come up for anniversary prayers. I just pray about it being a sacrament. About marriage being a symbol of living for each other instead of yourself. I’ve never had any negative feedback about that, and I’ve had some good conversations with divorced people. I’ve never met anyone who is divorced who’s bragging about it. So I’m learning I can talk more about these things than I thought. I can ask more of people than I thought.”
  • “There are so many divorced people in congregations, so many kids from divorced families and from families in which there never has been marriage, that there is a reluctance to stigmatize. There has to be a sense of grace and graciousness in the way clergy talk about marriage, with people believing they’re coming from a place of love and a concern for their best interests. If people believe that, they can take a lot of stuff. The devastation of marriage is especially widespread in the African American Community. So many single parents, so many children of single-parent families that it’s very hard to preach about it in a way that is not alienating.”
  • “Forty or fifty years into the sexual revolution, I suppose there are many religious leaders who have had broken lives and have compromised what used to be called sexual morality. And they may feel they lack the moral authority and are open to charges of criticism if they talk about marriage. The only real cure for that is ownership of one’s brokenness and a willingness to lead out of an acknowledgement of our common brokenness as human beings. That’s a much more compelling message than hiding, but it will take a lot of courage.”
  • “Each religious tradition needs to identify the sources of its own ineffectiveness around issues of marriage and two-parent families. The Evangelicals I cam to know and respect as a Unitarian-Universalist are un-ambivalent in their beliefs and theological values about marriage and kids growing up in tow-parent families-on Sunday. But they have trouble holding that out to people pastorally on Monday. You don’t want to drive people away at a time when they need to come closer. It’s a huge challenge. As for mainstream liberal churches it’s really finding any voice about marriage at all, as ‘family diversity’ has become an ultimate value.”
  • “Clergy should talk about marriage, divorce, and non marital births in a spirit of love, but those who remain silent because they are ‘cowed by the culture’ should just ‘get over it.'”

How can clergy do a better job reaching young people? And what about religious schools?

  • “One of my children went to several public schools and I remember visiting them. My daughter would be in second or third grade and I would see banners on the walls saying ‘Respect Each Other’ and ‘Be Nice.” These messages were pounded in, but teachers could never tell kids the reason for these kinds of things. A Christian school can do that.”
  • “Religious schools are important because they have an unconstrained vocabulary. They can talk about everything. Public schools can’t talk about everything.”
  • “When I get teenagers in confirmation, what I quickly realize is that the most important thing they’re taught in public schools, and what they hold onto as the most important value in life, is ‘tolerance.’ Which is not a bad thing, except that it becomes relativism. So all they can talk about is being tolerant. I have to help them understand that there’s truth, that there is something unique about the being Christian and that they can be proud of it, that they can articulate it. It’s not an insult to other people to feel connected to who you are.”
  • “A three-word answer: ‘religious released time.’ Minnesota’s K – 12 statutes, and those of many other states, provide for religious release time in the middle of the K-12 day. That used to be more popular than it is today, but that statutes still exists.”

How can religion leaders and institutions help ex=offenders get their lives in order?

  • “Judges often start out with a great degree of skepticism about jailhouse conversions, but I’ve come to believe there are a lot of them.”
  • “The more dysfunctional the individual, the fewer external support systems they have, the more religious affiliation is important in their transformation. That’s true not just in corrections, but also in education, for example. I know of no deeply dysfunctional individual who has had a long-term turnaround in his life outside of a deeply religious context.”
  • “Religion has been feminized a bit and religious leaders often don’t know how to talk to guys. We’re emphasizing the nurturing aspect of God and thenurturing and supportive aspect of community, and downplaying the edgier side of accountability, responsibility, courage, and sacrifice. Guys want to be tough and they’re attracted to sacrifice, and one of the things I say to guys is that I’m the protector of my family. I defend my family.”
  • “Mutual encouragement can happen so transparently in a group and many churches are doing it now. They’re saying it’s not just about showing up on Sunday to worship with us. That’s important too. We need to have that experience of worshipping. But we also need to have smaller groups and people need to be part of them. But some people will say, ‘Oh, you can’t bring somebody with his bad record into a small group.’ That’s not necessarily true. One of my very best friends in my whole life – in fact he just visited us from South Dakota – grew up on the streets of L.A. and spent time in jail. Kind of a rough character. But God has done something in this guy’s life and I love him like my brother. This is the way church ought to be and can be.”

How can religious leaders and institutions strengthen and save troubled marriages?

  • “A dear friend called me earlier this year to tell me that she and her husband of many years were divorcing. I think she expected to find an understanding ear, at least a listening ear, which she did. I listened carefully and then said flatly, ‘I don’t want you to divorce. This hurts me. It hurts your family. I love you all.’ We’ve had additional conversations since that time; they are still together, still working on their marriage. She has thanked me for the forcefulness of a friend saying: ‘Don’t do this. It will hurt you. It will hurt your kids. It will hurt me.’ We don’t know the outcome, but among various voices, we need challenging ones.”
  • “We need to fight for marriages. By that I mean specific marriages. I can say my wife and I have done that. We’ve poured money and lots of time into several marriages trying to save them. And in almost every instance it was worth it. In two particular cases I’m thinking of, we fought when everybody else said, ‘split.’ Despite the powerful effect of modernity, I tell them, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ These four words have to be used judiciously, but they can be powerful in resisting and neutralizing modernity’s effect.”
  • “In Orthodox Jewish circles, we put the bride and groom on a pedestal, both pre- and post- wedding. There’s some event or another where the whole community comes to wish them well and celebrate with them. But it’s not just, ‘We’re going to get married and form our lives together, and blah, blah, blah.’ By having the whole community celebrate, it has to send a subliminal message, if nothing else, that marriage is something unique and special and we’re all going to cheer for it and be happy for the couple.”
  • “I think back to when I had my children. I had twins and when they were 22 months old, I had another baby. A few months later my church offered a retreat for women and I was so thankful. I really wanted to get away and have time with other women in fellowship. I was very excited and signed up to attend. But when the organizers found out I was bringing my baby because she was nursing they said, ‘We’re sorry. You can’t come.’ I’ve since thought, in all my life that was one point when my church truly missed an important opportunity to minister to me. Sometimes it’s inconvenient to minister to people, but I think we get the greatest return from our efforts by ministering to young families when they are just starting off.”


Questions of religion specifically and cultural upheavals more generally are not the only factors involved in the weakening of marriage in the United States and large parts of the rest of the world. The same holds when it comes to often extraordinarily high rates of nonmarital births. Significant other factors are also at play, starting with how huge numbers of men – for reasons including educational failures, skill shortcomings, economic dislocations, criminal records, and various addictions – are understandably judged by huge numbers of women to be unmarriageable.

But even if shortages of religion and faith can’t be said to be dominant causes of familial problems, that doesn’t mean their strengths can’t be better called on to lessen those problems. As a state and nation, we must take greater advantage of our religious traditions if we are to adequately help many millions of people in need. And yes, it’s possible to do so in perfect harmony with both the Constitution and American variety.

Not taking advantage of our faith-based gifts and resources is akin to doing battle against widespread pain and sadness with a muscular armneedlessly tied behind our backs.