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Conservative Christians Tackle Divorce, The 'Other' Marriage Crisis

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While the campaign by social conservatives against gay marriage has grabbed headlines and consumed millions of lobbying dollars from religious groups, the wider crisis of divorce among straight couples -- especially evangelicals and often their leaders and political icons -- has been largely ignored by Christian conservatives.

That may be changing, however, with the latest evidence coming in a powerful essay published on Sept. 29 titled "Divorce -- The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience," by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the most prominent conservative Christian voices in America.

In the column on his website, Mohler reiterates that the fight against abortion remains a priority, and that battling same-sex marriage "demands our attention and involvement as well."

"But," he continues, "divorce harms many more lives than will be touched by homosexual marriage."

"The real scandal," Mohler writes, "is the fact that evangelical Protestants divorce at rates at least as high as the rest of the public. Needless to say, this creates a significant credibility crisis when evangelicals then rise to speak in defense of marriage."

The touchstone for Mohler's jeremiad is an essay by Mark A. Smith of the University of Washington titled, "Religion, Divorce, and the Missing Culture War in America," which was published in the Spring edition of Political Science Quarterly.

Smith, an associate professor of political science who is completing a book on religion and the culture war in America, writes that in the 1960s evangelicals and social conservatives accepted the reality of divorce like most Americans. That was well before no-fault divorce laws -- usually pinned as the culprit for the rising divorce rate -- took effect.

Moreover, even as the Religious Right organized in the 1970s and began notching political victories in the 1980s, divorce was virtually ignored while issues such as abortion, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment and other hot button topics were emphasized as the real threats to society.

This occurred even though, as Smith writes, divorce, which is clearly and strongly condemned in the Bible, was prevalent among conservative Christians. His findings show that 43 percent of evangelical Protestants divorce, higher than almost any other religious group and above the national average of 38 percent. (Other surveys show the divorce rate is highest in Red States and actually lowest in Blue States.)

Smith also notes that "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."

Smith further argues that when divorce or strengthening marriage were mentioned by organizations associated with the Religious Right, it was in the context of private, spiritual improvement rather than the kind of public policy initiatives that were pushed as solutions to other problems. Occasional policy proposals to reduce divorce, such as the covenant marriage movement designed to pass laws mandating pre-marital counseling and make it more difficult for couples to divorce, drew little support from church leaders or members.

Smith also argued that excluding divorce as a priority reflected the political reality that to do otherwise would have alienated too many members of the Religious Right's constituency. All of these are conclusions Mohler does not dispute.

"That logic is an indictment of evangelical failure and a monumental scandal of the evangelical conscience," Mohler writes.

Mohler's focus on divorce is important because of his own bona fides as a Christian conservative and because it seems to reflect a debate about the future of evangelicalism and how to move beyond the political agenda of the Religious Right in order to affect society.

Certainly, the fight against gay marriage seems to be a losing battle in the culture wars, given that younger believers are far more gay-friendly than their parents and grandparents, and as pop icons like Christian music artist Jennifer Knapp come out of the closet.

"Ten years from now, the issue of same-sex marriage will probably no longer be on the table," says sociologist of religion D. Michael Lindsay, author of "Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite."

Moreover, the reality of divorce within conservative Christian communities is the elephant in the room that can no longer be ignored. At their annual meeting in Orlando this year, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention -- the largest Protestant body in the United States with 16 million members -- adopted a resolution called, "On the Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce."

Indeed, the problem of Christian divorce is growing larger as the evangelical profile against gay marriage gets higher.

"We cannot very well argue for the sanctity of marriage as a crucial social institution while we blithely go about divorcing and approving of remarriage at a rate that destabilizes marriage," Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, wrote in August after the court ruling invalidating Proposition 8, the California ballot measure banning gay marriage. "In short, we have been perfect hypocrites on this issue. Until we admit that, and take steps to amend our ways, our cries of alarm about gay marriage will echo off into oblivion."

In a roundtable response to the Prop 8 decision at Christianity Today's website, many of the 13 evangelical voices also argued that it was time for Christians to look after their own houses in order to truly change U.S. culture -- an argument also set forth in a recent book by sociologist James Davison Hunter, who coined the culture wars meme in the early 1990s.

Conservative pundits like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter are pushing versions of that view as well, while traditional political champions of the Christian Right, like Mississippi's GOP Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, also a Republican, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have said the party should downplay culture war issues.

In his essay, Mohler offered no specific proposals -- either in terms of public policy or church-oriented programs -- to reverse the trends in divorce nationally or among Christians themselves. And it's highly unlikely that Christian conservatives are going to wave the white flag on gay marriage, or suddenly retreat into the enclave mentality that characterized fundamentalists after the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925.

But the new focus on getting Christians to practice what they preach marks an important shift in the culture war front, and, if successful, could prove to be the most potent cultural argument evangelicals have ever deployed.

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And while we're bringing up the subject of about the sin of adultry? There are too mnay hypocrites bashing gays who themselves have been guilty of adultry. Is being homosexual worse than committing adultry? Do we mortals have the right to prioritize our sins?

October 29 2010 at 2:07 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Huskins Invest

Divorce laws need to be strengthened. Pre marital counseling and more difficult to divorce should be the norm. The churches have the responsibiliy of promoting a strong marriage. What does the bible say about divorce? I am confused which bible to read. I looked up a list of bibles and there are a large number of different versions. Over the years it seems that true text and meanings are rewritten to satisfy the leaders in power. (Political, monarchies and popes..etc) What do we really believe. Today the culture accepts divorce but is is really even permitted in christianity of 2000 years ago? I would appreciate a comment from a person who has trully studied theology. Thanks in advance.

October 22 2010 at 10:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Although I find his views appalling and fear he would prefer the days when women had to stay in the marriage through beating ,cheating,and demoralizing treatment. At least he is honest about the hypocrisy of the whole thing. In order to have a real Christian family you need to have a truthful one. Not a facade for the world but one that is both supportive and nurturing for the family as a whole. Right now they are keeping their capitalistic world and working the women and men equally for material gain. I do not believe that Jesus would have approved of the large bank accounts and ignoring of the poor around them. Jesus was all about social justice. Radical right wing has thrown out the real Christ in order to fill their coffers.

October 20 2010 at 8:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Seems like gay people are more intrested in marriage then straight now days,guess they'll learn the hard way....It's the whole sex before love,if you get bored with him divorce him and get a new one plus a check american way.Plus we should allow men to marry more then one woman if both women agree and are present to prove it is ok.This would help with the cheating of men,now as far as the cheating of women.Notice most(most)of the women that cheat started having sex at a early age and have had alot of partners.So you can do the math there,also the ideal of family is slowly being lost in our culture.Mom has a baby,drops it off to another lady and goes to work,dad gets the kid every other weekend if he has his child support caught up,then mom gets to mingle with new guy and repeat.Maybe we're worried about the gay couples getting married because they'll be better at it and not because of religon?

October 17 2010 at 2:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ohio513adam's comment

Perhaps if we had better sex education for male and females entering puberty we would have less cases of sex at early ages. However who are these women you refer to having sex with? You make it sound like it is ok for the guys to get a little but the woman should remain pure until they find the right man. So who is doing all the sex with young girls? Perhaps the right wing politicians that are voting down sex education,birth control, gay marriages. They want the good ole bow system reinstalled.

October 20 2010 at 9:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is sad that marriage and family have somehow fallen out of favor. Children's lives are now complicated by divorce, blended families, single moms, etc. There is constant upheavals in their lives. I realize that some marriages are just not meant to be, but too many times it is just easy to walk away than to try and make it work. As time goes on, we will be lucky if 50% of families have 2 parents in the home. How can this be healthy for any child's well being? Pro marriage and pro family should be applauded not denounced as some type of religious fanatics.

October 15 2010 at 10:51 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Hi WitchyPooh

All you Christians take care of your own personal problems, and practice your faith, but keep your nose out of my business and out of the govt.

October 15 2010 at 4:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Hi WitchyPooh's comment

Sinners need to be told the truth and if you don't like it too bad.

October 16 2010 at 1:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Now why would anyone say that. Doesn't the poster know that those individuals, all feeling superior, thereby consider entitled to dictate the personal lives of others? Why, how dare anyone tell the "poor little tykes" to mind their own business, now they will scream that they are being persecuted, and only because others don't do as they are told by those exalted ones. As for rverao's comment about "sinners", some of us happen to believe that if there is such a thing as a "god", which not everyone believes, then let it render the judgment, and not some egotistical so-called "Christian" playing at god.

October 16 2010 at 5:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I wish Christians would stay out of politics and out of the lives of Americans.

October 13 2010 at 10:28 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

THANK YOU finally someone pointing out the obvious. The right has used these social issues to gain constituites but they have not be honest with anyone. Issues like same sex marriage are just diversion to the real problems. The far right supports big business and wealthy citizens the only way they win elections is by using these social issues to get those lower and middle class conservative relgious folks to agree to these issues this has created a situation where people are voting against there own personal best interets. Please remember what important, your health your family your live not what others do vote for your best interst

October 12 2010 at 4:29 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cbsguards's comment

Extremely well put sanity speaks.

October 20 2010 at 9:12 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Expanding marriage to include homosexuals, will never help the millions of American children who are victims of divorce. I think this article is stretching things a bit too far.

October 07 2010 at 8:18 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Marriage is for people who do not think they are the center of the universe. Selfish, narcissistic people will always land their marriages in the dumpster of divorce court. Marriage is for the strong- not the selfish.

October 07 2010 at 8:16 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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