Are Evangelicals More Revisionist on Marriage than We Think?

Wedding Rings

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax asks whether Evangelicals are more revisionist on marriage than we think?

Catholics, of course, have our own problems; if we have not altered our teaching on sexual ethics, few in the pews take it seriously. And so there is substantial pressure on the Synod Fathers from within the Church to alter teaching on remarriage after divorce, as well as pressure to alter the teaching on same-sex unions. In highlighting Evangelical discussions of inconsistency in sexual ethics, I’m not trying to cast stones at other Christians, but simply drawing attention to an important discussion of the need for greater consistency in discussions of marriage.

After discussing several ways that Evangelicals have adopted the view of marriage held the surrounding culture, Wax concludes:

When we share the same undergirding ideas about marriage as the culture, the Christian’s “no” to same-sex marriage looks arbitrary and motivated by animus toward our LGBT neighbors rather than being a part of a comprehensive vision of marriage that counteracts our culture in multiple ways.

We are not called merely to reject wrong views of marriage; we are called to build a marriage culture where the glorious vision of complementarity, permanence, and life-giving union of a man and woman, for the good of their society, can flourish. Rebuilding a marriage culture must be more than lamenting the current state of the world at multiple conferences a year. It must include the strengthening of all our marriages within the body of Christ: from the truck driver, to the police officer, to the teacher, and the stay-at-home mom.

Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”

For more on these themes, see my Ethika Politika article on The Abolition of Marriage, and this discussion of a First Things article, What Is Marriage to Evangelical Millennials?

And, of course, be sure to check out Trevin Wax’s full article at the Gospel Coalition.

5 thoughts on “Are Evangelicals More Revisionist on Marriage than We Think?

  1. I really don’t think that Andrew Sullivan, as much as I have appreciated him as a blogger, is someone that is accurately describing the way that Evangelicals understand marriage.

    A couple problems with Wax’s assumptions. First, the temporary thing. Yes people get divorced. What has changed is not that people think that divorce is a good, but that people think that being in an unhappy marriage is better. I do not think culture assumes that marriage is temporary. No one getting marriage (or almost no one) really thinks that marriage is or should be temporary.

    I also think that while Sullivan is right that emotional commitment has been added into marriage as a primary value, I don’t think that is the only value. After all if there was no societal value in marriage then what is the purpose of the push toward gay marriage. The institution is valuable in virtually everyone’s eyes whether they are for or against gay marriage. And we can look back at scripture (primarily Song of Solomon, but also other places) to see that emotional commitment has been one of the foundations of marriage from the beginning.

    I do think there is a point to the third ‘personal expression’ idea. But I wonder if that is not more about the marriage ceremony than the actual marriage itself.

    With the exception of low income and low education Americans, divorce has been dropping steadily. Yes less people are getting married now, but that seems to be at least partially because there are more options for women to be involved in society outside of traditional marriage roles.

    And regularly church attending adults that are at least college educated and not in poverty have pretty low divorce rates (between 10 and 20% for first marriage.)

    • “After all if there was no societal value in marriage then what is the purpose of the push toward gay marriage.”

      The answer will differ according to the education/class distinctions you mentioned. As someone who was, in the 1990s, a strong (non-Christian) advocate for what is now called “marriage equality” and from a working class background, the reason for the push was little more than social validation. I attended the weddings of (straight) siblings and friends and I wanted the option of inviting them to my (gay) wedding. I didn’t consider the wider ‘purpose’ of marriage or what role it played in society. None of my friend’s/sibling’s marriages lasted very long and neither would have mine if I had been able to marry. The presence of children (from multiple fathers) made no difference to this pattern.

      Highly educated/intelligent (nominally Catholic?) commentators like Sullivan will take a different view. He is part of a new cognitive elite of socially permissive non-judgemental individuals who nevertheless make smarter personal choices in all areas of their own life. They are more aware of how taking marriage ‘seriously’ benefits them and society. They also tend to live in social bubbles filled with equally smart/educated people – and lose sight of how important “judgemental” attitudes are to social cohesion in the lower classes. They are less likely to divorce themselves but won’t make a moral argument against divorce.

      Then there are the evangelicals – who are disproportionately “at least college educated” with an (inherited) obvious moral reason for opposing marriage equality. Younger evangelicals are torn between the appeal of allowing individuals to make smarter personal choices – which points to gay people being happier by choosing to gay marry – and the traditional Christian sexual ethic. They don’t experience how “radical autonomy” plays out in the (increasingly unchurched) lower classes and only encounter gay couples who are left unhappily unmarried by religious prejudice. They won’t necessarily do what Trevin Wax is asking them to do and dismantle the underlying, revisionist framework that makes same-sex marriage possible. That framework works for them and will presumably work just as well for their “at least college educated” gay friends/siblings.

      • Joe,

        I would quibble with the notion that evangelicals are disproportionately “at least college educated.” Only about 25% of evangelicals have attended college at all, and only about 15% have graduated. Moreover, female evangelicals are about 1.5 times as likely to be college educated as male evangelicals, even though evangelical churches do not generally allow women to hold any kind of leadership positions within the church.

        As to marriage and divorce, higher-income evangelicals divorce at roughly the same rate as their non-evangelical peers of similar income level. At lower income levels, however, evangelicals divorce at much lower rates than their non-evangelical peers of similar income.

        I do agree that SSM plays out very differently among the cognitive elite than among others. As Ross Douthat noted some time ago, the cognitive elite operate within a context that is fairly rich with social capital. They live my a number of implicit principles that tend to obviate the need for explicit rules. Thus, support for SSM among elites has less to do with a belief in the merits of the institution of SSM and more with a general repugnance toward explicit, bright-line rules on such matters. In fact, most elites tend to view marriage as something more akin to a business-contractual relationship. By my observation, many opposite-sex marriages among members of the cognitive elite look more like friendships than anything else.

    • Quibble accepted. I’m looking at this from a UK perspective where the lower classes are under-represented in evangelical churches (except perhaps in the ethnic/pentecostal traditions). Underlying evangelical values here are the same as social class A/B values.(except for those inherited and now “awkward” rules about sex and marriage)

      • Thanks for clarifying. I know nothing about “evangelicalism” in the UK. In fact, I tend to think of evangelicalism as being primarily an American, if not a Southern, phenomenon. I have a difficult time envisioning a British equivalent of Mike Huckabee or David Barton.

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