CHICAGO (ABP) — Marriage isn't obsolete, but it is getting rarer, says an evangelical social scientist who sparked controversy a year ago with articles in major publications making a case for early marriage.
Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, says recent data on marriage by the Pew Research Center is discouraging but not surprising. The report, which showed that fewer Americans are choosing to marry and more are cohabitating, prompted a Nov. 18 Time cover story titled "Who Needs Marriage?"
According to the Pew study, nearly four in 10 Americans said they believe marriage is becoming obsolete. That's up from 28 percent who agreed when Time magazine posed the same question in 1978.
Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, said in a recent blog posting that marriage isn't obsolete, but it is broken and needs restoration.
Regnerus raised eyebrows with a Washington Post article April 26, 2009, arguing that parents send a mixed message by telling their children that marriage is good but not to repeat their generation's mistake of missing out on educational and career opportunities by marrying too young.
A Christianity Today article in July 2009, Regnerus told church leaders at a meeting this spring in a lecture just available online, was even less popular. In it he suggested that amid purity pledges and attempts to convince teenagers that chastity is cool, the church has forgotten to teach young Christians how to tie the knot.
"You're not going to hear this kind of stuff from the pulpit, in part because pastors tend to think of things that are affecting marriage and they think of sexual culture, culture change, culture, culture, culture," Regnerus said in a talk titled "Saving Marriage Before It Starts" at the Q Chicago gathering April 28-30.
Regnerus said evangelicals often view alternative family styles like unmarried couples living together as a sign of moral laxity. While choosing whether to have sex outside of marriage is a moral choice, Regenerus said there are social structures that shape how people relate to one another, and that those social structures have changed.
In his blog article Regnerus said it is important to recognize that there is both a "sex market" and a "marriage market" operating in society.
"Many young adults are content to remain in the sex market for years," he wrote. "For this group, marriage can wait. Now is the time for having a little fun. Indeed, to marry means giving up experiencing sex with other people, and settling on only one."
Others — especially but not exclusively Christians — are only in the marriage market. Since what they hope for — chastity in a spouse — is become increasingly rare, they are there for a longer time. With the difficulty of abstaining from sex during the most fertile and virile period of life, Regnerus contends that attitudes are beginning to change. "Many young adult Christians are making their peace with premarital sex," he wrote.
At the Q conference, Regnerus cited statistics showing that between 92 percent and 95 percent of Americans have had premarital sex. Christians are doing "a little bit better," he said, ranging from 80 percent to 85 percent.
For men, 35 percent of relationships become sexual within the first two weeks and 48 percent within a month. For church-going conservative Protestants, 28 percent of men's relationships turned sexual within two weeks and 41 percent within a month.
"We're a little bit better, but it's not like we live in an alternative universe," he said.
Regnerus said his intention is not to "wag my finger at evangelicals" but rather to point out that today's church is dealing with "some very old norms."
The trajectory within Scripture, he said, beginning with polygamy and harems in the Old Testament, moves toward an ideal of one man and one woman married for life. In the New Testament, Paul had to justify singleness in First Corinthians.
Today, in contrast, Regnerus said "we find ourselves winking about sex" while "having to justify getting married" to parents and peers.
"Lots of people think I'm pushing marriage because I'm trying to reduce sexual temptation," he said. "Honestly if it did that, that would be great. I am not pressing the matter for that reason. I am pressing the matter of marriage because our confidence in marriage seems to be dwindling."
"My purpose in writing the article in Christianity Today was simply to push back against the norm," he said. "Slow down, keep your options open, get your career in order, figure out who you are before considering marriage."
"It's a popular norm," Regnerus said, but, "It's a sexual disaster."
"I'm seeing it plenty in the church, and I think it sends a horrible message about the meaning of marriage," he concluded, "that it's what you do when the best years of your life are over."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.