Friday, June 23, 2006

Having Faith in Marriage Should Not Mix in Religion by Dr. Alan Singer

Here is my article that the Home News Tribune published on December 24, 2003. In it, I discuss the divorce rate and the impact, positive and negative, of religious groups which promote marriage.

Americans have become less likely to marry and fewer of those who do marry have marriages they consider to be very happy. The American divorce rate today is more than twice that of 1960. The desire of teenagers for a long-term marriage has increased, especially for boys, but girls have become more pessimistic about ever being able to have such a marriage.

It has become a little depressing to regularly hear these statistics about family life in America today. But there has also been a growing enthusiasm for strengthening marriage here in New Jersey and throughout the United States. The creativity and energy of these new groups is enough to turn depression into optimism.

In fact, thousands of delegates gather each summer under the auspices of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education (CMFCE) for the annual SmartMarriages Conference. Experts speak, ideas are exchanged and copious books and tapes are sold. The members of this interest group are convinced that family breakdown can be reduced through education and information.

One such gathering, the New Jersey Healthy Marriages Summit, took place recently in East Windsor and was sponsored by the New Jerseyan's for Healthy Marriages, Children and Families Coalition (NJ-HMCF). One of the highlights of the daylong conference was hearing professor David Popenoe of Rutgers University discuss the trends mentioned above. A well-known expert in this field, he is the co-director of the National Marriage Project. The participants in this summit, numbering more than 100, learned from plenary speakers and shared their experiences in workshops so that they could go back to their own organizations and hopefully put these ideas into action. Even healthy marriages need plenty of nurturing, and that is also part of the skills that participants gain from attending these conferences.

However, I had one major concern. Unlike the national SmartMarriages conference, the New Jersey summit had a very strong emphasis on religion. A coalition, by definition, is a temporary union for a common purpose. I worried, with a session titled "Interfaith Perspectives on Marriage," that the focus of the conference had shifted from helping individuals to sustain healthy relationships, to describing how the major faiths view marriage and family life. That would be fine if the conference were called The Interfaith Gathering for Healthy Marriages -- but it was not. An "ideas exchange," with presenters describing various programs of congregations, is much different (and I believe more useful) than a platform for elucidating theology and doctrine. Session leaders such as Mike and Harriet McManus and I have little in common when it comes to religion, but yet I learned a great deal from them when we sat together at lunch and discussed their new mentoring program for couples.

My primary concern is that individuals who have no religious affiliation whatsoever will distance themselves from this terrific effort and its foundation of solid social scientific data. It will be an "easy out" for the religiously unaffiliated who might perceive the marriage movement as a group of religious fanatics.

The stated mission of NJ-HMCF is "to help all individuals and couples to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy relationships that will lead to healthy marriages and families." With this inclusive mission statement and ambitious goals such as "to reduce the overall divorce rate in New Jersey," there is much to be gained by not excluding any individuals or having them feel uncomfortable because of their different or nonexistent religious beliefs. Furthermore, I have observed that marriages can do just fine with out any religious observance whatsoever. On the other hand, for example, a marriage cannot thrive if there is no trust between spouses.

The strength of this coalition comes from the unity of purpose that individuals of vastly different backgrounds bring to the table. Participants are invigorated as members of this coalition and bring back the positive energy to their own individual organizations, be they secular or religious.
This seems to me, to be the best framework for making a dent in, better yet, reversing these negative trends that so adversely affect family life in America. Besides, as an observant Jew, I don't want to be the one to organize the New Jersey Atheists For Healthy Marriage, because my wife would kill me.