Marriage Movement May Undervalue Religion's Role

September 18, 2002

While the government's promotion of marriage aims to boost marriage rates, it may undercut religious institutions and obscure the importance of morality and spirituality in married life, U.Va. Assistant Professor of Sociology W. Bradford Wilcox said at the Law School Sept. 17.

Asst. Prof. Brad Wilcox
Assistant Professor of Sociology W. Bradford Wilcox spoke about the marriage movement's roots.

"Marriage is a public institution that serves important public functions," said Wilcox, who was invited by the St. Thomas More Society to present "Sacred Vows, Public Purposes: Religion, the Marriage Movement, and Marriage Policy." The virtues of marriage help society in supporting social order. Because increased divorce rates and higher numbers of unmarried parents in the last few decades have increased welfare costs, states in particular have an interest in promoting marriage, he said.

Wilcox said the Founding Fathers trusted religious institutions to support and encourage marriage, a trust that has faded among some politicians faced with a more secular society today. In the last decade a marriage movement has emerged that is composed of a diverse group of scholars, politicians and religious figures that belie the movement as solely evangelical. The movement has resulted in such action as Louisiana's covenant marriage law, where divorce can only be granted in case of adultery or abandonment, as well as high school marriage prep courses and marriage counseling classes for broader audiences, including clergy who counsel couples. With the Bush administration's statements in support of marriage, Congress is also poised to push legislation regarding promotion of marriage through welfare programs.

Wilcox said politicians communicate about marriage in more secular terms, using the language of therapy—"healthy" marriages include lack of abuse and conflict, good communication, and emotional well-being—in part because they don't want to alienate people of different religions, and they tend to focus on the husband-wife relationship solely. Furthermore, he noted that marriage movement supporters use utilitarian rationales in support of marriage: the economic consequences of broken marriage and the effects broken families can have on children strain societal finances and social order.

However, measuring marriage using such language overlooks the importance of marriage as a sacred religious institution itself, as well as the important role of children in a marriage, Wilcox said. Couples with orthodox religious beliefs are 33 percent less likely to divorce, he added, showing that spirituality and viewing marriage as sacred plays an important role in keeping couples together. Studies show it is unclear whether actions taken by public institutions to promote marriage work, Wilcox said. Their messages "crowd out religious conceptions of the good life," he said. "The state is not well suited … to directly cultivate this sense of sacredness."

Read Prof. Wilcox's full paper:

News Highlights