sacred valence: Why marriage is more than a piece of paper
theologian caps his career with a vision for postindustrial marriage
up a video in his shag-carpeted rec room one Monday this June,
Don Browning, DB'59, AM'62, PhD'64, invites his guests to make
themselves at home. His wife, Carol, switches off a lamp, and
the credits roll for the documentary Marriage: Just a Piece
of Paper? Browning explains to three first-time viewers that
the video is still several months from completion, at which point
it will go into the holding tanks at WTTW Chicago public television,
to be aired late this fall and, Browning hopes, nationally syndicated
early next year.
wouldn't believe how much we've had to cut. This is a huge topic
to cover in less than two hours," says the Alexander Campbell
professor of ethics and the social sciences in the Divinity School
and director of the Lilly Project on Religion, Culture, and Family.
the music fades, journalist Cokie Roberts strolls through a sunny
garden and talks about marriage in America. Her dialogue, like
the rest of the narration, was written by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead,
AM'71, PhD'76, an expert on marriage and family issues. The same
topic has preoccupied Browning for the past decade (professionally,
that is: he and Carol, a retired church organist and piano teacher,
have been married 43 years).
documentary is the culmination of an interdisciplinary project
that has produced 12 scholarly books, seen countless articles
on its research appear in the national media, and received a total
of $4 million from three grants, including seed money from the
Lilly Foundation in 1991. More than 100 theologians have contributed
to the project's goal: to introduce a scholarly religious voice
into public discussions of marriage and family and to offer a
model for marriage in the future.
the screen, Tom Smith, PhD'80, of the National Opinion Research
Center outlines what Browning's group is up against: one-third
of married couples are divorced or divorcing; one-third of all
children are born to unmarried women; two-thirds of African-American
children are born to single mothers. The statistics from Wade
Horn, director of the National Father Initiative, are more grim:
among children not living with fathers, 40 percent haven't seen
dad in the past year, and 50 percent have never been in his house.
commentators outline what they perceive to be the massive shifts
in American society that led the nation to the current situation.
The women's revolution, says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution,
opened the workplace to wives and mothers, putting an end to the
19th-century "breadwinner-homemaker" marriage model.
The sexual revolution, she continues, led to widespread nonmarital
sex; unplanned pregnancies and the now-common phenomenon of cohabitation,
she continues, were not far behind. Perhaps most profound, though,
Cokie continues, is the psychological revolution that told men
and women it's okay to seek their own individual fulfillment and
happiness, even if it means leaving behind marriage and family.
video's message-and the Lilly Project's, for that matter-is clear
from the start: marriage is good, divorce is not, and some force
needs to intervene and reverse the escalation of divorce and single
motherhood because it's seriously hurting the nation's children.
Browning believes the intervening force should be religion-and
religion, he is adamant, does not only mean conservative,
Christian, and right-wing. Rather, he points to mainstream and
liberal religious groups, including Catholicism and Judaism, which
contributed little to public discussions of marriage during the
late 1980s and the 1990s.
and liberals accommodated modernity more rapidly than their conservative
counterparts," Browning says a few days later in his Swift
Hall office. "They're the people who go off to universities,
who are more individualistic in their point of view anyway. They
accepted divorce quite well. A decade ago sociology as a discipline
said, Don't worry about the family changes that are occurring
in our society, it just means more freedom. It wasn't until relatively
recently that social-science research has started to say that
the kids [of divorce] are suffering, that it's impoverishing single
mothers, that men are getting off the hook."
more than ever, Browning believes, mainstream and liberal religious
groups must find their voices. An ordained minister of the liberal
denomination Disciples of Christ, he is addressing his peers.
In doing so, he changed the path of his scholarly career. He made
his name at the U of C studying and writing on the relation of
religious thought to the social sciences and how theological ethics
employs sociology, psychology, and the social scientific study
of religion. Of the ten books under his belt, only two focused
on the shape and future of the postmodern family. Now, as he prepares
to retire after a visiting professorship at Emory University next
year, he is glad to cap his career with a project that could have
an impact on society at large.
Lilly Project's approach has been quintessential Chicago, framing
a theological discussion of marriage in the context of research
from other disciplines. In the project's core book, From Culture
Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate
(Westminster John Knox, second edition, 2000), Browning and four
co-authors outline what they call a "psychocultural-economic"
view of marriage. On the one hand, they take into account the
work of economists like Gary Becker, AM'53, PhD'55, legal scholars
such as Richard Posner, and sociologists like Linda Waite, who
say that marriage is good because it's efficient and provides
the optimal economic, social, and psychological outcome for both
partners and their progeny. But they also acknowledge that marriage
is about something more metaphysical than cost-benefit analyses.
is not just about religion. Of course it's not. But it's a carrier
of religion, and religion interacts with these other benefits,"
says Browning. "It gives sacred valence to values that can
be understood in other ways. It says there are intrinsic benefits
that aren't just means to other ends." In place of the outdated
breadwinner-homemaker model, Common Ground argues for a
new "postindustrial ideal": an egalitarian family in
which husband and wife participate relatively equally in paid
work, childcare, and domestic duties.
may sound like Ms. magazine warmed over, but Browning points out
that his immediate audience includes theologians and religious
groups who aren't necessarily Ms. readers (though a good many
feminist theologians are on the Lilly Project roster). More to
the point, these groups haven't articulated a new "equal
regard" marriage model that also reflects the divine side
of married life. The project lays out the groundwork for them.
is quick to point out that the Lilly Project is not against the
single vocation or families that have split. "Life is rough.
There are enormous pressures in society. We recognize there will
be divorced single parents. But we're saying that people will
be able to handle these pressures better if they try to do it
better the first time. We're not out to create a stigma. But we're
also not out to accept the forces that are functioning against
lifetime marriage." The authors of Common Ground outline
the forces: a drift in Western societies toward heightened individualism;
the spread of market economics into family and private life; the
psychological shifts produced by individualism and market economics;
and the influences of a declining yet still active patriarchy.
the face of these challenges, Browning gives examples of trends
that support the postindustrial, equal-regard marriage ideal.
The "marriage movement" is bringing marriage education
into high schools, and many churches now require couples to attend
marriage counseling before they marry-a good sign, considering
that 70 percent of American weddings are religious. Louisiana
recently passed the first "covenant" marriage law, in
which couples agree to mandatory premarital counseling and commit
to marriage as a lifelong, sacred contract (the polar opposite,
Browning notes, of California's 1989 passage of the no-fault divorce
law, which changed the tide toward fast-and-easy divorce). And
the more the mainstream media cover research that argues for marriages
that last, the more public attitudes will begin to change.
marriage coming or going? Right now the facts point to both. Everyone's
looking for a soul mate, but no one thinks they'll find one,"
says Browning. In the decades ahead, he hopes, those who do find
soul mates will recognize that their commitment is more than just
a piece of paper.-S.A.S.