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The sacred valence: Why marriage is more than a piece of paper

>>A theologian caps his career with a vision for postindustrial marriage
Cuing 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.

PHOTO:  Who says married life isn't divine?  Browing sees attitudes changing"You 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.

As 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).

The 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.

On 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.

Other 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.

The 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.

"Mainliners 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."

Now 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.

The 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.

"Marriage 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.

This 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.

Browning 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.

In 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.

"Is 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.

  AUGUST 2001

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