Carolyn Moynihan

Shape or be shaped: Christians in an era of marriage decline

Carolyn Moynihan
By Carolyn Moynihan
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February 6, 2013 (Mercatornet.com) - Christians throughout the West are dismayed at plummeting church attendance figures. They blame video games, or left-wing teachers, or Richard Dawkins. But perhaps the real answer is closer to home -- their own families.

Divorce, single motherhood and cohabitation have been destabilising family life in America and other developed countries for decades. About one million children in the US each year experience the divorce of their parents, and more than half the children born to women under 30 are now born outside marriage. Reproductive technologies are also adding ambiguity -- and potential fault lines -- to family relationships.

Christians as a whole seem as likely as the average American to be caught up in these trends. At the same time religious practice and church affiliation are declining. It seems obvious that these twin crises of marriage and faith are related, but what are the dynamics? Did religion decline and then marriage, or did marriage decline and then religious practice? There is research that points both ways.

Without attempting to settle this question a new report from family scholars at the Institute for American Values investigates one way in which fragmentation of the family impacts on the individual believer and therefore on churches. The report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? focuses on the religious and spiritual lives of young adults who experienced the divorce of their parents.

Reviewing a raft of studies on the subject, co-authors Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Zietlow and Charles E Stokes conclude that, compared to those who grew up in intact families, these young people on the whole feel less religious and are less likely to be practising a faith on a regular basis. Specifically:

Two-thirds of young adults who grew up in married parent families, compared to just over half of children of divorce, say they are very or fairly religious.

More than a third of people from married parent families currently attend religious services almost every week, compared to just a quarter of people from divorced families.

This highlights a very significant fact: as in all other areas of life, parents play a key role in their children’s spiritual formation and religious practice. Normally, they are the ones who take them to church, teach them their prayers, talk to them about God and answer their questions about matters of faith. Their loving care makes intelligible the belief that God is a father (the Father) and also like a mother, fostering the child’s trust in God and acceptance of his will as taught systematically by the church. Studies show that the greatest predictor of the religious lives of youth is the religious lives of their parents.

When this “domestic church” is ruptured by divorce it can therefore undermine a child’s whole religious life. For one thing, many parents stop attending church. Children of divorce are less likely than those from intact families to report that their mother encouraged them to practice their faith (about half compared with four-fifths), and even less likely (about one-third compared to two-thirds) to report this of their fathers. This does not seem surprising given that children generally live with their mother post-divorce, and also given the bitterness of many fathers over access arrangements. Still, as in other areas of life, loss of dad’s input leaves an unfillable gap in children’s lives.

And lest anyone think that the amicable divorce, in which both parents stay involved in the child’s life and minimise their conflict with each other, would be less disruptive to a child’s faith, the report finds this is not generally the case. In one study the grown children of “good divorces” often compared poorly with those who grew up with unhappily married parents. And those raised in happy, intact marriages were more than twice as likely to attend religious services compared to those from low-conflict divorces.

On the positive side, some individuals from divorced families eventually become much more religious. The report notes that “as young adults, children of divorce are surprisingly likely to feel that they are more religious now than their parents ever were.” However, the note of scepticism towards parents here indicates a reason that young adults from divorced families are more inclined to reject the church (or other religious community) of their childhood, either switching to another or describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.

The church response

The question begging to be answered at this point is how faith communities can prevent some of personal suffering, social chaos and haemorrhaging from their own ranks that comes from the disintegration of marriages and the increase in unstable cohabiting relationships. This is not, however, a question that the Shaping Faith report itself gives us a lot of help with. Its chief concern is pastoral responses to children of divorce and other broken families.

In this respect alone much ground has already been lost. In a national US study, of those young adults who regularly attended a church or synagogue at the time of their parents’ divorce, two-thirds said that no one -- neither from the clergy nor the congregation -- reached out to them, while only a quarter remembered receiving that kind of help.

Also, the report notes that where the underlying ideal of marriage presented to a congregation is the “companionate” or “soul mate” model (as opposed to the institutional or child-centred model) the strong focus on the couple relationship can make it more difficult to see the family as part of a religious community, and for couples to take their troubles to the pastor. More about this important subject later.

In contrast to the neglect of young people from broken families, a paper by Evangelical Lutheran pastor Amy Zietlow, which forms the second part of Shaping Faith, describes how local congregations can become places of refuge, nurture and healing for them. Pastors and youth leaders should work harder on providing faith role models. They should listen to those affected by divorce and provide an environment where they can question and search as they come to terms with what has happened. The church (building) itself can provide a “sanctuary” and place of hospitality for young people divided between “mum’s house” and “dad’s house”. These are all good, practical suggestions.

It is not until the very end of the report, however, that the all-important question of preventing divorce (and other forms of family breakdown) is addressed head-on. A final recommendation notes:

"One of the most profound ways that we can support children of divorce is by helping there to be fewer children of divorce in the first place. It is more important than ever for churches to reflect deeply on their role as custodians of the marriage tradition, and to engage actively in preparing and strengthening congregants and people in the community to have healthy, lasting marriages."

How? Well, a little agreement among churches on what the marriage tradition is would be a good start.

Unfortunately, the Institute for American Values itself is currently sowing confusion about that tradition by leading a campaign to embrace same-sex marriage as part of the solution to marriage decline. They are proposing as a remedy the very thing that at least some churches and other marriage advocates see as fatal to the institution and a symptom of what is already wrong with it.

The case for gay marriage rests largely on the assumption that marriage is a committed romantic relationship between two people to which sexual intercourse of a procreative character (if not outcome) is incidental rather than of the essence. In other words, it depends for its credibility on the soul-mate ideal which has supplanted the child-centred, institutional ideal of marriage -- and in doing so has contributed massively to decline of marriage in the West.

This is because the soul-mate marriage, with its undergirding of equal gender roles and economic contributions and its carefully planned births, seems to work for upscale Americans but has proved unattractive to or at least unattainable by people down the socio-economic ladder. The IAV itself in its manifesto for a “new conversation about marriage”, as it does in the Shaping Faith report, identifies “soul-mate issues” as one of the problems besetting marriage, overlooking the fact that gay marriage would institutionalise this very model.

The real solution: marrying romance and children

What is really needed, as family law professor Helen Alvare indicates in a response to Shaping Faith, is a new conversation about healing another kind of divorce -- that between the romantic couple and the children they are capable of generating.

It’s too late to begin such a conversation when a couple is about to marry. By that time (and given historically high ages at first marriage in the U.S.), men and women in the United States have been instructed over and over and over again that sex is one thing and children are entirely another…

Without “re-orienting” (early and often) what is most celebrated in American culture about what men and women do together (sex, romantic love) -- away from the couple themselves and their individual and joint happiness -- how are we to get to the place where children’s interests are privileged? In the earliest discussions of sex and life skills and vocations, then, schools and churches and families need to link the relationships between men and women to children.

Alongside state and federal governments, churches have a massive role to play in this mission, Alvare, a Catholic, observes. She adds, “It is a bit shocking, in fact, they have not played it to the hilt by this time in our nation’s marriage crisis.”

In another response economics professor Catherine Pakaluk, also a Catholic, stresses the need for churches and pastors to exercise their teaching prerogative about marriage with far greater clarity and energy. If they want to stop the damage that family breakdown is doing to individuals and the church, and start making an impact on family formation, they need to exercise “visionary leadership on basic moral teaching,” she says.

With IAV’s efforts to get conservatives and churches to embrace gay marriage as part of the solution to the decline of marriage, the task of achieving clarity on basic moral issues just got more complicated for the Christian community as a whole. Those most likely to suffer the ill effects are, again, the children.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. This article reprinted under a Creative Commons License.

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PBS defends decision to air pro-abortion documentary ‘After Tiller’

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By Dustin Siggins

Under pressure for showing the pro-abortion documentary "After Tiller" on Labor Day, PBS' "POV" affiliate has defended the decision in response to an inquiry from LifeSiteNews.

The producers of the film say their goal with the documentary, which tells the stories of four late-term abortion doctors after the killing of infamous late-term abortionist George Tiller, is to "change public perception of third-trimester abortion providers by building a movement dedicated to supporting their right to work with a special focus on maintaining their safety.” 

POV told LifeSiteNews, "We do believe that 'After Tiller' adds another dimension to an issue that is being debated widely." Asked if POV will show a pro-life documentary, the organization said that it "does not have any other films currently scheduled on this issue. POV received almost 1000 film submissions each year through our annual call for entries and we welcome the opportunity to consider films with a range of points of view."

When asked whether POV was concerned about alienating its viewership -- since PBS received more than $400 million in federal tax dollars in 2012 and half of Americans identify as pro-life -- POV said, "The filmmakers would like the film to add to the discussion around these issues. Abortion is already a legal procedure."

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"This is an issue that people feel passionately about and will have a passionate response to. We are hopeful that the majority of people can see it for what it is, another lens on a very difficult issue." 

In addition to the documentary, POV has written materials for community leaders and teachers to share. A cursory examination of the 29-page document, which is available publicly, appears to include links to outside sources that defend Roe v. Wade, an examination of the constitutional right to privacy, and "a good explanation of the link between abortion law and the right to privacy," among other information.

Likewise, seven clips recommended for student viewing -- grades 11 and beyond -- include scenes where couples choose abortion because the children are disabled. Another shows pro-life advocates outside a doctor's child's school, and a third is described as showing "why [one of the film's doctors] chose to offer abortion services and includes descriptions of what can happen when abortion is illegal or unavailable, including stories of women who injured themselves when they tried to terminate their own pregnancies and children who were abused because they were unwanted."

Another clip "includes footage of protesters, as well as news coverage of a hearing in the Nebraska State Legislature in which abortion opponents make reference to the idea that a fetus feels pain." The clip's description fails to note that it is a scientifically proven fact that unborn children can feel pain.

The documentary is set to air on PBS at 10 p.m. Eastern on Labor Day.

Kirsten Andersen contributed to this article.

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He defended ‘real’ marriage, and then was beheaded for it

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By Pete Baklinski

A Christian man was executed during the night by a high-profile ruler after making an uncompromising defense of real marriage.

The Christian, who was renowned for his holiness, had told the ruler in public that his relationship with his partner was “against the law” of God. The Christian’s words enraged the ruler’s partner who successfully plotted to have him permanently silenced.

John the Baptist was first imprisoned before he was beheaded. The Catholic Church honors him today, August 29, as a martyr and saint.

While John’s death happened a little less than 2,000 years ago, his heroic stance for real marriage is more pertinent today than ever before.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the ruler Herod had ‘married’ his brother’s wife Herodias. When John told Herod with complete frankness, “It is against the law for you to have your brother’s wife,” Herodias became “furious” with him to the point of wanting him killed for his intolerance, bullying, and hate-speech.

Herodias found her opportunity to silence John by having her daughter please Herod during a dance at a party. Herod offered the girl anything she wanted. The daughter turned to her mother for advice, and Herodias said to ask for John’s head on a platter.

Those who fight for real marriage today can learn three important lessons from John’s example.

  1. Those proudly living in ungodly and unnatural relationships — often referred to in today’s sociopolitical sphere as ‘marriage’ — will despise those who tell them what they are doing is wrong. Real marriage defenders must expect opposition to their message from the highest levels.
  2. Despite facing opposition, John was not afraid to defend God’s plan for marriage in the public square, even holding a secular ruler accountable to this plan. John, following the third book of the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 20:21), held that a man marrying the wife of his brother was an act of “impurity” and therefore abhorrent to God. Real marriage defenders must boldly proclaim today that God is the author of marriage, an institution he created to be a life-long union between one man and one woman from which children arise and in which they are best nurtured. Marriage can be nothing more, nothing less.
  3. John did not compromise on the truth of marriage as revealed by God, even to the point of suffering imprisonment and death for his unpopular position. Real marriage defenders must never compromise on the truth of marriage, even if the government, corporate North America, and the entire secular education system says otherwise. They must learn to recognize the new “Herodias” of today who despises those raising a voice against her lifestyle. They must stand their ground no matter what may come, no matter what the cost.

John the Baptist was not intolerant or a bigot, he simply lived the word of God without compromise, speaking the word of truth when it was needed, knowing that God’s way is always the best way. Were John alive today, he would be at the forefront of the grassroots movement opposing the social and political agenda to remake marriage in the image of man.

Click "like" if you want to defend true marriage.

If he were alive today he might speak simple but eloquent words such as, “It is against God’s law for two men or two women to be together as a husband and wife in marriage. Marriage can only be between a man and a woman.” 

He would most likely be hated. He would be ridiculed. He would surely have the human rights tribunals throwing the book at him. But he would be speaking the truth and have God as his ally. 

The time may not be far off when those who defend real marriage, like John, will be presented with the choice of following Caesar or making the ultimate sacrifice. May God grant his faithful the grace to persevere in whatever might come. St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

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The Wunderlich family Mike Donnelly / Home School Legal Defence Association
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German homeschoolers regain custody of children, vow to stay and fight for freedom

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By Thaddeus Baklinski

One year to the day since a team of 20 social workers, police officers, and special agents stormed a homeschooling family’s residence near Darmstadt, Germany, and forcibly removed all four of the family’s children, aged 7 to 14, a state appeals court has returned custody of the children to their parents.

The reason given for the removal was that parents Dirk and Petra Wunderlich continued to homeschool their children in defiance of a German ban on home education.

The children were returned three weeks after being taken, following an international outcry spearheaded by the Home School Legal Defense Association.

However, a lower court imposed the condition on the parents that their children were required to attend state schools in order for them to be released, and took legal custody of the children in order to prevent the family from leaving the country.

In a decision that was still highly critical of the parents and of homeschooling, the appeals court decided that the action of the lower court in putting the children in the custody of the state was “disproportional” and ordered complete custody returned to the parents, according to a statement by the HSLDA.

The Wunderlichs, who began homeschooling again when the court signaled it would rule this way, said they were very pleased with the result, but noted that the court’s harsh words about homeschooling indicated that their battle was far from over.

“We have won custody and we are glad about that,” Dirk said.

“The court said that taking our children away was not proportionate—only because the authorities should apply very high fines and criminal prosecution instead. But this decision upholds the absurd idea that homeschooling is child endangerment and an abuse of parental authority.”

The Wunderlichs are now free to emigrate to another country where homeschooling is legal, if they choose, but they said they intend to remain in Germany and work for educational freedom.

“While we no longer fear that our children will be taken away as long as we are living in Hessen, it can still happen to other people in Germany,” Dirk said. “Now we fear crushing fines up to $75,000 and jail. This should not be tolerated in a civilized country.”

Petra Wunderlich said, "We could not do this without the help of HSLDA,” but cautioned that, “No family can fight the powerful German state—it is too much, too expensive."

"If it were not for HSLDA and their support, I am afraid our children would still be in state custody. We are so grateful and thank all homeschoolers who have helped us by helping HSLDA.”

HSLDA’s Director for Global Outreach, Michael Donnelly, said he welcomed the ruling but was concerned about the court’s troubling language.

“We welcome this ruling that overturns what was an outrageous abuse of judicial power,” he said.

“The lower court decision to take away legal custody of the children essentially imprisoned the Wunderlich family in Germany. But this decision does not go far enough. The court has only grudgingly given back custody and has further signaled to local authorities that they should still go after the Wunderlichs with criminal charges or fines.”

Donnelly pointed out that such behavior in a democratic country is problematic.

“Imprisonment and fines for homeschooling are outside the bounds of what free societies that respect fundamental human rights should tolerate,” he explained.

“Freedom and fundamental human rights norms demand respect for parental decision making in education. Germany’s state and national policies that permit banning home education must be changed.

"Such policies from a leading European democracy not only threaten the rights of tens of thousands of German families but establish a dangerous example that other countries may be tempted to follow,” Donnelly warned.

HSLDA Chairman Michael Farris said that acting on behalf of the Wunderlichs was an important stand for freedom.

“The Wunderlichs are a good and decent family whose basic human rights were violated and are still threatened,” Farris said.

“Their fight is our fight," Farris stressed, "and we will continue to support those who stand against German policy banning homeschooling that violates international legal norms. Free people cannot tolerate such oppression and we will do whatever we can to fight for families like the Wunderlichs both here in the United States and abroad. We must stand up to this kind of persecution where it occurs or we risk seeing own freedom weakened.”

Visit the HSLDA website dedicated to helping the Wunderlich family and other German homeschoolers here.

Contact the German embassy in the U.S. here.

Contact the German embassy in Canada here.

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