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“The issue for conservatives is marriage"

Michael J. McManus
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Mike McManus has written his “Ethics & Religion” column since 1981, totaling 1,500 weekly columns.  His goal has been to write about the paradox that America is the most religious and least ethical modern nation. Two-thirds of Americans are members of a house of worship – and yet the U.S. has the world’s highest divorce and teen birth rates. Each week he examines a daunting moral issue and suggests an answer.  Mike’s latest book suggests how to reform No Fault Divorce Law which doubled America’s divorce rate, How To Cut America’s Divorce Rate in Half: A Strategy Every State Should Adopt. It sparked invitations to meet with legislators in Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin. He is a previous three-time third place Amy Writing Award winner.

Conservatives in Washington are lost.  They do not know what issue to champion.

How about rebuilding marriage in America?

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, and the godfather of Welfare Reform has written: “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, nearly three-quarters of the nation’s impoverished youth would immediately be lifted out of poverty.”

David Goldman reported another startling finding  in the May issue of First Things: Consider this fact: America’s population has risen from 200 million to 300 million since 1970, while the total number of two-parent families with children is the same today as it was when Richard Nixon took office: at 25 million.”

Why?  America’s marriage rate has plunged 50 percent since 1970. If the same percentage of couples were marrying now as in 1970, there would be 3.3 million marriages a year, not 2.2 million.

What’s behind the precipitous drop in the marriage rate?  My wife and I published a book last year with the answer: Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers.  We note that two-thirds of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation.  Why? Most young people believe the myth that they can test their compatibility by cohabiting.  That is a lie that needs to be refuted from the pulpit of every church and in every high school and college.

Consider the numbers.  In 2008, 6.8 million couples lived together.  But only 1.5 million got married.  That means that three-quarters underwent what we call “premarital divorce” which is as painful as real divorce.

Evidence?  Failed cohabitation is such a searing experience; it has diverted tens of millions from marrying at all.  The number of never-married Americans tripled from 21 million in 1970 to 60 million in 2006 while population grew only 48 percent.

What of those who do marry after living together? 

According to a study by Penn State, those couples are 61% more likely to divorce than those who remained apart. That’s why the divorce rate has risen in 36 states from 2005 to 2007 – even as the number who marry has plunged.

Thus, while cohabitation has become the dominant way male-female unions are formed – the sad fact is that only a tenth are able to build marriages out of it.

Cohabitation is the worst possible way to test a marital relationship.  It is not a trial marriage - but a trial divorce.  The only question is whether couples break up before the wedding or afterwards.

St. Paul wrote in I Corinthians: “Flee fornication.”  What is cohabitation but fornication raised to the 10th power? What’s wrong with it? “He who sins sexually sins against his own body,” the Apostle warns.  Is that wisdom not stunningly clear when 90 percent of cohabiting couples fail to build a marriage?

In my nearly five decades as a journalist, sociology always backs up Scripture.

Why are couples (most of whom call themselves Christians), living together?

Have you ever heard a sermon on cohabitation?  I bet not.  And why not? Few cohabiting couples are in church.  But there are lots of parents of cohabiting couples who don’t know what to say to adult children. What parents need is data backing Scripture.

St. Paul outlined the answer: “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (I Thes. 5:21-22).  Couples who are cohabiting are embracing evil.

What’s a better way to test the relationship? In our home church, my wife and I created a four-step plan that we have taken to thousands of churches:

1. Require a premarital inventory that asks couples if they agree or disagree with 150-200 statements like this: “To end an argument, I tend to give in too quickly.” The inventory gives couples an objective view of strengths and where they need to grow.

2.  Offer couples a trained Mentor Couple to discuss all of the items over six sessions of 2-3 hours.  Mentors also offer exercises to teach skills of conflict resolution.

3.  Move apart, if cohabiting. Our church won’t knowingly marry cohabiting couples. If they refuse to do so, they still get the inventory, mentoring and skill training.

4.  Stop having sex until the wedding.  We show them a study that reports a much lower divorce rate for those who are chaste.  The sexually active are two-thirds more likely to divorce.  Of 60 couples we have personally mentored, only ten were chaste when they came to us.  But of the 50 who were sexually active, 43 decided to honor God.

Result?  Of 288 couples our church prepared for marriage, 55 decided not to marry. But of 233 who married, there were only seven divorces/separations in a decade.

Compare our 97 percent success rate with cohabitants’ 90 percent failure rate.


Published in the May 9, 2009 issue of the El Dorado News-Times;  El Dorado, AR.


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