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Taking a Stand for Marriage

Four large church groups join to defend traditional unions, reflecting both a growing spirit of cooperation and an increasing concern for traditional views of morality.


WASHINGTON — Alarmed by the nation's divorce rate and growing numbers of couples living together outside marriage, the country's four largest Christian church groups have issued an unprecedented joint declaration in defense of traditional marriage.

Representatives of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches and the Southern Baptist Convention called this week for a deepened commitment to traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

"Our nation is threatened by a high divorce rate, a rise in cohabitation, a rise in nonmarital births, a decline in the marriage rate and a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying, especially among young people," the declaration warned.

The statement itself came as no surprise. But the fact that a broad spectrum of Christian leaders would feel the need to band together in defense of marriage is a telling symbol of two opposing trends: greater ecumenical cooperation on the one hand and erosion of traditional views of morality on the other.

In effect, churches--which could once comfortably assert that their moral views on sex and marriage represented mainstream America--have become countercultural.

Indeed, there is little overall difference between churchgoers and others when it comes to divorce, according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission.

"Such failings occur with equal frequency among churchgoers and nonchurchgoers," he said here this week in endorsing the joint declaration.

As a sign of the changing times, the statement, which even a few years ago would have been considered non-controversial, drew protests--mostly aimed at the refusal of churches to recognize same-sex marriages.

Actually, the nation's divorce rate has been declining recently, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. There were 4.2 divorces per thousand Americans in 1998, the latest year for which figures are available. By comparison, the rate was 4.7 per thousand in 1990 and 5.2 per thousand in 1980.

Nonetheless, there were nearly twice as many divorces in 1998 as there were in 1950, when the rate was 2.6 divorces per thousand population.

But the decline in the divorce rate may be in part the result of the fact that many couples are simply not marrying. The number of unmarried couples living together has increased tenfold since 1960 to 4.26 million in 1998, according to Marriage Savers, a Christian marriage ministry based in Potomac, Md.

And in contrast with 1960, one rarely hears such relationships described as "living in sin."

Religious leaders argue that the rise in long-term relationships between unmarried people spells trouble for society.

Land, the Southern Baptist, said the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the out-of-wedlock birth rate soared 224% between 1970 and 1998. During that same period, he noted, the number of single-parent families grew by 190%, and the number of children living with unmarried couples went up by 665%.

"There is inconvertible sociological evidence that proves that when marriages fail, families are weakened; and when families are weakened, society as a whole feels the impact," he said.

All this comes at a time when many churches have been struggling with whether to bless same-sex unions. During this past year, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and the nation's Reform rabbis have debated the issue. So volatile is the controversy that some congregations have quit the three Christian denominations.

Even the Catholic bishops meeting here this week were not exempt from protests. Soulforce, the same religious-based gay and lesbian rights group that picketed United Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian national conventions this year, brought its case to the Catholics.

About 100 protesters were arrested after they blocked the entrance to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where the bishops celebrated Mass. Soulforce called for an end to "spiritual violence" against gays and lesbians. Part of their complaint involves the church's refusal to bless same-sex unions.

Yet as visible and wrenching as the issue of gay rights is for churches, mainstream clergy have paid relatively little attention until now to the condition of traditional marriages.

"Perhaps we allowed marriage to drift too far into the private, individualistic realm where it easily becomes just another lifestyle choice without normative expectations or public obligations," Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell of the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., said in a prepared statement. The time has come, he said, to again make a case for marriage.

It is not clear, of course, that churches can do much to reverse such a major cultural and demographic trend. But advocates of a renewed emphasis on marriage point to several experiments.

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