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  • Here are several ways America's religious traditions could strengthen marriage. Tweet This
  • If religious groups want to support marriage, they must find ways to reach out to those who now feel unwelcome. Tweet This

Her car slid on the ice and the rosary around the rearview mirror swung like a crazy pendulum. God, help me!

Though Stephanie didn’t go to church anymore, prayer was her first reflex in a crisis. But as a single mom with two kids by two different men, she felt out of place in church.

“I feel like I’m a reject or defective. I’m broken, like no one can love me and I can never do anything right. I keep digging myself deeper in debt. I can’t keep a job. How could anyone love the screw-up? I’m the messed-up child in my family. How could God forgive me and love me when I can’t [forgive myself]?”

She added, “That’s why I don’t go to church. I don’t understand it, and I feel like I don’t belong there because of everything I’ve done.”

She would like to fit in, to be seen as “normal,” to give her children the kind of family life that she dreamed of as a child of divorce. “I’d see other people with their dads, and I would want what my friend has,” she said. “I know exactly how [my son] feels. And I never wanted my kids to feel like that.” She wants to get married someday, but like many other American young adults, she finds herself in the paradoxical position of valuing marriage while not entirely trusting it. As Stephanie noted, many of her peers “say that it’s all downhill after you get married, and that [marriage] can sometimes ruin the relationship.” “They’re not familiar” with successful marriages in their families or in their social networks. Thus, they don’t know how to make marriage happen, much less make it last. For many young adults, particularly those without a four-year college degree, marriage seems increasingly out of reach.

newly released report by the Center of the American Experiment suggests that America’s religious traditions have the opportunity to respond to these trends. The report, which is titled “Can America’s Religious Traditions Strengthen Marriage?” is based on five roundtable discussions involving nineteen Minnesotans, both lay people and clergy, from a variety of faith backgrounds. Though Minnesota-focused, the report has implications for the country as a whole.

The report’s author, Mitch Pearlstein, summarizes one such implication this way: “Not taking advantage of our faith-based resources… [is] akin to doing battle against widespread pain and sadness with a muscular arm needlessly tied behind our backs.” In other words, America’s faith communities can and should be a part of strengthening marriage in America.

But how, especially given many young adults’ ambivalent relationship to religious institutions? From the roundtable participants’ efforts to grapple with different facets of this question, there emerged ten “specific and (often) modest things religious institutions might do to strengthen marriage and reduce nonmarital births.” For example, places of worship could recognize congregants’ anniversaries, perhaps celebrating with cake and coffee after services. Clergy could speak from the pulpit; faith-based small groups could discuss marriage-related issues during their meetings; and groups for young married couples could provide community and support to newlyweds while also being a witness to married life. Other ideas include Marital First Responders, which is a program equipping ordinary Americans to support their friends’ and family members’ marriages, and helping ex-offenders “get their lives in order so they might become better and more likely marriage partners.” Perhaps the most unusual idea suggested is for churches to develop parenting ceremonies in which “unmarried parents commit to work with each other for the benefit of their children.”

One of my favorite suggestions of the 10—to “present robust challenges surrounding chastity and fidelity”—is perhaps a bit counterintuitive in that it seems like it would turn young people away. But I think that in practice, it has the opposite effect. I think, for instance, of the many Catholic young people I have met who have come to see John Paul II’s Theology of the Body as life-changing. When my husband and I lived in New York City, dozens of young adults would meet regularly to socialize and discuss his book Love and Responsibility. Its “robust challenges” inspired and motivated those young people to date differently and to resolve to love better.

But the young people at those gatherings were primarily young professionals who loved to study and debate. What about those without a college degree, who may feel marginalized, or like they don’t belong in church because of their sometimes messy relationships and family lives?  How can America’s religious traditions enable those young adults to achieve healthy marriages?

I think that the ten suggestions in the Center of the American Experiment report can help strengthen marriage for Americans of all backgrounds. But if America’s religious institutions want to create significant change, they will first have to figure out how to welcome people like Stephanie—those who may fear judgment and feel that their pasts prevent them from belonging. Based on the conversations of the Minnesota panelists and also on my own interviews with working-class young adults in Ohio, in my next post, I will explore some additional ideas for how religious institutions can help those who are disproportionately affected by low marriage rates, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing.