- Working-class individuals may be more likely to embrace some elements of the foundational model of marriage described by Regnerus, in which “being newly married and poor was difficult, expected, and (typically) temporary." Tweet This
- In his new book, Regnerus identifies the shift from cornerstone to capstone as a key framework for understanding the marriage recession among Christians. Tweet This
- In our interviews with the working class, a more formative view of marriage was not uncommon among Christians, who often surprised us by still marrying young. Tweet This
When I first heard about sociologist Mark Regnerus’s new book, The Future of Christian Marriage, I knew I wanted to read it. When Regnerus writes of a “marriage recession” among Christians, the term resonates. I think of my dear friend living in New York City, in her early 30s just like me. She is stunning, intelligent, a devout Catholic, an accomplished musician, and single-not-by-choice. I think also of friends in my working-class town in Ohio who believe in God and still value marriage, yet find it elusive.
Though I know it’s increasingly uncommon, my own experience was quite different. I was engaged by the age of 20 and married at 21, just three weeks after college graduation. (A couple months after our wedding, Regnerus wrote a piece for CT called, “The Case for Early Marriage,” which thrilled my husband David and me. We knew that we were bucking the trend by viewing marriage as a cornerstone not capstone, and we’d felt the weight of cultural pushback. Reading Regnerus felt like much-yearned for support and approval.) In the 11 years since, we’ve had five children and are currently in the busy-with-young-children stage, but we find that many parents of our children’s friends are a decade older than we are.
I say all of this not to boast but to disclose that while I see the marriage recession happening among my peers, I also feel distanced from it, like an outsider looking in. David and I have spent much of the past decade interviewing young adults about marriage, so I have my theories, but I was curious to see what Regnerus had to say about current marriage trends and was particularly interested in the global scope of his book. Are Christians really that different from their secular peers when it comes to marriage beliefs and behaviors, and does this vary by country? How strong is the desire for marriage among Christian young adults today?
The strength of the book is the rich source material from interviews around the world. Regnerus and his team interviewed 190 churchgoing, young adult Christians in seven countries—Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, Nigeria, and the United States—and also talked with priests and pastors and other leaders who could offer perspective on what’s happening with marriage today. It is fascinating to read about the different nuances from country to country. For example, I did not know that in Lebanon, where both living costs and extended family expectations are high, the financial aspect of a big wedding is an even higher hurdle than it is in the United States. Or that family structure was more stable in the Soviet Union than it is in Russia today (perhaps capitalism is not as good for marriage as many American Christians assume, Regnerus muses).
But it is even more fascinating (and at times troubling) to see the similarities. In all of these places, young Christians still view marriage as something more than cohabitation—a stronger bond, a more serious commitment. Yet “the intrusion of a market mentality into our homes, marriages, and bedrooms” has reduced the transcendental to the transactional and contributed to a global monoculture that spreads from the West elsewhere.
“The West has allowed economic considerations to co-opt, colonize, and direct our most intimate relationships—husband to wife and parent to child,” Regnerus writes.
He quotes Elzbieta, a 31-year-old analyst working for a marketing firm in Warsaw, who says that in today's world, people simply "withdraw from [relationships] if they don’t work” and concludes “Everyone wants to be free in a weird sense.” Regnerus notes that “As relationships become commodified, they are far more apt to be considered disposable, an idea utterly toxic to marriage.”
I’ll admit I struggled to get through the first half of the book, particularly sections focusing on the exchange model of sex and marriage, which at times felt tedious, ideological, and specialized. But the book improves as it goes on. In the chapter entitled “Uncertainty,” Regnerus gets to what I see as the heart of the marriage recession: “a blend of uncertainty, ambiguity, individualism, and materialism.” This relates to the crisis of trust that the young adults we have interviewed come back to again and again. In his chapter, “Revitalizing Christian Marriage,” Regnerus reflects on some practical (and moving, even) suggestions on how to strengthen marriage, in addition to the typical policy-fare.
One important note is that the sample Regnerus interviewed for his book skews educated, which leaves me to question how much of what he heard from Christian young adults around the world is a result of class being a stronger indicator of marriage beliefs than religion? For example, when it comes to careerism and the capstone view of marriage that says that finishing college, getting established in a career, and having a place of one’s own and financial stability are prerequisites to marriage, I’d venture to guess that college-educated young adults of all faiths (and no faith) have more in common than they do with their less-educated peers.
While I take Regnerus’s point that culture often starts with the elite and trickles down, in our interviews with the working class, a more formative view of marriage was not uncommon among Christians, who often surprised us by still marrying young. Emma married her high school sweetheart shortly after graduation, saying that she wanted to be a mom more than anything. Kayla and Adam married in their early 20s, eager to start living together but aware that their pastor and parents would not approve unless they were married. Mike, who had a purity ring tattooed on his wrist, wed his girlfriend after she got pregnant. Austin and Cassie married and moved in with his mom, asserting that material considerations had nothing to do with marriage and referencing the Alan Jackson country hit “Livin’ On Love.” I could go on.
Unfortunately, all of the couples I just mentioned have since divorced. But that points to a different set of challenges than those voiced by the college-educated Christians whose voices predominate The Future of Marriage, and who are delaying marriage, in part, because of the capstone view of marriage.
That’s because the less-educated are more likely to face significant obstacles to marriage not mentioned in the book—mental health issues, abuse, addiction, weaker social and familial support systems, more distrust of people and institutions. Ideas do still have consequences, but they also have context.
It’s possible that the poor and working class have actually better resisted the intrusion of the market mentality into marriage than their college-educated peers. I don’t want to romanticize, exaggerate pro-marriage sentiment, or gloss over real problems like easy divorce attitudes. But working-class people may be more likely to embrace some elements of the foundational model of marriage described by Regnerus, in which “being newly married and poor was difficult, expected, and (typically) temporary” in contrast with the capstone standard in which “being poor is a sign that there’s something wrong with you; you’re not yet marriage material."
But among the 115 young adults we interviewed, those who were less educated and materially poorer often said that getting married was something that could happen regardless of one’s educational or economic status—so long as there was trust, commitment, and a willingness to sacrifice for each other in good times and bad. Having a job was a good idea, but it didn’t have to be a good job, and even unemployment wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker for everyone because as one interviewee put it, “In today's world, who is financially stable? I mean, nobody in today's world is financially stable.”
Others echoed the sentiment.
“I don't think you have to be financially stable before you get married,” one woman we interviewed explained, “because you can have like a small wedding and make those commitments and those vows, and still live fine.”
A 19-year-old bakery employee we interviewed was planning a backyard wedding with her fiancé, who alternated between seasonal work and part-time hours at Dairy Queen. She said although they were not “what you would call financially stable,” what mattered most to them is being together. “We’re just there for each other, like, no matter what happens,” she told us. “If he doesn’t have work for months, and we struggle on bills, we have each other.”
She attributed some of her attitude to her Baptist upbringing, adding that waiting to marry until after a mile marker like college was unnecessary:
Financial stability is nice, but not all of us ... are fortunate to have that at 19. I know a lot of people who don’t even go to college; therefore, they’d never get married … this isn’t a perfect world. There’s a lot of rich yuppies who just don’t understand ... I have nothing against people who have money because I want to be like that someday. But a lot of people who are handed money just assume that life is easy and that’s what you do after high school—you just go to college and you meet somebody there, you get married. That’s just not always how it works.
In The Future of Christian Marriage, Regnerus identifies the shift from cornerstone to capstone as a key framework for understanding the marriage recession among Christians. But if marriage is still viewed as formative among some less-educated and poorer Christian young adults, then perhaps this is one of the ways that the Church can be “evangelized by the poor.” How fitting if the future of Christian marriage could be so shaped by the lowly and overlooked.
Amber Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and, along with her husband David, co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form families and think about marriage.