Category Archives: Sociology of Religion

Marrying Young

About six months ago I read a fabulous book, which helped to confirm for me my love of sociology of religion. The book, by Mark Regnerus, was called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers and one of its themes included the discrepancies between adults’ teaching/teenagers’ belief/teenagers’ practice when it comes to evangelical sexual ethics. This, among other things, has led Regnerus himself–who is evangelical–to advocate for younger marriage.

The stereotype, of course, is already that conservative Christians tend to marry younger. Still, along with the many non-evangelicals, there are plenty of evangelicals who also would question Regnerus’s recommendation.

I used to be one of them.

It’s not so much that I thought everyone that got married young did so just for sex or that all young marriages were bound to fail. It was much more of a feminist thing for me–it seemed the younger the marriage the more traditional the gender role expectations tended to be. (I’m not certain that there is any social scientific evidence for this, but this was my probably unfair stereotype.) I’ve changed my mind, however, and I feel like sharing some of the reasons with the world. So here is my brief treatise on the benefits of marrying young:

Some Christians criticize others for their lack of a “consistent ethic of human life”–i.e. supporting the death penalty while opposing abortion. I think we Christians need to do some reflection on a consistent ethic of marriage. We have so emphasized not committing adultery and not divorcing that we neglect to discuss many other important things. These items range from how to best support those who have divorced for legitimate or illegitimate reasons to better supporting dual-earner families, from acknowledging female sexuality to recognizing the significance of emotional abuse. I also believe that among these issues is the need to thoughtfully consider and teach the beauty of the very countercultural aspects of marriage.

While marriage is something that has existed throughout history and in many different cultural contexts, it has undoubtedly been done differently depending on the particulars of those contexts. Our context today introduces many interesting elements into the equation, ultimately leading to later marriages. First, the high divorce rate of my generation’s parents has left many anxious about commitment and a few quite jaded. Secondly, casual sex is not always as common as portrayed in movies but is still a part of the cultural landscape (facilitated, of course, by modern methods of birth control). Thirdly, our current economic situation and the direction of our society more generally is encouraging more education, postponing careers. Fourthly, American culture is extremely individualistic. To me, these seem to be some of the most significant factors in delaying marriage today. Together they make marrying young look unnecessary at best, foolish at worst.

Taking even the most positive approach, younger marriage is just likely to cause problems. When you’re in your 20s, you really don’t know what you’re doing with your life. “Emerging Adults” have a lot of growing up to do and are still waist-deep in questions about their future educations and careers. What if you marry someone, only to find out that they work in New York, while you’ve accepted a great job in California? What if you can’t both get accepted into the same or nearby grad schools? What if in your continuing to grow up, one or both of you changes significantly? When you’re not planning on having kids yet anyway, why get married? You can still live together with some degree of commitment, and yet be able to get out if things don’t go as you hope. Additionally, weddings are expensive, and it makes more sense to wait until you have enough money to pay for the accoutrements you’ve always dreamed of, right? Anyway, it seems wiser to wait until you have stable careers with stable incomes.

In this culture with these attitudes, marrying young is weird. And clearly it’s not for everyone–some people haven’t met the right person or aren’t at the right place in their relationship or personal growth to make that kind of a step. And yet, I wonder what it’d look like for Christian communities to encourage a different attitude toward marriage–not so much marrying “young” vs. marrying older as much as Christian marriage as an intentionally countercultural act. You’re deciding you don’t want to leave your options open, you’re not going to try to guarantee the stability of every aspect of your life, you’re going to take some risk as far as your education and careers work out, and you’re willing to commit yourself to one person when you don’t necessarily have to yet and even though you’ve seen a lot of marriages die. To me, that sounds pretty radical in our society.

I’m not trying to say that non-Christians can’t have good and purposeful marriages, of course, just that as Christians we should especially be thinking about how the gospel applies to every aspect of life, including marriage. I know not everyone should actually marry young but going into marriage with a different set of attitudes toward partnership and commitment can be really significant, I think. For example, many Christians emphasize that commitments are important to keep, yet many also still promote some sort of hesitancy (whether in serious conversation or innocent jokes) about commitment. I would argue that an actually more Christian view of commitment maturely measures the risk, yet in the end embraces that uncertainty with excitement and hope.

To truly apply this to our ideas about commitment would go beyond our natural enthusiasm for those who are already planning to marry. I think it would change the way to consider things like, “What if we get stuck accepted to two different schools?” or “Shouldn’t we wait until we’re financially stable?” When you’re already acknowledging the risk inherent in commitment (no matter what the circumstances!) and daring to believe that good can come from it, these questions fade in importance. After all, marriage is about more than cleverly engineering your life circumstances to support a relationship. You can grow it in a greenhouse, if you prefer, but the unexpected is likely to make you feel like you’re in the wild, anyway. Why not just start there? Yes, some times might be harder–you can’t really know–but if the whole point of this is commitment, what does school or money or whatever else have to do with it? If you don’t think you want to be committed if some things don’t go as planned, why do you think you might ever want to get married at all?

Personally, I’m enjoying the fact that things don’t always go the way we thought, as it shows me just how good my decision to get married has been. While Jeremiah and I are both waitlisted for PhD programs, we have an uncommon advantage: each other. I’m surprisingly calm about the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing yet or what will happen if one of us gets in and the other doesn’t. I’m remarkably happy about it all and just excited to see how it turns out. Our life together in and of itself seems much more important than our particular plans. What good would it have been for us to wait to get married, apply to various programs, and end up at opposite ends of the country? If you don’t know you want to get married, that’s ok. But if you want to, don’t wait. It doesn’t accomplish anything. And actually going through with something that seems crazy can end up being a really wonderful thing.

And about gender roles: Despite my hang-ups, marrying young says nothing about gender roles. Though this was hard for me to get over (so few of my female friends are married that I was sure there must be something awful about feminists marrying young and that I must be crazy!), I’m learning that we can wait as long as we want to have kids. We can divide chores however we want. We can get as much education as we feel like. We can split time with kids more evenly than most parents. We can be flexible. People can think whatever they want about women and men who marry young–but for us, it’s an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company longer before we have more intense responsibilities, as well as even more time to figure out how we can best make two careers work. And I don’t know what isn’t feminist about that. ;o)

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Filed under Marriage, Sociology of Religion

Theological Imprecision = Sociological Imprecision

I’m reading a fabulous book by Christian Smith on the religion of emerging adults called Souls in Transition, and I’m really enjoying learning not only how younger emerging adults (18-23) believe today but also how their beliefs have changed since they were teenagers.  (He wrote a book on surveys from the same group a few years ago called Soul Searching.)  As I’m reading, however, I’ve had a few significant questions come up with regards to the way their questions are being asked and interpreted.

First, many of those who identified as nonreligious as teenagers now say they see religion as more important to their life and that they’re attending religious services more.  I’m curious how many of them are thinking of “religion” as actual religion in such questions vs. their non-religious views.  For example, some might have gotten involved in a group for atheists and agnostics at college and might see their identity as someone who isn’t religious as more important than it used to be.  (I know there was such a group at UNC, and I know people who were involved in it.)  Should we then have some way to filter the non-religious doing truly religious things from the non-religious whose non-religion has become more important in their lives?

Secondly, the questions about both Jesus and heaven seem very imprecise in their wording.  I realize most young adults aren’t theologians and that overly theological language could be confusion; however, I’m not sure if the questions, how they are asked, paint an accurate picture of emerging adults’ beliefs.

For example, they are asked if Jesus was “the son of God who was raised from the dead,” “an imporant human teacher but not the son of God,” or nonexistent to begin with.  Those who said Jesus was the son of God are then assumed to believe Jesus was divine.  This is a non sequitur, as many who would called Jesus God’s son would not necessarily say he himself was divine—the Arians of the 4th century, for example.

Similarly, when asked if they believe in heaven and who gets there, it feels assumed that Christians either are more conservative and believe in heaven or are more liberal and they don’t.  There are no questions, however, about the resurrection of the dead or the recreation of all things.  I think it’s probably a small number of emerging adults that would try to distinguish these sorts of beliefs from a belief in heaven, but I do feel the numbers are growing.  I definitely knew many in college who, thanks to InterVarsity staff, began to see a somewhat different picture of life after death.  To assume the options are “all people go to heaven,” “only good people go to heaven,” “only people whose sins are forgiven though faith in Jesus Christ go to heaven” or “there is no heaven,” are the only options is like asking Christians about the end times and only giving the option of a pre-tribulation, mid-trib, or post-trib rapture—when in reality many are postmillenialists, many are amillenialists, etc.  I would probably answer such a question “there is no heaven,” because that’s not the way I explain my beliefs, but if I were interviewed, Christian Smith would have realized that he was probably making some assumptions about me he shouldn’t have.

All this to say, it seems to me that while these questions tell us a lot, if sociological questions are not asked with any theological sensitivity to the actual beliefs out there, we can make some wrong conclusions.  Of course, I’m not a sociologist yet, and I don’t know if it might be important to not offer over-nuanced options as to not confuse respondents or encourage some sort of social desirability effect (if certain theological beliefs are thought be better in some way than others).  So perhaps there is a reason why questions we asked like this.  At the same time, I stand by my original perception that these questions are not precise enough to give us excellent data rather than good-ish data.

Maybe Christian Smith or some other clever person can come set us straight?

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Filed under Scholars & Books, Sociology, Sociology of Religion, Uncategorized

The new evangelical non-partisanship

U.S. American news magazines think they have a hot new story.  Week after week they reiterate that U.S. evangelicals are changing, especially the younger crowd.  Governor Palin, for example, isn’t going to appeal to those concerned with the environment, says TIME, since she doesn’t believe humans cause global warming.  Increasingly issues of war and poverty are also on the radar for evangelicals, causing some of them to, *gasp*, even consider voting for Barack Obama.

This openness to new parties, does not necessarily mean a commitment to party or ideology, however.  I have yet to do formal research on the matter (maybe if I go to grad school for poli sci in another life), but my experience has kept the count fairly low. Evangelicals that disassociate from the Religious Right are rightly wary of partisanship, and many are also frustrated by a broken system in Washington that seems to spin its wheels more than it brings the meaningful change for which they yearn.

I know evangelical leaders that encourage the rejection of cemented party allegiances, emphasizing a loyalty to God that supersedes loyalty to party.  No party is perfect, they say, and each is a product of culture, not something directly created by God.   One might vote a certain way the majority of the time, or even partipate in “radical” activites (such a protesting a war), but it’s most important to focus on the issues that matter to God–whether they seem to paint you red or blue–and pursue righteous policies in those areas.

Others take this line of thinking to an extreme, which mixed with their jadedness, can be disastrous in the mind of a poli sci major like myself.  My dear songwriting buddy Derek Webb is quick to call out the United States for its domestic and foreign policies; in fact, at a concert at UNC-Chapel Hill this past Saturday night, he covered Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” in opposition to the Iraq War.  As you might have gathered, Derek and I care about a lot of the same things, but our approach to problem-solving is very different.  For example, a concert-goer says he spoke of voting almost as a necessary evil: “if you conscience lets you vote…”  He also encouraged people to get to know their neighbors (something I wholeheartedly recommend) in lieu of voting (a substitution I don’t).  This attitude goes far beyond Derek–I think most evangelicals today would rather sit and have dinner with the poor than fight for elected officials promising to fight poverty.  Politics doesn’t seem to work, they think, and it just created all this division and partisanship that left the evangelical community feeling oblivious or hostile towards issues of race, poverty, and the environment, to begin with.

But I completely disagree with Derek.  Politics doesn’t have to be broken, it doesn’t have to never work.  It, like most aspects of our culture can be redeemed and restored.  Politics can be a force for good, not evil.  Bureaucracy can even be used for good!  Power can be used justly and progress can be made.  Politics won’t save us any more than SUVs, microwaves, or Rihanna will, but politics can be used by God, just like SUVs, microwaves, and Rihanna.

And just logically speaking, if you believe, as evangelicals do, that there is a moral code that transcends humanity’s momentary likes and dislikes within particular cultural contexts, certain political parties must get more of that right than others.  We may disagree infinitely about which issues are important or which methodology is more effective or about how to decide between parties when none cares about all of “your issues” as much as you do.  But the fact is this: a certain party can (and probably does) have a moral edge over another, if not overall, at least when it comes to addressing particular subsets of issues in our society.

Let’s not demonize each other, and let’s not pretend to have things all figured out.  But let’s not pretend Democrats and Republicans are the same or that communism, conservatism, fascism, democratic socialism, or anything in between are in any way the same system.  They are different ways of seeing the world that must be evaluated based on one’s spiritual and philosophical sensibilities.  And if evangelicals believe the Gospel is the one stainless, scratch-free lense through which everything else can be properly viewed (even if no one seems to have perfect vision), I think they should be able to look at the cultural creations of these various ideologies, see none of them as perfect, yet clearly reject or embrace various aspects of each.  And if that’s true, it’s not just a matter of preference or a choice that we’re free to bypass.  It’s a gift and a responsibility to seek Jesus’s heart and vote (and protest and give and work and pray and speak and shop and dance and dress and drink) accordingly.

We may not always know how to do politics correctly, but I don’t think this is a neutral or irrelevant choice when it comes to kingdom-building.  Politics does real good and real evil in this world.  Let’s do our best to remain engaged, to possess a healthy dose of cynicism balanced by an overwhelming hope, and to take sides (based on issues, party, or ideology more broadly) when it makes sense.  After all, if someone didn’t take a firm political stand against slavery, apartheid, and other evils, where would we be today?

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Filed under Politics, Sociology, Sociology of Religion