This article originally appeared in Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice.
I can't get by with my nine to
Five and I can't provide the right type of
Life for my family 'cause man,
these G-d d--n food stamps don't buy diapers
--Eminem, “Lose Yourself”
For over a decade, my husband and I have lived in white, working-class communities in greater Appalachia. His calling as a pastor has taken us from the former coal mining area of southwestern Pennsylvania where I was raised, to his native Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about the challenges facing low and lower middle-income families-- those families whose marriage rates have decreased in recent decades even as out-of-wedlock births have risen.
We’ve watched as single parents struggle to care for children alone and married couples struggle to connect while working opposite shifts. We’ve written letters and shown up in court when the state ultimately stepped in. We’ve also learned a more difficult truth: the American church is woefully unprepared to understand and support such families, more often echoing broader class trends than extending hope and redemption to those in crisis. Such critique may seem unmerited given the resources and attention the American church has devoted to “family values” in recent decades. When the Sexual Revolution promised sex free from the bonds of commitment or the responsibilities of children, the church responded by proclaiming the goodness of marriage and family. Ministries like Focus on the Family and Promise Keepers taught us about gender roles, parenting, and marriage. Think tanks like the Eagle Forum and the Family Research Council took to public policy, fighting to protect unborn children and traditional marriage.
Despite this focus, overall marriage rates continue to decline as divorce and out-of-wedlock births rise, especially in low-income and working-class communities. While individual congregations may see familial breakdown in micro—the couple that splits unexpectedly or the single mother who finds her way to them—the trends are too large to attribute to isolated personal struggles or individual lack of commitment. More likely, the trends suggest that the church’s focus on “family values” has not reached those most at risk; instead, the church has simply protected families and marriages that already enjoy the benefits of stable community.
The Shift to the Capstone Marriage
To understand why the church struggles to support at-risk families, consider the fact that while lower income marriages struggle, upper class marriages have remained stable. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggeststhat part of the reason upper class families remain intact is because they exist in communities that follow the “success sequence.” It’s not that upper classes don’t engage in sex outside of marriage; they simply delay parenthood until other foundational pieces like education, career, and marriage are in place. Douthat writes that this sequencing is so much a part of upper class culture that it has become “a kind of Gnostic wisdom that doesn’t need to be spelled out.”
Unknowingly, the church may be participating in this cultural Gnosticism. While the lower and middle class practice a form of religiosity, church affiliation and attendance is strongest among the upper classes. To riff off political scientist Robert Putnam who observes that hymns are being sung in upper class accents, the church’s teaching on family more than likely carries upper class assumptions as well. Demographics suggest that we’re often preaching to those who already have clear pathways to familial stability and rewarding them when they do exactly what their subcultures have set them up to do in the first place. And while we can legitimately presume that those committed to religious communities are more likely to delay sexual activity and parenthood until after marriage, this means little to those outside the community who cannot access the very teaching that will help them stabilize their lives.
But more than being inaccessible to those most in need, it’s possible that the church has unintentionally perpetuated some of the very ideas that put low-income couples uniquely at risk. According to the National Marriage Project,American society has moved away from understanding marriage as an institution that “integrates sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union.” Today, marriage is a means to personal fulfillment and romance. It is a capstone of personal identity instead of the cornerstone of community and as such, is often delayed until both parties believe they have found “the one” who will fulfill them.
Rather than confronting this consumerist approach to marriage, the church often simply baptizes it. Certainly, we reject sexual promiscuity, but then we promise better sex for those who wait for marriage and idolize the nuclear family as a kind of reward for those who follow God’s plan. Even those who acknowledge the rigors and self-sacrificial nature of marriage can end up positioning it as a means of personal growth and sanctification.
In such a vision of marriage, the couple sits alone atop the structure of their lives, isolated from the rest of the community. Their union is theirs alone and to be truly fulfilled as a human being, they must find the one who completes them. Sadly, this vision of marriage only works for those who already have a social and economic safety net ready to catch them should they fall from such a steep height. It only works for those who have the resources to prioritize romantic fulfillment because they already exist in stable communities with clear paths to success.
How the Capstone Marriage Undermines Flourishing
So what happens when a working-class couple pursues a romanticized vision of marriage without education, reliable work, or stable community?
I’ve seen this play out in something as simple as a couple waiting to marry until they save enough money for the wedding itself. Often already cohabitating, sometimes having children together (or juggling children from previous relationships), the economics of a dream wedding and honeymoon can keep such couples in a continual state of affiance. Savings can quickly deplete by something as simple as a seasonal layoff or unexpected medical bills. For such couples, it’s not a question of getting the milk for free but of having enough money to buy a pretty pail to carry it home in.
Of course, marriage itself costs little more than a marriage license, but again, cultural expectations about romantic marriage land heaviest on those at the bottom of the ladder. The correlation between income and church attendance also means that low-income couples are more likely to exist outside the very community that might help them sanctify and preserve the covenant they are making to each other. Already isolated from the church, both the wedding and subsequent marriage become a solitary endeavor, the primary burden of the individuals involved.
The capstone approach to marriage is also predictably unstable for children of these romantic, but not permanent, relationships. After exploring father abandonment in the inner city for over a decade, researchers Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson challenge the common perception of “dead-beat” dads as men who don’t care about their children. (Robert Francis discussed this earlier in this series in his interview Fatherhood in a Changing Economy.) Summarizing their research, columnist David Brooks notes that “the key weakness is not the father’s bond to the child; it’s the parents’ bond with each other … They dream of the perfect soul mate. They know this woman isn’t it, so they are still looking.”
Among the poor, the capstone marriage has produced an entirely new category of social vulnerability. In the past, the death of a mother or father could make widows and orphans; today, the death of the institution of marriage is making them. But rather than “visiting the widows and orphans in their affliction,” the church’s approach to families may add to their shame by offering simplistic answers to their problems. While it’s true that traditional morality supports human flourishing, it’s naïve to judge those outside the church’s moral teaching about sex and relationships if we are simultaneously promoting a romanticized vision of marriage. And it’s evil to overlook the same moral failings in the upper classes simply because they exist in contexts that have a safety net to minimize the fallout of their immorality.
Churches Must Respond With a Hopeful Vision
If the mission of the church is to proclaim the good news, we must imagine how families in crisis might flourish, offering a vision of what their lives could be instead of simply judging them for where they are. But to do this, we must meet them where they are and build a path for them to enter the safety of covenant community—both in the church and in their own families.
First, the church must teach an understanding of marriage and family that goes beyond the nuclear family, showing how marriage is both a commitment between two individuals and the community in which they live. This is especially important in communities with already fraying social fabric like mine. For those who’ve been left behind economically, spiritually, and educationally, the continued rhetoric about capstone marriage takes an already brittle thread and snaps it. Instead, the church must show how marriage fits in the network of neighbors, family, friends, and fellow congregants, moving away from rhetoric that positions the nuclear family as a source of personal fulfillment to understanding it as part of something larger.
One small way we do this in our church is that each Sunday we recognize the couples whose anniversaries fall in the coming week. We ask them to stand, ask how many years they’ve been married, and then sing a rendition of “Happy Anniversary” (to the tune of “Happy Birthday”). As kitschy as it sounds, we are communicating something significant. By celebrating these couples in the context of the church community, we testify that their marriages matter to us—not just that we are happy for their private fulfillment but that the success of their marriage is our success too.
But if the church is to reach those most at risk, we must also learn to model and celebrate redemption. Among the couples that stand in our sanctuary on a given Sunday, many have been married faithfully for decades, but some have also been previously married or have children from multiple relationships. When we sing to them, we are not legitimizing their previous choices but celebrating their redemption and present faithfulness. A few weeks ago, a woman gave testimony to how her marriage had begun as an affair. She confessed her sin, weeping over how her actions had harmed others but rejoicing in God’s restoration through the love of a church that embraced her family as it is.
Finally, the church must look beyond our pews to see how our structures and practices erect barriers to families struggling outside the community of faith. Such changes need not be large to be helpful. One church in our community altered the structure of its Vacation Bible School from a few hours each day over the course of a single week to a full-day program on Wednesdays throughout the summer. The purpose of these “Wonderful Wednesdays” is to reach at-risk kids while supporting working parents who struggle to find childcare when school is not in session. As a former single mom, the director recognized and prioritized families who would not typically be part of her church, thereby reaching those most in need of what the church offers.
Ironically, this shift was fueled not only by concern for families, but by a commitment to the church’s core calling: to make disciples of Christ. When we the church reaffirm our unique call to reach all people with the good news of abundant life through Christ, we can’t help but take this news to the most vulnerable. By pursuing this larger mission then, the church ends up playing an essential role in stabilizing families in crisis—a role that might just mean the difference between success and failure for the families in my community.
-Hannah Anderson lives in southwest Virginia where she works beside her husband in rural ministry and cares for their three children. She co-hosts the weekly podcast, Persuasion, and is the author of Made for More, a practical theology of imago Dei, and Humble Roots, an exploration of the virtue of humility. You can connect with her on her blog, www.sometimesalight.com, or on Twitter @sometimesalight.