Friday, August 7, 2009

The Case for Early Marriage

The cover story for Christianity Today (Aug. 2009) is "The Case for Early Marriage" and features a story by Dr. Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of Amderican Teenagers (Oxford, 2007), which sounds good and which I have ordered from Amazon as a result of reading this story.

Regnerus argues that one of the basic reasons for rise of extra-marital sex in modern culture is the biologically ridiculous gap between puberty and age of marrying in modern culture. Age of first marriages has risen in America from 21 for women and 23 for men in 1970 to 26 for women and 28 for men today. Puberty takes place earlier than it did in pre-modern societies due to better nutrition etc. and therefore a gap of over a decade exists between when humans come to sexual maturity and the age at which most marry. Marriage actually occurs at the precise moment a women's fertility starts a slow decline (late 20's). This is a recipe for moral failure. We are fighting the healthy reproductive urge most people have and Regnerus' studies show that we are losing that fight as far as overall statistics are concerned. It is also a recipe for an epidemic of infertility problems, which we are currently experiencing.

But Regnerus is not calling for Christians to throw in the towell and join the culture in embracing casual, pre-marital as the norm. He has a different solution. Encourage earlier marriage. The statistics for teen marriages are not encouraging because they have a higher failure rate, but if you eliminate teen marriages from the picture earlier marriages (i.e. in the early 20's) have no more chance of failure than later ones.

Delaying marriage unnaturally (to the late 20's) not only has the effect of encouraging pre-marital sex, it also cuts down on fertility. The casual sex people have in their teens and 20's often leads to sexually transmitted diseases which can impair fertility. And fertility declines starting in the late 20's and accelerating after the late 30's. So many people put off marriage off and the decision to try for a baby (or several babies) until it is too late.

Surely, Regnerus is correct in discerning that the best way to approach this problem is to work with, not against, nature and re-structure social expectations so that society bends to accommodate nature. For Christians this may have several implications.

1. Parents may have to help young married couples financially in the first few years, especially if education must be completed.
2. Churches should be ready to help young couples practically with showers, counselling, mentoring, etc. Marriage is a good thing.
3. We all need to resist the materialism that lures us to put consumerism ahead of human relationships and family.

Nobody is saying it is going to be easy and this article does not have all the answers. But surely this basic insight - encouraging earlier marriages - is part of the overall solution.


In response to the article, Read Mercer Schuchardt, professor of media ecology at Wheaton College has some trenchent things to say in support of the general thesis. I want to quote him extensively because he says some things so well that need saying:

"Imagine a species that, for the first 5,600 years of recoreded history, arranged its cultures so that when youth began to grow the bumps and curves that signaled biological adulthood, the culture said, "You are an adult now," and welcomed them to adulthood's responsibilities and freedoms. . . . Now imagine that species enlightenened by the blessings of the Industrial Revolution. Advances in media and technology made a way to achieve longer life spans, lower infant mortality rates, and 2,300 square-foot homes with more TV's than children. With biology the mother of neither necessity nor economic life, it soon lost its role in religious and political life as well.

Born into this vast technopoly, today's child understands her world primarily through mass media. Thanks to media's total-disclosure nature, she will be a world-weary 72 year old by the time she reaches 12, but she won't have the maturity of a medieval 12 year old until about age 36. Ages 12 to 22 will be spent in mandatory survival training called higher education. Regardless of her primary course of study, her secondary course, undertaken when she is biologically fittest and physically strongest to raise children, will be the ironic but ironclad dogma that she must never consider having a child until she is economically, psychologically, and spiritually a fully realized autonomous self. If, after a decade of ingesting this dogma, she still has the desire to become a mother, she can only have at most two children.

If life's most meaningful work for couples is raising children, then it's a cynical system that requires the false choice between having children young, when a large family is physically possible but financially hard, or waiting until they can afford a large family, when fertility has dropped. Technology, it turns out, is a harsher taskmaster than biology, offering a world where the best form of birth control is economics, the best predictor of income is education, and the best deterrent to having children is guilt over failing to give them the very best a consumer society offers.

Meanwhile, the ocean of sorrow continues to fill with the tears of those who are childless or heartbroken by the lie that tells a woman she is free to be anything she wants, so long as she is a man about it."

3 comments:

Jason V. Joseph said...

Craig,

A couple weeks ago, Ben Domenech and Conor Friedersdorf
debated why Millenials are delaying marriage and whether it is a good thing or not. I've collected the posts here:
http://musingsinthesquare.blogspot.com/2009/07/millenials-on-starting-families-not-yet.html

Craig Carter said...

Jason,
Thanks for the link. I've now read the exachange and I agree with Ben Domenech on just about every point. What I most disagree with Conor Friedersdorf about is in his last paragraph. [My comments are in sauare brackets in his text.]

"I'm uncertain about whether these trends are demographically problematic, but let's imagine that they are. [I think these demographic trends are unquestionably bad for several reasons. Friedersdorf is not facing reality here. The US is on the verge of joining Canada in failing to reproduce.] It is quite possible that later marriage and child bearing is bad for society as a whole, but good for the vast majority of individuals who do it. [Here is where we disagree. Individuaism is the issue.] In any case, I am very suspicion of the "cultural decline and narcissism" narrative advanced by the piece. [If you can't see the materialism, hedonism, individualism and narcissism all around us, what planet are on spending most of your time on? The West is in cultual decline on so many levels and in so many ways. Anyone who can't see that is never going to be convinced that giving one's life away in raising a family is the way to true happiness for most people.]

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