After gaining media attention in the late 1990s with a promise to lower divorce rates across the nation, the Covenant Marriage Movement has hit the skids.
The movement seeks to establish a legal category of marriage that makes divorce more difficult. It requires pledges such as a declaration of intent to live together "forever," and divorce is only allowed for infidelity, physical or sexual abuse, conviction of a felony or the death penalty, abandonment for one year, or living separately for two years. Irreconcilable differences are not grounds for divorce.
Founded in 1999 in Dallas, Texas, by Phil and Cindy Waugh, a Baptist minister and his church-worker wife, the Covenant Marriage Movement grew by 2006 to claim 50,000 couples and 65 cooperating ministries. The Waughs call for Christians to return to Biblical values that are "established by God and everlasting" and based on acceptance of "God's intent for marriage and the importance of His presence in the marriage."
The Waughs see marriage as "under attack": Divorce rates grew from 2.9 per 1,000 in 1968 to 4.2 per 1,000 in 1998 (they declined to 3.8 per 1,000 in 2002). Currently, the National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 40 percent of all marriages taking place right now will end in divorce.
Only Arkansas, Arizona and Louisiana passed covenant marriage bills. Legislation was introduced but not passed in Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico, California, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, Nebraska, Tennessee, Washington, and Florida.
In 2005, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister turned conservative Republican, and his wife, converted their 30-year marriage to a covenant marriage in a Valentine's Day ceremony in Little Rock. On February 12, 2006, congregations across the South participated in Covenant Marriage Sunday to reaffirm God's role in their marriages. Otherwise, the covenant marriage movement failed to convince couples to make marriages more difficult to escape.
Some 112,000 couples married in Arkansas in the first three years of the new law and only 800 of them, fewer than one percent, took advantage of the covenant marriage license. Fewer than three percent of couples in Louisiana and Arizona agreed to the extra restrictions of a covenant marriage.
"Covenant marriage is dead," said Barbara Risman, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. "It was a very hot idea that didn't catch on because not enough people wanted that choice."
Risman views the covenant marriage movement as a way for religious groups to bring God more openly into traditional family values. She calls it "a wonderful idea" for individual rituals, although she doesn't think the state should play a role.
Steven Nock, director of the Marriage Matters project and a sociologist at the University of Virginia, describes covenant marriage as a reaction to "50 years of unstopped increases in divorce, unmarried births, and for the last 20 years, increases in cohabitation" that went unnoticed.
"At the moment, covenant marriage appeals to a small, distinct group who differ in important ways from the average person approaching marriage," said Nock. "Based on evidence we have at the moment, there is little to suggest that covenant marriage will soon appeal to a larger more diverse population."
Looking back on the 50s and 60s when marriage and family were celebrated as the core of society, religious conservatives became alarmed in the 70s and 80s with the rise of abortion, birth control, and cohabitation. Describing what they saw as decline and decadence, groups such as the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation reacted to the trends and began pushing a pro-family agenda in politics.
"I have not heard of any Healthy Marriage Initiatives passing and there are no authorizations for money," Nock said. "It's hard to separate politics, religion and real concern."
Nock attributes some of the current political support for marriage as an attempt by politicians to lower welfare costs, because research indicates that married people are healthier, live longer and are less likely to be poor.
"I doubt that government can predictably alter things like marriage and divorce," said Nock. "We are midway through a fundamental redefinition of what marriage is and are at the beginning of the reaction to that redefinition. Fifty years ago, marriage defined men and women's lives more than anything else, but it doesn't anymore."
Lowering welfare costs has replaced an emphasis on covenant marriage and become the primary justification for attempts by the Bush Administration to promote marriage. His Healthy Marriage Initiative, currently before Congress, would allot money to faith-based groups as part of a wider attempt to shore up marriage.
Not waiting for legislation, the Bush Administration is shifting federal funding for marriage initiative programs, such as a $583,475 grant from Health and Human Services (HHS) to the California Healthy Marriages Coalition for an Internet resource center for California groups that promote marriage. Religious based groups make up many of the participants.
The Covenant Marriage Movement is a failure, but promotion of marriage by fundamentalist conservatives and religious groups is continuing. Its doubtful that the movement will have much influence on overall relationship patterns.
Don Monkerud is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues. He can be reached at: Monkerud@Cruzio.com.
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