Marriage is not the only institution that is suffering. While it is true that the majority of Americans would say that their belief in God is important to them, church is not nearly as important to Americans as individual belief is. (And I wonder if there could be a connection here between these floundering institutions—many of the people who do marry do so because of its religious meaning or because of the relationship norms that religion provides. Without a strong religious institution, incentives to marry wane.)
Andrew Cherlin, in The Marriage Go Round, discusses how the cultural tide of individualism has not only made marriage something that is seen primarily as a contract between two individuals, to be severed whenever happiness evaporates, but how this individualism has also influenced churchgoers, particularly the evangelical type. Religion loses much of its communal meaning and becomes primarily about the preferences of individuals. Religion, as an institution, suffers.
David and I are seeing that trend here in Ohio. It seems like just about everyone in this town was raised Baptist. Most of them would still say they believe in God, but statements like the following sum up attitudes about institutionalized religion:
- “I believe that as long as you are religious and you do the right thing, you don’t have to go to church every Sunday.”
- “I believe there’s a God, I believe in the Bible, I believe in the beliefs, but I don’t exactly walk every line that you’re supposed to walk. I do some of it but not all of it.”
- “My dad is a pastor. I believe the Bible is right, but I don’t follow it.”
- “I mean, I go to church when I can. I don’t have much time now, but I used to go every week.”
- “Who is the church to say that you are a good Catholic, or a good Baptist, or whatever?”
- “I mean, I am a good person, and that’s all that matters. I don’t think you have to go to church, and I think a lot of the people in my generation think that, too.”
The idea that the individual can pick and choose what to believe and how to act, and that the opinion of the church as an institution holds no sway, is reflected in the relationship norms adopted by “religious” non-churchgoers. They say they believe the Bible and many claim that when in doubt they would do what God or the Scriptures tell them, but they see no problem with having lots of sex, living together, and having children out of wedlock (which are all things that the institutional church does not condone). To them, the church has optional, old fashioned views. It is smart to wait to have kids until marriage, but there is nothing moral about it. And, in fact, oftentimes the strongest statement believing non-churchgoers are willing to make about right and wrong behavior is this: everyone really should live together before they make the final commitment of marriage. I literally had one woman pounding her fists on the table, exhorting her peers in a voice reminiscent of a Pentecostal preacher, “You must live together. How are you supposed to know if you can make it work otherwise?”
I think the following quote is a good note to end on. It demonstrates what little influence churches are having on young people when it comes to the choices they make about relationships.
“Sometimes I think about waiting [for sex] until marriage. Like, what that would have been like….But, to each his own. I’m happy that I didn’t. Because, I know what the Bible says, and I was raised a Baptist…but I think a lot of the people who wait until marriage to have sex and they don’t live together and don’t believe in divorce—they’re stuck with each other for the rest of their lives. I think you need a test run before you drive the car. And I know that is a typical guy thing to say, but I believe that. And I mean, I’m not saying that you have to have sex. But I think it makes you closer, I don’t see it as a sin. We talked about it in Bible school once. This one church I went to said that you don’t have to be married, as long as you’re committed to each other. And they didn’t say what the definition of committed meant. So I guess you could say, ‘Hi, I’m Heidi. I’m committed to you for the next hour.’”
It seems like people, no matter how important they say their belief in God is to them, tend to just make their own decisions when it comes to relationships. I should make the caveat that for a small minority of religious people that we have interviewed, religion does seem to influence relationship behavior: rather than sleeping around, these people wait to have sex until they are committed to marriage, and wait to live together until they are engaged. Still, they are having sex and they are living together before married, which is not something that most houses of worship approve of, even if engaged.