Churches' Witness on the Family Mixed Messages

Article excerpt

DESPITE A MOUNTING body of research showing that high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births pose serious threats to the well-being of children, mainline Protestantism has had remarkably little to say in recent years about the nature, health and prospects of the family. We now know that, in all socioeconomic groups, children raised outside of intact two-parent families are significantly more likely than their peers to drop out of high school, end up in prison and experience serious psychological distress. This research has sparked a growing movement on behalf of marriage supported by religious and secular organizations committed to helping families.

Mainline Protestant leaders appeared to take an important step toward joining this movement in November when Robert Edgar, general secretary of the Nation Council of Churches, signed a statement calling on churches to do a better job of articulating God's purposes for marriage, supporting married couples, and proclaiming the good news about marriage to the wider society. But Edgar quickly withdrew his name from the statement after some interpreted the document as an attack on same-sex unions.

This imbroglio is emblematic of the mainline's difficulty with articulating a substantive vision of family life and family ministry in recent decades. Since the 1960s, mainline Protestants have drawn on prophetic strands in Christianity and the political left to focus churches' attention on an evolving series of social-justice issues--from racism to poverty. To the extent that they have addressed family-related matters, mainline churches have aligned themselves with a therapeutic ethic of care and self-fulfillment that affirms a range of family configurations and sexual practices.

The power of therapeutic liberalism to crowd out substantive discussions of family matters at elite levels is evident in mainline periodicals and in the denominational meetings of three representative churches--the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Between 1980 and 1995, 32 percent of the articles in the CHRISTIAN CENTURY dealt with social-justice issues, only 5 percent with family- and sex-related topics. The subjects considered at national church meetings in the '80s and '90s exhibit a similar, though less extreme, pattern. Approximately 17 percent of the pages in the journals recording these meetings mentioned social-justice issues, while only about 10 percent mentioned family- or sex-related topics. Moreover, more than 40 percent of family-focused articles in these journals and in the CENTURY dealt with social-justice-related issues like child poverty. Specific discussions of marriage, divorce and parenting were rare.

The mainline has focused on the plight of children. The millions of American children who grow up in desperately poor and dangerous neighborhoods are striking symbols of the "least among us" championed by Jesus. They also are popular beneficiaries of public-welfare measures even at a time when Americans are suspicious of government. Consequently, the mainline has increasingly framed its political advocacy of economic and social equality around the needs of "children and their families."

In the past decade all three of the aforementioned denominations issued major statements on children--such as the Episcopal Church's "A Children's Charter for the Church" (1997) and the United Methodist Church's "Putting Children and Their Families First" (1996). These statements underline a host of hazards confronting children--from gun violence to poverty--and call for generous welfare policies. Also stressed is the churches' responsibility to take up the cause of children at the federal, state and local levels. Simultaneously, denominational offices and social-justice groups have worked to raise churches' awareness of children's issues.

The mainline's primary partner in this political advocacy is the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). …