By / Dec 22

Marriage and the family unit were established by God at the very beginning of creation as the first institutions. Genesis 1 and 2 shows us how God fashioned man and woman in his image, brought them together as one flesh, and gave them the charge to be fruitful and multiply, or bear children. God works in many ways, but it’s through marriage and family that some of his greatest blessings abound to the world and bring about flourishing.

Because of the importance of these God-ordained institutions in preserving and prospering our society, the ERLC will continue to advocate for policies that maintain and protect these essential aspects of life together. God’s ways are for our good, whether or not our culture recognizes this to be true. While marriage and family will not be perfect in the midst of a fallen world, it’s our responsibility as Christians to continue to champion God’s design and see it upheld for the good of our neighbor. 

Sexual Ethics event

One of the ways the ERLC carried out this aspect of our mission this year was by devoting significant attention to sexual ethics. Specifically, we addressed this topic in the month of June because of its unavoidable cultural designation as “Pride Month.” 

Jason Thacker hosted an online event called, Discipling Your Church For a World in Sexual Crisis, which featured Andrew T. Walker, Dean Inserra, and Katie McCoy, and sought to equip churches and individuals to understand this current cultural moment and engage in these important discussions. In addition to this event, we featured much-needed resources on the topic of sexual ethics including:

House Passage of the Adoptee Citizenship Act

Another way we sought to promote the health of families was through legislation. Prior to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, the administrative steps required of families adopting internationally were unnecessarily burdensome. The process included applying for and moving through a lengthy naturalization process for their children, in addition to the lengthy and costly adoption process. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 granted automatic citizenship to all foreign-born children brought to the United States who had at least one parent who was a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, that act only applied to adoptees under the age of 18 when the bill was enacted, leaving an entire population of adopted children without full U.S. citizenship. The Adoptee Citizenship Act closes the loophole to provide immediate citizenship to these children already adopted by U.S. citizens yet left out of the previous bill.

The ERLC has supported the Adoptee Citizenship Act for years. We have been engaged with a broad coalition invested in child welfare to urge members of Congress to swiftly pass this bill and secure permanent citizenship for the thousands of impacted adoptees. In March of 2021, the ERLC wrote a coalition letter to the House of Representatives urging them to swiftly pass this vital piece of legislation. 

In February of 2022, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1953, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021. An amended version of the bill passed the Senate, but the House disagreed with the Senate’s amendments and left the bill in limbo. The House’s bipartisan action on this bill is a promising first step, but we urge members of both houses of Congress to agree on legislative language and pass this crucial bill.

The Equality Act

One of the greatest legislative challenges the ERLC has engaged with is The Equality Act. In February 2021, the House passed The Equality Act (H.R. 5.)—a bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal civil rights law. The bill would curtail religious freedom protections, hinder the work of healthcare professionals and faith-based hospitals, undermine civil rights protections for women and girls, and ultimately steamroll the consciences of millions of Americans.

The Equality Act would also gut the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The removal of this act would force faith-based child welfare organizations to abandon their deeply held religious beliefs or be shut down by the state. The Equality Act would also force healthcare workers and pro-life healthcare providers to participate in and provide abortions. 

The ERLC has worked tirelessly to defeat this bill. We have partnered with a broad coalition of more than 85 faith-based nonprofits, religious entities, and institutions of higher education to highlight the dangers of H.R. 5. We have raised these concerns with members of Congress and the administration through coalition letters and countless meetings with members, administration officials, and their staff. We have also engaged in public advocacy against the bill by producing a suite of resources available on our website to inform Christians and the broader public about the pernicious threat of H.R. 5. 

We will continue to lead efforts to oppose the Equality Act and any similar legislation introduced this Congress. As we do so, we will advocate for a public square solution that protects and upholds the dignity of all people and their rights, while ensuring that religiously motivated individuals and institutions are free to live and act according to their deeply held convictions.

Advocacy against SOGI provisions

The ERLC has also spoken out against the Department of Education’s proposed changes to Title IX, which would expand the definition of “sex” to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (SOGI). These dangerous federal guidances would allow biological men to participate in collegiate women’s sports and would penalize institutions that fail to expand the definition of sex to include SOGI. The ERLC submitted public comments urging the department to alter this proposed rule. 

In addition, the ERLC has also spoken out against the Department of Health and Human Services’ addition of sexual orientation and gender identity language to multiple nondiscrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act. This rule would mandate gender-affirming care and would impede the work of healthcare professionals and faith-based hospitals. The ERLC submitted public comments to the HHS urging them to alter this proposed rule. 

In all of these challenges, the ERLC will continue to advocate for the recognition of God’s good design for biological sex and for the protection of religious liberty.

By / Feb 14

There is a rhythm to the account of creation in Genesis 1. The work takes place over six days, with a repeated refrain coming at the end of those days: “God saw that it was good.” God is evidently not inattentive to what he is making. He doesn’t start one aspect of creation and then turn his attention to the next project. He finishes each act, steps back (as it were), and appraises it. As he assesses each day’s work of creation, he can be fully pleased with the outcome. So again and again we read, “It was good,” “It was good,” “It was good.”

That is, until we turn up. At the end of the day when God has made humanity in his image, male and female, he says something different: “It was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The difference male and female image-bearers make to his creation is to lift it from “good” to “very good.” Needless to say, it is not a track record we maintain through the rest of the Bible; but the fact remains, there is a deep fundamental very-goodness to the way God has designed us to be, and our being made as men and women is at the heart of it.

Of course, whenever we talk about God’s design for men and women, significant questions rush to the front of our minds. What exactly does it mean to be a man, or to be a woman? What should it look like? Or feel like? These are not abstract questions. Each of us has some story of how we experience our own sex. Each of us has some sort of instinct about what we are supposed to measure up to and whether we have reached it or remain woefully short of it. Much of how we feel about ourselves, along with our social confidence and our mental health, can ride on this. It matters.

And it is confusing. It feels as though there are so many potential and available answers to those questions, and they don’t cohere. What a man or woman should be like not only varies from culture to culture but enormously within cultures, from one generation to the next and one region to the next –– even from one locker room to the next. I’m not sure I know how to answer all those questions, but I find that two simple observations about the Bible give me the basic coordinates I need to start thinking about it.

More alike than different

The first observation is that the vast majority of what God has to say, he says to us as men and women without distinction. It is obvious to point out, but despite the best marketing strategies from publishers, there is not one Bible for men and another for women. The same Bible is given to both. And all the words within it are for both men and women to read. Even the parts addressed to men are still meant to be read by women, and those addressed to women by men. So whatever differences there may be between us, we must not exaggerate them. We are not different species. It is not the case (to use the language of a hugely popular book from several years ago) that men are from Mars and women from Venus. However much we may mystify, surprise, or delight one another, we are far, far more alike than we are different.

In fact, the very first interaction between a man and a woman in the Bible highlights this very point. We’ve already seen the repeated refrain in Genesis 1 of “It was good,” “It was good,” and finally, “It was very good.” But even more jarring than the addition of the word very is the addition of the word not in Genesis 2. In this close-up account of the creation of Adam and Eve, Adam is at this point on his own. And this time, as God steps back he declares this not good: 

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Gen. 2:18)

The man on his own is inadequate and insufficient. He needs an appropriate other. “Fit for him” here also carries the sense of “corresponding to him,” someone who will be his match. But God doesn’t then immediately create the first woman. Instead, he brings out various creatures before Adam for him to name. And by naming, he doesn’t mean giving each single creature its own personal name; he means taxonomy –– giving each kind of creature its appropriate name. So this involves carefully examining the nature of each species and kind so that he can give it a proper designation. Doing this only brings home to him that each creature is distinct from him. The conclusion? “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:20). The not-goodness of his original situation has not changed. On the positive side, Adam now knows what to call everything; but on the negative side, he is still without a necessary counterpart.

What first leaps out at Adam is not all the things that are different between Eve and him but the very fundamental way in which she is like him. There are differences. He’s not oblivious to that — evidenced by the one-flesh union they quickly enter into. But more fundamental than the obvious differences between men and women is the more fundamental likeness. Our human commonality precedes our sexual difference.

So our shared likeness as human beings is seen in that the vast majority of what God says to us in the Bible, he says to us as men and women without distinction. We’re not directed into separate rooms; we share the same holy Scripture. There may be ways in which we think or behave differently, but this should not be stressed at the expense of how alike we are.

Different and complementary

The second observation is that while it is essential to know that the vast majority of what God says is said to us without distinction, it is not true of everything God says. So while we have obvious differences of biology, the fact that at times we need to hear slightly different words from God indicates these differences extend beyond biology. It does not seem to be the case that, biology aside, men and women are indistinguishable from one another.

How we identify what these deeper, nonbiological differences are requires great care. With an issue so sensitive and far-reaching, we want to make every effort to go only as far as the Bible goes –– no further and no less.

It is very easy for Christians, often without realizing it, to go further than the Bible says. We each have our own deep sense of what constitutes true masculinity and femininity, and we can all too easily assume that sense has come from the Bible, especially if we’re holding it in contrast to what a wider, secular culture around us might be saying. But what seems obvious and instinctive to us about the nature of men and women might reflect our own cultural prejudices more than what the Bible actually says.

We want to say what the Bible says; we also want to say it only to the extent that the Bible says it. Sometimes we can take a genuinely biblical idea and run with it in a way that the Bible itself never does. What we end up saying might not be contradicted by Scripture and may well be consistent with one aspect of what the Bible says, while not actually being biblical. The Pharisees give us a number of examples of how easily this happens. They rightly took the Old Testament law seriously. But they often mistook their application of God’s law for the law itself. So those who didn’t obey the law in the exact way that they did were regarded as disobedient.

I suspect the same often happens when it comes to discussions of what Christian men and women are meant to do or be like. Principles found in Scripture get applied in prescriptive ways that exceed the scope of the original text, and anyone who disagrees is accused not of disagreeing with the application but with the Bible itself. I’ve seen this sort of thing numerous times, particularly in the conservative churches from which I have come. I think of one church where, in mixed prayer meetings, women were discouraged from praying at the beginning because it would discourage men from taking the lead in prayer. I can imagine (just about) this being well-intentioned to start with (perhaps seeking to apply 1 Timothy 2:8 –– “I desire then that in every place the men should pray”?), but by the time I encountered this practice, it had already been hardened into a rule about what men and women should do: men should always be first to pray in a mixed gathering; women should always hold back and wait until the men have prayed first.

So those of us (I include myself) who believe that Scripture teaches that only certain qualified men should serve as pastors or elders in the church need to be careful not to then take this teaching and start applying it to contexts the Bible never speaks to, such as women leading in certain secular contexts. Or those who take the Bible’s teaching to husbands and wives and then end up prescribing from this which spouse should be doing which tasks in the modern home.

Saying what the Bible doesn’t say or overextending what it does say are both forms of adding to Scripture. But we must be equally careful not to subtract from Scripture. And if (in my experience) adding tends to happen more in conservative churches (perhaps an unintended consequence of wanting to take the detail of Scripture seriously), then (also in my experience) subtracting tends to happen more in less conservative churches (perhaps an unintended consequence of not wanting to be bound by rules and conventions that aren’t biblical). Either way, all of us are in danger of both.

The fact is, it is clear from Scripture that differences between men and women are not just physiological. And while we mustn’t over define what these differences are, neither must we deny they exist at all. This is especially important given that it is increasingly common to think that being equal must mean being the same in every respect –– that equality cannot properly exist where there is any kind of difference. But the Bible challenges this way of thinking. Our very difference is what makes each gender distinctly glorious. We can’t simply hope to swap out a man for a woman, or a woman for a man, and assume it will make no difference.

Content taken from What God Has to Say about Our Bodies by Sam Allberry, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

By / Jun 24

Last week there was a considerable amount of conversation generated after multiple screenshots of comments posted in a Facebook group began to circulate on the internet. The name of the group is not important, but both the content in question and the makeup of its members is. In the screenshots, very critical comments were captured about Aimee Byrd, the author of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. And judging only from the handful I looked at, the comments were obviously intended to mock and belittle. Moreover, they were mostly posted by men. 

That men would take to social media to openly mock and ridicule a woman is disturbing, but worse still is the reality that a large number of the members of the Facebook group in which it was posted are pastors and ministers. To be fair, many people are members of discussion groups on Facebook and elsewhere that they never even visit. And some of these groups have such active participation that even those who engage more frequently can’t possibly be held responsible for the content or comments featured in every post.

But with those caveats aside, the issue is bigger than a small number of men attacking a woman on the internet. Consider for a moment, why some would object to Byrd’s work. In her books and other writings, Byrd questions a lot of established norms. Though she remains substantially aligned with more conservative positions on the roles of men and women in the church, her work has challenged practices that (she believes) wrongly portray Scripture’s teaching in this area and stifle the ability of women to utilize the gifts God has blessed them with. And in making her case and criticizing the status quo—specifically among conservative Reformed evangelicals—she has also criticized things this group holds in esteem. 

Byrd, for instance, has been a vocal critic of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which is perhaps the main exponent of complementarian theology. But more than criticizing the organization, she has leveled specific criticisms at the theology undergirding portions of CBMW’s approach to gender roles and has at certain points questioned the orthodoxy of theologians like John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

Markers of fear and immaturity

Anytime a person questions an established norm they can expect pushback. And it’s generally true that the more significant the object of one’s criticism is, the more intense the pushback will be. When it comes to Byrd’s work, I have found myself challenged by her criticisms but largely in step with those she criticizes. But honestly, I wasn’t surprised by the kinds of mean and misogynistic comments that were leveled toward her, not because those kinds of things are acceptable, but because they are easily explained. In this case, the personal attacks that were leveled at Byrd can be explained, at least in part, by the same reasons that similar attacks are often wielded against other women in conservative theological circles.

Belittling, demeaning, or in this case, making a public spectacle of one’s ideological opponent is more than some kind of cathartic exercise. The truth is that all of us are more fragile than we like to pretend. And when we feel attacked, the natural response is to seek to protect ourselves. Often, when we turn to insult rather than engage someone who questions our beliefs, it’s about reassuring ourselves that we have taken up the right cause. Mocking an opponent instead of engaging their ideas is a way of saying to ourselves and those we agree with, “Look at them. They couldn’t possibly be right. Right?” 

That kind of behavior is a marker of fear and immaturity. It’s a way to stay safe in the retreat position. Besides, if you never actually engage someone you disagree with, you’ll never lose. Not only that, but sometimes we’re threatened by more than a person’s ideas. Sometimes it’s their popularity we find intimidating. We’re concerned too many people are coming under their influence, so we take every opportunity to tear them down in hopes that others would be too ashamed to be associated with such a controversial person or group.

No pass for disobedience

But whether one is surprised or not by this behavior, the point is that none of this conduct is becoming of a Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught those gathered before him to treat others as they desire to be treated (Matt. 7:12). We know those words as the golden rule. And for most of us, they have grown familiar, as though it were Christianity 101. But what is so interesting to me is that many of us tend to act as though the longer we’ve been in the faith, the less important these “elementary” teachings are. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. A believer never gets a pass for disobedience, no matter how many theology books one has read or acts of service one has rendered.

Byrd deserves an apology. And she’s not the only one. No matter how embattled a person or group may feel, if they claim to be followers of Jesus, there is never just cause to treat another person with anything less than the dignity and respect every image-bearer deserves. If anything, this standard is raised even higher when it comes to our brothers and sisters in Christ  (1 John 3:14). And certainly this kind of charity and respectful engagement should be modeled by those in Christian leadership, especially if one believes (as I do) that God reserves specific pastoral and leadership functions for men. Believing this means men are called not only to protect women, but to show honor to them as well. And in this case men failed in spectacular fashion.

Aimee Byrd is not my enemy. She is my sister in Christ, and the cruel treatment she’s been subjected to is wicked and inexcusable. Those with the courage to put forward ideas and offer constructive, if critical, feedback will help make the church stronger. Man or woman, those who would speak and act in good faith, even when it dissents from the status quo, deserve to have their voices heard and their words taken seriously. They don’t deserve to become a punchline, and certainly do not deserved to be mocked or ridiculed on the basis of their sex or appearence.

Seeing this play out on the internet ought to give each of us pause. The sinful desire to mock or shame our opponents is not limited to men or to those with certain theological beliefs. It runs through all of us. We are broken, sinful, and fragile people. We want not only to protect ourselves, but for people to think well of us. But if we are a part of the family of God, we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44) and turn the other cheek when we are wronged or mistreated (Matt. 5:39). And if we can do those things, surely we can love and bear with one another even in the midst of disagreement.

By / Jun 26

On this episode, host Andrew Walker interviews Catherine Parks and Palmer Williams on Christian womanhood and the local church in light of the cultural conversation around women’s empowerment and the #MeToo Movement.

Catherine Parks is a writer and Bible teacher who loves to help women build friendships around Scripture and prayer. She's the author of Real: The Surprising Secret to Deeper Relationships and a co-author, along with her mom Linda Strode, of A Christ-Centered Wedding: Rejoicing in the Gospel on Your Big Day.

Along with her husband, two children, and a cute mutt named Ollie, Catherine calls Nashville, Tenn., home. You can follow her on twitter: @cathparks.

A Founding Partner of The Peacefield Group, Palmer Williams specializes in legal and policy analysis related to international human rights, sanctity of life, non-profit operations and government affairs. As a licensed attorney knowledgeable in international law, she has extensive experience advocating for human rights on the international stage, including at the United Nations. Additionally, she has worked with government agencies and faith-based organizations to launch statewide initiatives and grassroots organizing campaigns. Palmer assists clients in crafting messaging, long-term strategic planning and operationalizing their values.

By / Sep 30

I love watching my sons play baseball in our backyard. The competition is lively, and sometimes leads to heated disagreements about rules between an eight-year old, a six-year old, and a four-year old. Typically, when such disagreements surface, I, the father, am called in for consultation. And, more often than not, the disagreement is rooted in a misunderstanding or violation of the rules. Rules, the predetermined, absolute, objective standards that govern the play of a particular sport, are essential to the game. Without objectivity, there is no sport; only exercise or chaos.

The objectivism that is foundational to the concept of sports, however, is being undermined by the emotivism of the transgender movement. “Emotivism,” as defined by ethicist Louis P. Pojman, “holds that moral judgments do not have truth value but are expressions of one’s attitude.” The result, as Pojman notes, is that these “judgments express one’s feelings and help them to persuade others to act as they desire.” The reality described by Pojman is precisely what is happening as transgender people move from an argument for personal definition of gender to an argument for public validation in the world of sports. Emotivism’s move from “one’s attitude” to “persuasion” is clear in the case of transgenderism and sports. The goal is no longer self-determination, but rather, societal affirmation.

To one degree, utilizing sports to validate one’s self-defined gender makes sense, given the fact that athletic competition clearly demonstrates the physiological differences between the male and female. If a biological male identifies as a female, then one of the ways to “prove” he is a female is to put himself in scenarios that allow comparison. (This also shows up in the recent gender-specific bathroom controversies.) The argument is not really about one’s self-definition. It is about that self-definition being forced upon others for acceptance. If a man who identifies as a woman prefers to tee off from the red tees at the golf course or use an undersized basketball at his house, no one is really all that concerned. Yet, when recreation becomes competition, the acceptance of objective norms and standards are necessary. When the transgender movement attempts to commandeer athletics as a mechanism of public persuasion, the narrative of the individual athlete’s self-identification necessarily dies. Sports are not about self-expression, but instead, communal, competitive activity governed by predetermined, objective rules. Thus, wielding sports as a tool for public validation is a self-defeating proposition. The subjective self-identification of transgenderism cannot co-exist with the concepts of objectivism, integrity, and justice, which are fundamental to sports.

As a Christian who believes that God created male and female in His image and revealed how the matters of gender are to be understood biologically, psychologically, and sociologically, I perceive significant problems with transgenderism. Yet, even an unbeliever should be able to judge the implications of the transgenderism worldview as untenable. The loser of this debate is not just the woman who is forced to accept as true her male competitor’s self- identity as a female, it not simply the women who for decades have been helped by Title IX provisions, but also and most importantly, the foundation of truth itself. It is the height of moral insanity to believe that athletic participants can determine their own gender, force others to acknowledge that gender, and then participate in a sport as if objectivity existed. Or to put it in the form of question, if something as fundamental as gender can be self-determined in sports, why can’t the very rules and standards of those sports be “self-determined” as well? Who has the authority to draw such lines? Ultimately, the transgender movement cannot answer such questions with any degree of ideological consistency. Its worldview is fundamentally opposed to an objective reality that transcends personal expression. Make no mistake, this is an “either/or” decision. It is impossible to embrace the worldview of transgenderism without undermining the foundational principles that govern sports.

Casey B. Hough
Casey B. Hough is pastor of First Baptist Church of Camden, Arkansas, and a PhD student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

By / Feb 11

Andrew Walker discusses the article Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates with Dr. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. He is also a Visiting Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute. The article referenced in this interview was written by Jennifer Glass, University of Texas, and Philip Levchak, University of Iowa, and was published in the January 2014 American Journal of Sociology. You can find Dr. Wilcox on twitter.


Walker: Conservatives, and particularly conservative Protestants, are known for waving the “family values” flag, yet for years our divorce numbers have been troublingly high. That Christians divorce at the rate they do is a major inconsistency in the theology we profess.

A study titled Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates has been published in the American Journal of Sociology. And it suggests that our very faith is a big part of the reason we now are divorcing at even higher rates than others.

First, is this true? Are religious conservatives really divorcing more than religious liberals, or more than people who have no religious affiliation at all?

Wilcox: Up to a point, yes. The article finds that conservative Protestants, and counties with higher shares of conservative Protestants, are indeed more likely to divorce—compared to Americans in other mainstream traditions, from mainline Protestantism to Mormonism to Catholicism. But I’ll mention two caveats that have gone unrecognized by popular media treatments, such as Michelle Goldberg’s article in The Nation:

This study also finds that religiously unaffiliated Americans, and counties with higher shares of unaffiliated Americans, are the most likely to divorce. So, religion per se is not the problem and, indeed, secularism seems to be more conducive towards divorce than conservative Protestantism.
A new article by sociologist Charles Stokes in suggests that the problem here is mainly with nominal conservative Protestants—those who attend rarely or never. It’s these nominal conservative Protestants—e.g., the Southern Baptist couple in Texas who rarely darken the door of a church—who are much more likely to divorce.

Walker: The study seemed to show that the theology held and practiced by religious conservatives isn’t just a small contributor to divorce—it’s the major driver behind rates of divorce. Do you agree with that conclusion?

Wilcox: Not so much theology, but morality. The study contends that the traditional approach to sex and family life championed by conservative Protestantism is now unworkable. Specifically, conservative Protestants and conservative Protestant communities in America have tended to discourage premarital sex, encourage marriage, and early family formation. This new study suggests that early marriages and less educational attainment help explain higher rates of divorce among conservative Protestants and the communities where they are more common.

Walker: Describe what the authors call the “red family pattern” and tell us how that contrasts with the “blue family pattern.”

Wilcox: The “red family pattern” and the “blue family pattern” are brilliantly described by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in their book, Red Families v. Blue Families. Basically, in many red states, adults are more likely to marry young, acquire less education, have more kids, and divorce more often. In many blue states, adults are more likely to focus on education and work as young adults, marry later, have fewer kids, and divorce less often. The biggest downside to the red-state model is divorce; the biggest downside to the blue-state model is low fertility.

(Important qualification to this typology: This story may be complicated by the rise of cohabiting families, which are highly unstable and, historically, more likely to be found in blue states. I await the study that focuses on family instability for children that includes divorce and unmarried union breakups.)

Walker: The authors contend that in blue family patterns, couples would cohabitate to determine if they would be good marriage partners. A lot of them determine that they don’t want a lifelong relationship, and so it ends. But those same couples in a red state would be sexually active then be forced by guilt or perhaps an unplanned pregnancy to marry. They divorce a few years later, creating these high divorce numbers. What are your thoughts about that red-blue comparison?

Wilcox: In many Southern red states, it is true that the red-state model doesn’t work. What you often have is a combination of young marriage, parenthood, inadequate financial resources, an overly romantic view of marriage, and little real integration into a supportive community—including a church. This is the stuff of a thousand country music songs, and unfortunately, statistically, it doesn’t work well. It’s no surprise that this combination doesn’t work in the twenty-first century. But the red-state model does work in the Northern Plains and in parts of the West—where relatively early marriage and parenthood are coupled to strong communities and churches, and a local culture that is more family friendly. In Utah and North Dakota, for instance, there are comparatively low levels of divorce and high levels of intact, two-parent families. So, the red-state model can work when communities really stand behind young families.

But the red-state model falls flat for many conservative Protestants in places like Arkansas and Kentucky. Young adults in these states get married young, have kids young, have high expectations for marriage, and quickly see those expectations dashed by the realities of family life and making a living—especially in a world where it’s harder to find good jobs for men who don’t have a college degree.

Walker: In another article that draws similar conclusions to this one, Cahn and Carbone wrote that the red-state paradigm has not acknowledged the effect of the changing economy on marriage. That is, the areas where conservative Protestants tend to live have suffered from blue-collar jobs moving away. And because higher education is not valued as much in red-state country, the population there is not able to adapt and find work in our technology-driven society. And the stress that comes from low or no employment causes financial problems that in turn lead to divorce. Would you agree with that conclusion?

Wilcox: Yes, there is something to this claim. Chronic underemployment or unemployment is linked to divorce—at least at the individual level. And in parts of red-state America, young adults are not taking the time to get the education they need to compete in today’s global economy. But it’s important for us to understand that more college is not necessarily the answer. In many cases, better vocational training and apprenticeship programs—as we are now seeing in South Carolina—are the answer. These kinds of educational initiatives are very appealing to working-class young adults and give them the skills they need to flourish in today’s economy.

Walker: Both Mark Regnerus, a sociologist, and Albert Mohler, a theologian, have made the case for early marriage, because, as Mohler states, abstinence until marriage in your mid-20s is “battling our Creator’s reproductive designs.” Would you agree or disagree with that?

Wilcox: The research—highlighted in Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America—suggests marrying as a teenager is a disaster. Marrying in your early twenties is also risky when it comes to divorce. The risks are much lower for those marrying in their mid-twenties and later. Moreover, Knot Yet suggests that young adults marrying in their mid-twenties may enjoy the happiest marriages: they are mature enough to enter into marriage and not old enough to have become too set in their ways, or disillusioned with real love by a history of multiple heartbreaks.

The one exception to this general pattern, as Stokes’ article in Family Studies suggests, is that young adults who marry in their early twenties and are embedded in a religious community seem to be protected from some of the risks associated with early marriage.

Walker: The authors reference an article you wrote in 2008:

As Wilcox notes, the purposeful sacralization of marriage as the bedrock of both family and church imbues marital relationships with particular meaning in conservative churches. Divorce represents a failure to fulfill God’s will for both church and family. For those scholars who have found that religious belief and participation generally strengthen marriages and improve relationship quality, the failure of conservative religious concentration to deter divorce is unexpected.

Do you find this study’s conclusions valid? Did they surprise you?

Wilcox: This study is largely on target—so far as it goes. But, remember, what this study is really showing is that nominal conservative Protestantism, combined with early marriage, poor economic prospects, and a romanticized view of marriage in the South, don’t create optimal conditions for an enduring marriage culture.

But a close look at this study tells a much different story when it comes to religion, family life, and divorce as a whole. Specifically, this study finds that

1. counties with high percentages of Mormons, Catholics and mainline Protestants have the lowest rates of divorce, 2. religiously unaffiliated Americans, and communities with lots of unaffiliated individuals, are the most likely to divorce,

3.counties with lots of cohabiting couples are more likely to divorce, and

4.counties and couples with bigger families are less likely to divorce.

These findings should cheer family-friendly scholars, policymakers, and civic leaders alike.

Walker: How does this study influence your thinking about the “family values” message conservative Protestants are known for? What changes should our leaders make in the way we teach and preach about family values, and marriage in particular?

Wilcox: First, never use the term “family values.” It’s a total turn-off to young adults today.

Second, this study suggests that a conservative way of family life does not work in the modern world unless it is anchored in a community—be it religious or otherwise—that lends social, economic, and cultural support to that way of life. So, churches—especially conservative Protestant ones—need to be a lot more supportive of the young married couples in their pews and outside of their pews.

They also need to “deep six” a romanticized view of marriage. Marriage is hard work, it’s vital work, and nothing is more important to our kids than to renew the communities that make for strong marriages. Marriage is not some kind of Disney fairytale that makes everyone feel “happily ever after” all the time. Marriage is a difficult, bracing, and ultimately rewarding adventure best undertaken for a cause much larger than one’s own individual fulfillment—including the welfare of one’s spouse and any children that one may have. Of course, the paradox here is that spouses who embrace an ethic of generosity in their marriage are also more likely to end up happy!

Thankfully, this study suggests that some communities and some churches around the nation are succeeding in fostering this model of generous and stable marriage.

Walker: Concluding the interview on a practical note, I think there is one conclusion to draw, especially related to the mission of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:

The data seems to suggest that the role of the local church is vitally important in preventing divorce—in terms of rates of attendance, proximity to pastoral authority and oversight, discipleship, and access to mentorships with older, more experienced couples. Bottom line: the function the church plays in preparing couples for marriage is a very important factor in marital success. That marriage preparation and nurturement is best done in the context of a local congregation is a focal point that pastors should consider when examining whether their churches are fostering healthy marriage cultures.

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.