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Covenant Marriage on the Rocks

After gaining media attention in the late 1990s with a promise to lower divorce rates across the nation, the Covenant Marriage Movement, heavily promoted by fundamentalist Christians, has hit the skids.

Growing out of earlier attempts to establish more permanent marriages, the “Covenant Marriage Movement” was founded in Dallas, Texas, by Phil and Cindy Waugh, a Baptist minister and his church-worker wife, in 1999. Today it has grown to 50,000 couples and 65 cooperating ministries. The Waughs claim marriage is not a contract or “simply an institution,” and call on Christians to return to Biblical values that focus on marriage as “established by God and everlasting,” 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.

For many, this call to return marriage to God’s sphere makes sense. Many marriages occur in churches and include a variation of the vow: “I take thee to be my lawfully wedded spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance and thereto I pledge thee my troth.”

The Covenant Marriage Movement attempts to establish a special legal category of marriage that requires premarital counseling, signing a declaration of intent to live together “forever,” disclosing personal history, and seeking counseling before divorce. 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.

According to research from the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University, religious factors are the largest, most dramatic indicators for those choosing covenant marriages. Those few who choose a covenant marriage are “significantly more likely to be Baptist (50 percent) or Protestant,” and “differ greatly in religiosity and intensity of participation in religious activities.”

Despite lobbying by church groups, 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.

On Valentine’s Day 2005, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister turned conservative Republican, and his wife, took advantage of the Covenant Marriage Act of 2001 to convert their 30-year marriage to a covenant marriage in a ceremony in Little Rock. In February 2006, congregations across the South will participate in Covenant Marriage Sunday to reaffirm God’s role in their marriages. But for the most part, the covenant marriage movement failed to convince couples to make their 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. Following President Bush’s support of a Constitutional ban on gay marriage, proponents of covenant marriages attempted to reinvigorate the idea, but currently, no other states are expected to pass new marriage legislation.

“Covenant marriage just didn’t take off,” 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 more about religion than marriage, and a way 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. Risman is not surprised at the push for covenant marriage in the South, “because it is the Bible Belt.”

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 by state and federal legislatures.” When researchers pointed out high rates of poverty associated with single parent families, they invigorated religious conservatives and state legislatures to put a greater emphasis on marriage.

“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.”

In the 1950s, marriage and family were celebrated as the core of society, but religious conservatives became alarmed with social changes, which undermined the traditional family. 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.

Nock explains that political interest in marriage also grew out of state legislatures becoming alarmed at increases in welfare and Medicare budgets and making a connection between divorce, cohabitation and unmarried births with low income and poverty. Before Clinton’s welfare reforms in 1997 and 1998, only single women with children were allowed welfare; they were denied it if a man was present in the home, which led to the break up of poor families. By reversing these trends, they hope to reduce welfare budgets.

“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 pass the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which would allot money to faith-based groups as part of a wider attempt to shore up marriage. Congress will take up the proposal in its new term.

When the Healthy Marriage Initiative didn’t pass last term, the Bush Administration shifted federal funding into marriage initiative programs, such as a $583,475 grant from Health and Human Services (HHS) to the California Healthy Marriages Coalition. The money will finance an Internet resource center for California groups promoting marriage.

“We want to make marriage education widely accessible to everyone in every social economic stratum,” said Dennis Stoicia, program director for the program. “Fifty percent of families that are not in poverty, end up in poverty after divorce. Frankly, marriage is a significant anti-poverty intervention.”

Stoicia wouldn’t make comments on gay or covenant marriage, which is outside the parameters of his grant, but the Orange County Marriage Resource Center website, which is a model for the California Healthy Marriages Coalition, reveals that a large portion of participants are religious.

The Covenant Marriage Movement is a failure, but promotion of marriage by fundamentalist conservatives and other religious groups is continuing. It’s 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@mail.cruzio.com