PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (RNS) As I officiate at a family wedding in this charming coastal city, it seems to me the institution of marriage is alive and well — and in serious trouble.
The trouble isn’t out-in-the-open homosexuality, birth control, abortion, assertive women, or any of the right-wing alarms.
The trouble is poverty. The less affluent you are, the more likely you are to have a child without the benefit of a partner, at an age too young for effective parenting, and in chaotic living arrangements.
If the right wing wants to improve families, they should come out for creating jobs and spreading wealth more equitably. But how likely is that to happen?
The trouble also is maturity. Our culture does everything possible to keep young adults forever young, keeping them good for hiring and exploiting, and consuming expensive toys.
Technology hot spots surround 20-something workers with games, free food, constant socializing, me-first attitudes — and the implied message that Peter Pan doesn’t ever need to grow up.
Marriage and children just get in the way. Employees with commitments outside the bubble perform less single-mindedly within the bubble. Make your choice: $2 million all-cash housing buy, or a family to share your life. But you can’t have both.
A third factor undermining families is self-centeredness. As most married couples can attest, when you wed, you marry into a family, warts and all. The odd in-laws appear every holiday, sometimes every Sunday.
You also give up — or should give up — getting your way in all things. Your spouse gets in the way. Children get in the way. Family prevents you from getting your needs met — at least the shallow and self-centered needs you thought were important.
Our consumer economy, like our workplaces, cannot allow us to move beyond the shallow and self-centered and to attain maturity, perspective, wisdom, and that most holy of virtues: giving up one’s own needs for the good of the other.
“I” must become “we” for a marriage to succeed and for a healthy family to form. An economy populated by the we-minded, however, doesn’t buy as many toys, dreamy sports cars, lavish homes, exotic vacations, or restaurant meals.
So the economy fights back, ratcheting up its sales pitches and suggesting that life as a husband/father and wife/mother is inherently dull.
Spouses and parents learn otherwise, of course. There is nothing in life more challenging — intellectually, emotionally and spiritually — than building a marriage. There is nothing more exciting than raising a child and being there for each small step of progress and for each defeat.
When a society infantilizes its young and treats maturity as dull and self-sacrifice as unnecessary, the family collapses.
Dealing with that collapse should be an important political and religious agenda. But what lobbyists will shower cash on politicians to support listening to one’s partner or reading to one’s children? There’s no commercial gain in sitting with a child when the child strikes out, fails a test, isn’t chosen for the team, or doesn’t feel attractive.
What religious agenda is served when the usual ideological divisions are revealed as unimportant? Churches that build their franchises on moralistic fervor can’t let their constituents discover what Jesus actually did and said.
It is almost a countercultural and counterintuitive miracle when two young persons declare their intention to form a “we.” My hat is off, therefore, to Joanna and Grant and their bold decision to exchange vows in the face of everything.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)