The Last American Sin

Watching the Penn State fiasco shake out last week awoke to my consciousness something that stirs every time we witness—or rather, hear about in the media—a sexual abuse scandal that involves children. Facebook and the blogosphere lit up with indignation from all corners. Penn State students who rallied in support of Coach Paterno were lumped in with him in Americans’ collective disgust. Simply put, there are to be no viable defenses of Penn State, its administration, or its football staff. Why? Because Jerry Sandusky committed the last American sin. I’m calling it that because I can think of no other act that can resonate so negatively with virtually all Americans. Murder is too localized. We’re no longer patriotic enough to get worked up over treason. So far as I can tell, sexual acts with children are the only egregious acts—sins, as it were—from which the vast majority of Americans still noticeably recoil, regardless of religion, race, gender, age, or politics. It’s a
strangely uniting moment when something like it happens.

What exactly is it about child molestation that uniquely unites Americans in outrage?

This is where it gets murky. [Read more...]

Whatever Happened to “Unequally Yoked”?

My research team and I are waist-deep in interviews of twenty-somethings for my next book project. Among the 90-some interviews we’ve conducted are about 15 (so far) with evangelicals. Between what they’re telling us and my own listening and reading, I’m detecting a subtle—yet significant—shift in how evangelicals talk about ideal mating scenarios. When I was a younger man, Christians of all stripes were counseled pretty straightforwardly to avoid marrying an unbeliever—that is, someone who didn’t share the basics of Christian doctrine. The logic, of course, is that the unbelieving spouse would foster the same in you and your (future) children, and that that would be a bad outcome. The advice arose, I presume, as an extension of 2 Corinthians 6:14, which itself need not be interpreted as applying primarily to marriage, but it often has been.

But that’s not what I’m hearing today from evangelical quarters. At some point this advice seems to have morphed into a much higher bar for an optimal mate, which seems (to me, at least) a problem, since fewer Americans are marrying today than ever before. When demand (for marriage) drops, I’m not sure restricting supply is the smart thing to do.

The narrative we heard from several respondents—and I myself heard it back when I briefly dabbled with the Baptists before swimming the Tiber—goes something like this: [Read more...]

Beauty and the Beast

This week I find myself thinking and writing once more about my late colleague Norval Glenn, a versatile and thorough scholar whose work will long outlive his physical presence. Norval held that the family was, and remains, a cornerstone of the social order and a central element in fostering the common good. Unlike many, he felt no particular compulsion to bow down to emerging sacred cows.

In preparing remarks for his memorial service several months ago, I stumbled across an article he wrote for SmartMarriages, an organization long popular among marital and family therapists. It was the kind of piece he wouldn’t get much credit for professionally, and yet it’s one of those contributions that tend to far outweigh a dry, academic journal article in its reach, impact, and importance. It was on “exogenous match quality,” or rather finding the right match in a potential spouse.

Ever the sociologist, Norval focused on the social stuff at stake when someone looks for a mate: the shifting market dynamics, the optimal settings for circulation of possible partners (in other words, where you’re most likely to meet the widest variety of people), and the risk of premature entanglements (that is, going too far too fast). One of his conclusions made me smile: “The most stable and successful marriages are likely to be those in which the spouses are substantially more desirable to each other than they are to most other people.” That’s a nice way of saying that [Read more...]

Here’s to Bad Divorces?

Now that I have your attention (or not), this subject has been on my mind of late. If divorce is going to happen—and I’m not crazy about the passive tone but they do happen out there—just how “good” should a divorce be? Is amicable an aim? I have a friend—and no, that’s not code for me—who appears to be facing one soon, against his will and despite his willingness to work at his marriage. My late UT colleague Norval Glenn was quoted several years back as saying that “good” divorces can have surprisingly negative consequences, over and above the simple fact that divorcing can cause problems. He noted, “If the parents whose marriage failed are obviously good people who could cooperate and avoid destructive behaviors after the divorce, their offspring may be more inclined to lose confidence in the institution of marriage itself.” In other words, a good divorce can be confusing to children, who are more apt to thereafter wonder if marriage is a feasible thing at all, apart from some spectacular soul-mate connection that few ever realize. There are, of course, lots of other variables to consider when evaluating the consequences of divorce on the participants themselves and their children. This one—the children’s own perceptions about marriage and sense of the institution—is only one of them.

But it reminded me of a piece of data I share with my Intro-to-Sociology course: the probability of getting a divorce in the year after you married is already doubled for [Read more...]