Secular story, sacred vows?

My wife, Tamie, and I lived together for 15 years and brought three precious babies into the world before we finally went to the county courthouse and got our marriage license in 2005.

Since our local newspaper publishes the names and addresses of those granted licenses, we were a bit concerned about the scandal our late nuptials might create at church.

To anyone who asked, we shared our funny — and true — story.

That is, we exchanged our wedding vows in my wife’s hometown church in 1990. A preacher pronounced us husband and wife. It’s just that I graduated from college the day before our wedding, and we ran out of time to get blood tests and complete the official government paperwork before we said “I do.” Then we left on our honeymoon. And, well, we just never needed a marriage license until 2005, when it became important for a reason that escapes me now.

Despite our lack of a license, my wife and I — both raised in Churches of Christ — saw our marriage as a sacred commitment, as did our families. Not for a second did we consider living together out of wedlock. To say that religion played a key role in our view of marriage would be a huge understatement.

Which leads me to the news making headlines today:

WASHINGTON — Is marriage becoming obsolete?

As families gather for Thanksgiving this year, nearly one in three American children is living with a parent who is divorced, separated or never-married. More people are accepting the view that wedding bells aren’t needed to have a family.

A study by the Pew Research Center, in association with Time magazine, highlights rapidly changing notions of the American family. And the Census Bureau, too, is planning to incorporate broader definitions of family when measuring poverty, a shift caused partly by recent jumps in unmarried couples living together.

This is an important story with a strong religion angle. Except that neither The Associated Press report linked above nor a more in-depth Time magazine piece contains any religion component except for one fly-by use of the term “spiritual” by Time. This, friends, is what we at GetReligion refer to as a religion ghost.

Certainly, religion isn’t the only element of the marriage issue. As the Pew Research Center report itself makes clear, several major factors influence this trend: Education level. Income. Race. Generation. Political affiliation. But the role of religion in such matters should not be ignored, as we have said before. And before.

The Pew report notes:

Adults who attend religious services weekly or more often are much more resistant to the newer arrangements than are those who attend religious services less often or never. For example, among those who attend religious services at least once a week, 72% believe a child needs both a mother and a father to grow up happily. This compares with 62% of those who attend religious services monthly or a few times a year and 44% of those who seldom or never attend.

While a strong majority of the public favors a modern marriage where the husband and wife both have jobs and both take care of the household and children, many regular church attendees still favor a more traditional marriage. Among those who attend religious services once a week or more often, 42% say a marriage where the husband provides for the family and the wife takes care of the home and children is the more satisfying way of life. This compares with 25% of those who attend religious services occasionally and 20% who seldom or never attend.

It follows that those who attend religious services most often are among the most resistant to the growing variety of family arrangements. Nearly half (45%) of those who attend religious services weekly say the new family arrangements are a bad thing. Only one-in-five (19%) of those who attend religious services less frequently share that opinion.

Of course, much of the religious world has done a much better job talking marriage than actually facilitating healthy marriages. Just last summer, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution concerning the “scandal of divorce” in its ranks. When I served as religion editor of The Oklahoman, I did a series focused on the Bible Belt state’s effort to improve its No. 2-in-the-nation divorce ranking. Trust me, there are some juicy marriage/religion stories out there for reporters who go searching for them.

Dear Godbeat journalists, do you commit to explore the religion issues and ramifications of this significant Pew study?

Just two words, please.

“I do.”

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, I have the same questions as you do so I’m glad you picked up on this story. I appreciated you tying the news story to your personal situation. Because your case made the point that marriage can be a secular legal contract as well as a religious vow. And that leads me to wonder how many others might be in your situation.

  • Bobby

    Interesting question, Jerry. My understanding is that since my wife and I had a church wedding, we were married under common law, despite the lack of a license. But if I had it to do all over again, I’d get the license before the wedding. Of course, that’s the difference between the me at 22 and the me at 43.

  • Tyson K

    Though this has nothing to do with content, I’d like to remind people that marriage licenses are important. Bobby’s right that he and his wife were married under common law until they got their marriage license, but that’s not the case in most states, Oklahoma in 1990 being one of the exceptions. In around 40 of the 50 states, even if you were married in a church, have cohabitated and had an exclusive relationship for 50 years, and have a dozen children together, it means nothing legally unless you have a license!

    More here.

  • Julia

    I had two different clients who came in for a divorce after long “marriages” who found out they were not married in Illinois. One had a fake Buddhist wedding on a cliff over the Pacific and the other lived together in an ashram in Idaho for years. Turns out the “groom” never got a license for the so-called “Buddhist” wedding in California and Illinois doesn’t recognize common-law marriage even though Idaho did.

    AND a Jesuit relative told me in the 1980s that Catholic priests, Protestant ministers and rabbis are recognized by the state as agents of the government when presiding at and witnessing weddings. I was asking if somebody could have a church wedding and not get the government involved. I had some friends who were much older and didn’t want to mess up their retirements, but wanted to have their marriage recognized by the church. He said “No, that would be fraud and the government would revoke his recognition as a state agent to officiate at marriages and he would be in big trouble with the bishop. Probably also be fined or something. On the other hand, somebody pretending to be a guru who isn’t state authorized would have no repercussions.

    Don’t know if that’s still the case, but I’m assuming it is. A niece and a nephew have both been recognized by the internet church as ministers and they have officiated at the weddings of friends – with the license and all.

    So – I wonder why that minister in Oklahoma went ahead with the church wedding without the license. He would have been in trouble if the state found out.

  • Bobby

    So – I wonder why that minister in Oklahoma went ahead with the church wedding without the license. He would have been in trouble if the state found out.

    Julia, the minister was aware we didn’t have a license (although he expected that we’d get one sooner than we did) and joked about it during the ceremony. My wife tells me there were three legal ways to be married in Oklahoma at the time: government license, common law, and public declaration of intent (i.e., the church ceremony). I’m not sure her source on that information. :-)

  • Bobby

    Thanks, Tyson K, for the information.

  • Bobby

    Not media-related, but I’ll refrain from spiking my own comment: My friend Steve reminded me that my day-after-graduation wedding also kept me two hours short of receiving my actual diploma. The Christian university that I attended finished classes a week before the state university where I was taking a two-credit-hour editorial writing class. I skipped out on the editorial writing final to enjoy my honeymoon, thinking I had a high-enough grade to pass. But the prof flunked me, and I fell short of the hours I needed to graduate. I was so busy working that I didn’t get around to finishing those hours until three years later – when I finally got a diploma to go inside the case they handed me at graduation. Oh, to be young and clueless/irresponsible again …

  • David,

    It’s so sad that the religious aspects of this story were left out. The attack on traditional marriage, purity before marriage and most other Biblical values is serious business. Our society is showing the cost of the breakdown of the Biblical model of the family.

    The shame is that we are treating this like just some cultural phenomenon and trying to adjust life to accept sin, instead of calling it what it is. The fact that so much of the journalism surrounding it leaves out the religious view just supports its acceptance.

    When will our society finally learn that God’s ways are right and that most of our social ills are due to people being unwilling to accept living by God’s standards?

  • Donald

    @ David: Whose God?