Hi y’all! We’ve been talking lately about how quite a few Christians base their marriages on a shared belief in their religion, making the whole marriage quake when one partner loses that belief. I made the point that it really doesn’t have to be that way. Today we’re going to talk a little more about this idea because I think it’s really important, and we’ll be talking about a blog post I found that pretty much encapsulates everything I think is wrong with Christian teachings about marriage, so this ought to be fun.
The simple truth is that I don’t think even most Christians base their marriages on Jesus. At most, what they’re really doing is making Christian practices like prayer and church attendance a big part of their daily lives and saying they believe in the same thing. Given that Jesus has been playing it all coy these past couple thousand years, that’s about all Christian couples really can do. But couples have been getting taught for years that “basing their marriage on Jesus” is the most important thing they can possibly do to have a good marriage. This teaching permeates Christian culture at this point, infecting and rotting everything it touches. Strong language? Yes. But necessary.
Go to any Christian website you want and look at their suggestions for picking a good mate, and every single one of ’em will say at the top, just as “Questions to Consider Before You Get Engaged” does, that a potential mate must first and foremost be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. That’s a donotlink, so feel free to marvel at the sheer horrible-ness of the advice offered to a Christian for why it’s a bad idea to try to date or marry a non-Christian or even a brand-new convert:
1. A Christian cannot overpower a non-Christian’s free will and force him or her to accept Christ.
2. An unbeliever might fake a conversion simply to gain your acceptance.
3. New Christians do not automatically have character or spiritual maturity.
4. A non-Christian cannot meet your need for love or security.
Did you catch that last one? “A non-Christian cannot meet your need for love or security!” Talk about a truly irresponsible and nasty thing to say–and patently ridiculous, along with the others. Let’s take these one at a time briefly:
1. Is it just me or does the person who wrote that actually seem sad that it isn’t possible to force someone to convert? What if it were possible? Would he still advise what he does?
2. Sure, I guess so. Because obviously Christians never, ever, ever fake anything to get someone’s acceptance. Like, ya know, pretending to be totes fine with never having kids, like my preacher ex Biff pretended he was to help convince me to marry him.
3. Neither do longtime Christians. Or anybody else, really, from any group. But it’s weird to see a Christian admit that Jesus doesn’t magically change anybody with magic, considering that point is pretty central to their entire “Amazing Grace” routine. It’s like they’re happy to pretend he does, except sometimes he doesn’t. But you don’t get to have it both ways.
4. HORSESHIT. And insulting horseshit at that.
The same writer goes on to gush, “Only through your faith can Christ help you resolve your issues,” because obviously Christians always resolve their issues and non-Christians simply can’t. Oh wait. No, actually, that’s totally wrong, and besides is going to be huge news to the legions of non-Christians I know who are more than capable of resolving issues. It’s almost like a slap in the face when this same writer grudgingly concedes that “some non-Christians exhibit just as much honesty and sensitivity as some Christians do,” but oh, he’d certainly never, ever suggest someone actually get into a marriage with one. Or let his daughter date one, I suppose. We’ll talk about this conceptualization of belief as a conflict-resolution tool soon, but for now let’s just say: No. Being a faithful Christian doesn’t grant a believer any personal skills that non-Christians can’t access.
I picked this link at random because it’s not saying anything I wasn’t taught and certainly nothing that’s unusual or startling to any fundagelical Christians reading it. It’s Jesus-glurge at its worst. Not only is this concept of a Jesus-centered marriage completely endemic to Christian culture at this point, but churches also teach alongside that idea that non-Christians are dangerous and can’t possibly have a good marriage with Christians. The threat is always implied if not stated outright: either the Christian will end up falling away from the faith, or else the marriage will break up because the couple isn’t properly yoked together. There’s this equally-implied promise that if couples will base their entire relationship around their shared belief, that they will go the distance and be very happy together and have way fewer problems than couples who aren’t as engaged with Christianity.
Unfortunately, neither the threat nor the promise are really true.
First, let’s look at some hard facts about deconversion. The fastest-growing religious group in the country is the so-called “Nones,” made up of people who aren’t affiliated with any particular religion, and the younger someone is, the more likely that person is to be unaffiliated. The Barna Group, a religious polling organization, discovered some years ago in 2006 that about 60% of young Christians pulled away from their religious faith in their 20s, a process called “disengagement,” and also found that only about 20% of young Christians maintained the same level of fervor in their 20s that they’d had in their childhoods (thank goodness).
That was almost ten years ago, and if you’re wondering, yes: the numbers only got bleaker over time. A later study from 2011 discovered that only three out of ten young Christians kept their faith and engagement with Christianity through their 20s. Think about that next time you see a big group photo of smiling young Christian teens going kookoo for Jesus. Statistically, only about a third of ’em will still be fervent Christians in a few short years. Those are the sorts of numbers that give pastors ulcers, I’m sure.
Second, Christians generally feel that their god is hand-picking someone to be their lifelong mate in marriage. This always seemed a lot like how the secular world talked about “soulmates,” this idea that there’s one utterly perfect person in the world for each and every other person. Unsurprisingly, Christians already primed for the idea through prosperity gospel jumped on the soulmate bandwagon almost immediately; even by the 80s, when I became a fundamentalist, I–along with every single one of my peers–believed in the idea. I doubt most Christians even realize it wasn’t actually a Christian concept in the first place but rather an outgrowth of hippie Age of Aquarius philosophy. Of course, a deconversion obviously means that such Christians were wrong about who their soulmate was, and they have to dump that soulmate to go find the one who is really the right soulmate. (I’ve noticed that Christian spouses of ex-Christians don’t generally realize that maybe if their god really did hand-pick their mate, maybe they were meant to be the husband or wife of an ex-Christian.) As you can imagine, people who believe in this idea of a hand-picked partner tend to divorce more often–to the tune of, I kid you not, 150% more likely.
One rather sinister effect of this Jesus-fication, though, is that it makes Christians think that if something isn’t loaded to the gills with religiosity, then it’s inferior to something that is. Like I did long ago, they learn to weigh the value of a thing not by its actual merits but by how Jesus-stuffed it is. That’s why those who listen will hear about Christian wives telling their now-ex-Christian husbands that they’d rather these men be substance abusers or wife-beaters rather than ex-Christians; a drug-addicted, violent Christian husband is still superior in their eyes to a kind, loving, supportive non-Christian husband. And yes, they say that. A lot. It’s awful. (It’s also why you see Christians defending really crappy, objectively-inept movies like Left Behind to the skies.)
So combine a growing feeling among evangelical churches that their young people should get married earlier as the Southern Baptist Convention is irresponsibly teaching with that growing trend of disengagement and deconversion among young people, and a teaching that looks a lot like soulmate theology coupled with Jesus-fication of damned near everything in Christians’ everyday lives, and, and it really seems all but inevitable that at least one partner in the marriage is going to be pulling away from the religion fairly soon into the relationship and that this pulling-away will cause devastation in a once-fervent Christian couple’s relationship. Unfortunately, the age of a couple at marriage is still one of the biggest indicators of how long they will remain married, and that doesn’t change just because the couple is super-duper-ultra-licious Christian. (And though Christian sources themselves dispute this finding mightily for obvious reasons, the truth is that when peer-reviewed sources look at divorce rates, they tend to discover that evangelical Christians divorce more often than any other religious group–especially more often than couples lacking religious affiliation. It ain’t hard for me to see why.) When our culture finally wakes up to the sheer damage this perfect storm has done to people’s heads, these leaders will have a lot to answer for.
What I’m saying is this: at that point when they realize they have some differences in religious opinion, a couple’s got some hard figuring to do, and they’ll be doing that figuring largely in the total absence of really good teaching and advice from their church leaders, who have, one must say, quite a bit to lose if the couple discovers just how much they were taught is simply wrong. If the still-Christian partner decides that having a shared belief and shared practices is really the most important thing in a relationship, then that person will find some way to twist and contort the Bible’s very own teachings about mixed-faith marriages and jettison the relationship.
But I’d like to put this forward: the most important thing in a relationship isn’t a shared hobby or belief in something but rather how the people involved treat each other. Respect, courtesy, compassion, affection, caring and loving gestures, kind words, these things go a lot further toward making a marriage happy than talking to the ceiling together once a day and spending a few hours a week sitting side-by-side in a fancy building. A marriage can absolutely survive a deconversion, but it cannot survive selfishness, contempt, abuse, and disrespect. The people in the marriage can find some other things to enjoy together; they can construct other rituals and customs for their families–but only if they value the marriage more than they value their religious dogma.
Some people really do value religious dogma over the person they swore to love, honor, and cherish till death do them part. That seems to me to be an awfully cold bedmate, but it’s their beds, not mine. And it’s true, as well, that some people are really susceptible to the grief of the lost Happy Christian Marriage illusion–that facade of being a typical proper evangelical family. They expected a particular lifestyle when they got married, and when it turns out they can’t get that in this current relationship, they’ll want to jump ship to figure out who will actually give them that kind of life. They married not a person but a roleplaying partner. There’s not much I can say about such people other than it’s probably best to let ’em go, because an ex-Christian can’t generally play that role anymore. And it’s these Christians’ choice to live that way. We all have our boundaries and dealbreakers, and some of them might sound terribly shallow-sounding, but that’s just how things are.
The really shocking thing is how seldom that worst-case scenario really happens, though.
You see, for the rest of us, the ones who love the person and not the role, the ones who really want to find some way to make it work through whatever comes our way, the first thing we’ve got to do is un-learn that nonsense blathering about the center of a marriage being Jesus. And the really wild part is that a lot of us do exactly that. Christian leaders probably don’t want their congregants to even know how many mixed-faith couples are doing just fine, thankyewverymuch. They–we–don’t tend to talk a whole lot about our relationships; we’re too busy, well, having relationships. Sometimes we had some really bumpy driving getting to our destinations, but we got there in the end. And we got there by trying to treat each other right while we found a new equilibrium, and by navigating our new realities with as much grace, humor, love, and compassion as we could.
Do you remember that old hag in The Princess Bride who screams at Buttercup during her dreadful nightmare after giving Westley up in the Fire Swamp to the Prince (p. 184 in the paperback)?
“You had love in your hands and you gave it up for gold!” She turned to the crowd. “It is true what I tell you–there was love alongside her in the Fire Swamp and she dropped it from her fingers like garbage, and that is what she is, the Queen of Garbage. . . She threw love away to be the Queen of Grime, the Queen of Muck–I am old and life means nothing to me, so I am the only person in all this crowd to dare to tell truth, and truth says bow to the Queen of Feculence if you want to, but not I.”
Just sends shivers down my spine to read it even today. And I think of that passage when I hear about a Christian dumping an ex-Christian partner. A lot of Christians have love in their hands and they give it up for religion; they have love alongside them in life and they let it drop from their fingers like garbage. Love–the real thing–that beautiful, glorious real thing, that stunning bright flash of lightning in the human heart–given up for–for what? Certainly not for “Jesus.” Surely no loving Savior would ever tell anybody to discard love and wedding vows alike for cold dogma and ideology.
Just think of all the human misery this bees-headed insistence on Jesus-fying a marriage has caused. Just think about it. I sometimes just feel staggered by how many people have abandoned a perfectly good relationship because their partners deconverted. Is it nice to have shared hobbies and activities? Yes, of course it is. But is it really that important?
As millions of mixed-faith couples are discovering, no, it isn’t.
To my dear friends in the UYC… hang in there. Next time I’ll be covering why I think mixed-faith marriages are so threatening to religious leaders–and I hope you’ll join me.