No, ‘The Church’ Can’t Save Marriage, Mark Regnerus

No, ‘The Church’ Can’t Save Marriage, Mark Regnerus July 21, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I ran across an article in Christianity Today that dovetails nicely with a recent topic we discussed about single women leaving Christianity. This new article concerned the dwindling number of married people in evangelicalism. Written by woo pseudo-social-scientist Mark Regnerus, the article sounds a warning bell to the tribe and calls upon them to hurry up and get with the life script already. But ‘the Church’ can’t actually do anything to save marriage as an institution — and today, I’ll show you why.

marriage is what brings us together
(Sandy Millar.) But our definition has shifted summat.

(When I proclaimed that this would be the topic today, I had no idea who’d written the post that inspired that proclamation. Oy vey, this guy again.)

Everyone, Meet Mark Regnerus.

Mark Regnerus is one of the minor-league favorites of the alt-right, men’s rights activism (MRA), fundagelical crowd. He LARPs as a social scientist. In that guise, he busily churns out all kinds of poorly-written, poorly-designed studies and reports on stuff that interests his tribe. Think of him like a discount David Barton, except the bee up Barton’s butt involves American history rather than relationships. Both men draw upon their warped versions of their respective social sciences to rationalize right-wing Christians’ culture wars.

Back in 2012, Regnerus presented the world an exceptionally-bad study regarding gay kids. It pretended to be a rigorous study regarding parental outcomes of same-sex couples. Bigots adored this study and immediately went on the warpath citing it (example). They liked the study because it claimed that kids did poorly when raised by same-sex parents compared to opposite-sex parents. As that link reveals, even Regnerus admitted a few months after his pseudo-study’s release that it didn’t actually study the question he and his fellow bigots used it to answer.

Undeterred, Regnerus continued along his merry way. He released several more inept pseudoscience studies. Evangelicals adore them all. One 2014 paper studied masturbation — concluding it’s super-bad. As that link reveals, he also insisted in a 2013 speech that widespread acceptance of gay people will totally lead to straight men cheating more often and wanting more anal sex.

In short, Mark Regnerus is a loser’s loser. He exists purely to pander to his tribe, and he does so with naked ambition, hamfistedness, and greed. I wish it shocked me that his marks don’t realize they’re being played by their own hatred.

The Newest Stupid Thing Mark Regnerus Did.

Mark Regnerus has a new book coming out soon about marriage: The Future of Christian Marriage. It sounds like the usual shrill scolding we see out of the Religious Right these days. Here’s the beginning of its Amazon blurb:

Marriage has come a long way since biblical times. Women are no longer property, and practices like polygamy have long been rejected. The world is wealthier, healthier, and more able to find and form relationships than ever. So why are Christian congregations doing more burying than marrying today?

And the blurb muddles through some of the usual fundagelical suspects for this dwindling of marriage’s popularity among right-wing Christians:

Explanations for the recession in marriage range from the mathematical–more women in church than men–to the economic, and from the availability of sex to progressive politics.

OH NOES, NOT PROGRESSIVE POLITICS!!!!!

But don’t worry! He offers an alternative, tribe-approved answer!

But perhaps marriage hasn’t really changed at all. Instead, there is simply less interest in marriage in an era marked by technology, gender equality, and secularization.

STOOPIT Facebooking. STOOPIT feminism-ing. EXTRA STOOPIT secularism-ing. Hmph. Everything would be FINE if it weren’t for all that anti-Jesus stuff!

(That’s how my Baltimore-born-and-bred mom used to pronounce “stupid.”)

And as all Christian Right writers must, he comes out of this blurb confidently predicting that his tribe’s warped version of marriage will end up dominating the concept of marriage itself — somehow:

The result is endemic uncertainty, slowing relationship maturation, and stalling marriage. But plenty of Christians innovate, resist, and wed, and this book argues that the future of marriage will be a religious one.

Sure, Jan.

(Mr. Captain had some very strong words in response to “innovate, resist, and wed.” I’m not allowed to reprint them here.)

Recognizing Advertising When We See It.

A few years ago, Mark Regnerus began writing a multitude of opinion posts about marriage. All sound the same warning bells, and all aim their rhetoric squarely at the Christian Right.

In 2017, he wrote a book called Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. It sounds like the lead-in to his marriage book, focusing on how terribly sad people are when they violate the sex and relationship rules of the Christian Right.

He called on men to resist all the cheap and easy sex being flung their way by desperate women. In this case, he blamed contraception, “high-quality pornography” (?!?), and online dating for this sociological shift. And he pretended to feel all this concern about men for the sake of women and their future marriages.

He made similar claims — and expressed similar concerns — in an opinion piece he wrote for a Richmond news site that same year. And he even threw in a whine about how easy sex and cohabitation destroy religious belief:

Cohabitation has prompted plenty of soul searching over the purpose, definition, and hallmarks of marriage. But we haven’t reflected enough on how cohabitation erodes religious belief.

We overestimate how effectively scientific arguments secularize people. It’s not science that’s secularizing Americans — it’s sex.

Poor puddy! Guess we need to outlaw loose women again!

Continuing His Fundie-Marriage Campaign.

His 2018 post on Wall Street Journal continues that theme. He begins with a teaser text about “Kevin,” a totally-real 24-year-old guy from Denver. As Regnerus relates, “Kevin” won’t get married till he’s “done being stupid.” And “being stupid” to “Kevin” means “sex with a million girls.” His totally-real subject informs us that he plows his way through women by lying to them and manipulating them. You know, like evil secular feminist tech-adoring men do while TRUE CHRISTIAN™ men never do.

The post itself is subscriber-locked, but we get a good view of what it says in an analysis from The Guardian. In essence, Regnerus blames women for giving up sex too quickly and easily, which in turn makes men unwilling to consider marriage. See, in Regnerus’ Bizarro-World men literally only want to get married to gain access to sex.

The unspoken message Regnerus put forth is one that misogynists in particular hear loud and clear: women need to quit having sex before marriage if they want husbands. In other words, women need to start following the rules of the Christian Right, and men are justified in demanding this of them. Entire subreddits now exist to criticize women for doing exactly that while complaining about their inability to land husbands. I’ve lurked them, and their clear desire for a return to the days before women’s suffrage — and preferably before emancipation — rings through loud and clear in every topic they discuss.

To say the least, however, that Guardian writer did not find any evidence supporting Regnerus’ claims, and nobody else has either.

OMG THE MARRIAGE SKY IS FALLING.

I have got to laugh about the completely obvious way that Regnerus plays evangelicals in this Christianity Today post. Seriously, it is so hamfisted.

He begins with “Rachel,” a totally-real young woman who enjoyed a misspent youth sexing-up strange men who refused to marry her:

She doesn’t entirely blame them. “Men have gotten rightfully confused about what the heck women want,” she said, “and aren’t really sure how to date women.”

(Actually, men outside evangelical culture don’t seem all that confused about what women want or how to date them. But evangelicals tend to think that men think women are completely mysterious and weird aliens from Venus. Their women often perpetuate this mystery because it’s one of the few avenues of power open to them.)

But “Rachel” just didn’t know any better, you see, because she was not yet a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. She did find a husband before her conversion, but now she understands marriage so much better now that she’s subscribed to evangelical rules about it:

Before becoming a Christian, sex was less meaningful, cohabitation was defensible, and marriage was a piece of paper issued by the state. No longer. After coming to faith and joining a Southern Baptist church, she now believes that marriage is a covenant before God and a sacred relationship.

(Evangelicals divorce more often than any other religious group, including atheists (source). Their marriages are marked by strife, division, retaliatory cruelty, and constant struggles for dominance. I myself only knew of a couple of seemingly-happy evangelical couples back when I myself was evangelical. And I was most assuredly not one of them.)

Regnerus warns us, however, that “Rachel’s” happy ending has become more and more rare in today’s society. She got lucky!

SUCH A BRAVE WIDDLE MARRIAGE SOLDIER!

In addressing “Rachel’s” luck, Regnerus puffs himself up by claiming that he’s being especially brave to study the topic that interests him:

Unfortunately, the kind of marriage I had in mind is no longer hip in the scholarly sphere. The late ethicist Don Browning said that for many academics, marriage is now considered “the ‘M’ word, almost in the same category as other dirty words.” Add Christianity to the mix, and you get the holy grail of unfashionable pairings among my peers.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

Google Scholar would like to disagree by presenting literally 34,000 results regarding “conservative” “Christian” “marriage” — all published since 2016.

But okay, fine, it’s soooooo totally brave to study Christian Right-style marriage, and those mean ole libruls are totes holdin’ him down.

It’s probably worth noting that his “peers” probably care about methodology and real-world measurements and all that crazy librul stuff. His university, University of Texas-Austin, has all but disowned him.

At Risk Of Sounding Alarmist…

I loved how he daintily described the outcome of his latest pseudo-research:

Although I risk sounding alarmist, I can’t stress this point enough: The institution of marriage is under severe strain.

He talks like marriage is a building one can point to that sags through its foundation, or an ecosystem being destroyed by logging, or a person’s body put through the wringer through partying way too heart(il)y. Like if we just pour enough vitamins or support beams into the structure, hooray! It’s saved! (But remember: climate change is a Satanic lie!)

Regnerus goes on to tell us about “Ander,” another totally-real young adult about to get married to his college sweetheart. It turns out that “Ander” doesn’t feel a lot of confidence about his upcoming nuptials. Though “his faith is strong,” he feels great anxiety regarding how well he knows his bride. They’ve only known each other for six years, I mean, since they were 19 years old. Now his fear might actually botch the wedding itself and end the relationship.

And remember, Regnerus presents “Ander” as a Christian man of “strong faith.” He says of this young man:

Ander is only one of many Christian men who are part of the downward turn in marriage trends.

Then he spends his time wringing his hands over the “downward turn” itself.

“More Burying Than Marrying.”

For those who can’t get into the article, I’ll summarize:

Right-wing Christians still marry more often and at younger ages than evil secular feminist-y tech-loving heathens (ESFTHs) do. In fact, if a right-wing Christian man claims to attend church weekly, he’s way more likely to expect to be married by age 35 than ESFTHs do — 72% vs. 50%. (This doesn’t mean he will be, just that he expects to be.)

In 2014, 56% of evangelical men between ages 20-39 told Regnerus’ survey-takers that they were married, compared to 42% of ESFTHs. But in 2018, that number dipped to 51% and 40% respectively.

In that same stretch of time, the percent of evangelicals who admitted to cohabitation rose from 3.9% to 6.7% (he does not say what this percentage represents — maybe self-identified evangelicals). Evangelicals’ support for cohabitation rose from 16% to 27%.

Catholics are in trouble too. In 1965, Regnerus says they had 9 weddings for every 10 funerals. By 2017, that ration went to 3.7 for every 10. Of this statistic, he quips:

Unless you’re pastoring a hipster evangelical church whose median age is under 40, you may be doing more burying than marrying.

Bet he expected people to tweet-quote that bit.

Also, he asked questions of Christians from a variety of countries including Poland and Spain, besides the United States. And Americans’ attitudes about marriage had shifted the most, and their chances of finding spouses had shrunk the most as well.

Marriage Amid A “Pandemic of Uncertainty.”

In part, Mark Regnerus blames economic uncertainty for the lowering of marriage rates. The men he talked to cited financial concerns as explanations for their unwillingness to marry. One of them, “Victor,” put it this way:

What would he do if his wife became unstable or difficult? What if he struggled to support his family? And what about the challenge of living in a tiny apartment?

Regnerus goes on to display some shocking insensitivity here by referring to these sorts of concerns as a “pandemic of uncertainty.” But don’t worry. He has an answer: everyone just needs to chill out about what marriage can give them, and see marriage in a totally different way than they currently do. Yes. As he puts it:

The story of how this pandemic of uncertainty came to be is no straightforward tale about sexual revolutions, gig economies, or substandard men. Instead, what people expect from marriage has changed profoundly, even though what marriage offers has not.

I love that bit about “substandard men,” don’t you? No no, it’s not that women don’t wanna marry right-wing Christian men and endure sexism for their whole lives. It’s not even that right-wing Christian men got fed a family model that most of them can’t possibly afford — in large part thanks to right-wing Christian politics!

No, it’s not any of that! Stop looking at that stuff!

In actuality, The Big Problem Here is that people expect all the wrong things from marriage.

Reframing and Moving Goalposts, Marriage Edition.

See, people keep seeing marriage as something you do when you’re economically and emotionally ready for it. He thinks everyone should see it instead as “the foundational hallmark of entry into adulthood” that they enter in order to become economically and emotionally stable and mature.

Regnerus calls his vision of marriage “the foundational vision,” which he contrasts with “the capstone standard.” Then he wrings his hands some more about KIDS TODAY:

In the foundational vision, being newly married and poor was common, expected, and difficult, but often temporary. In the capstone standard, being poor is a sign that you’re just not marriage material yet.

As Russell Moore laments in The Storm-Tossed Family, marriage is increasingly a “vehicle of self-actualization” rather than a setting for self-sacrifice.

See? Women should totally be looking to marry super-poor right-wing men. And those men should totally be marrying as quickly as they can so they can totally save money and get their finances straight. Yes, because that’s totally what absolutely always happens when poor people get married. Social mobility? What’s that?

To drive that point home, Regnerus offers this quote from a totally-real young woman from Lagos who remains unnamed. Apparently, he’d asked her about marriage before she’d gotten her life in order.

“Oh, please!” she said, laughing. “I can’t marry and suffer.”

And he criticizes this woman’s attitude and considers it inferior to his own vision. Seriously, he criticizes this thinking. He doesn’t flat-out call it selfish, but oh, he comes very close.

What A Sad Sad Mindset.

I couldn’t get over what a sad and stressful vision of marriage Mark Regnerus presents, especially to women. I don’t know if he intentionally sought to make legions of right-wing Christian women resolve never ever to marry the men of their tribe, but if I’d been single in that group and read this post, that is immediately the conclusion I’d reach.

His vision absolutely depends upon institutionalized inequality. It also completely depends on everybody involved Jesus-ing just perfectly according to his prescription and resolving to use only his cracked and warped lens to view their relationships through. They must frame everything like he does, and completely ignore all the real-world knowledge humans have acquired about the pitfalls of early marriage or marriage before economic stability.

He thinks the way my tribe did back when I was evangelical: just Jesus the Jesus Jesus, and everything will work out to the good of those who believe.

And that simply isn’t true.

Life in Reality-Land.

One of the sources I dug up for this post caught my attention on that score. There’s some Southern Baptist leaders deliberately encouraging early marriage between partners who aren’t at all economically stable yet. One of them, a belligerent fellow called Jon Akin who pastors a church in a tiny town in Tennessee, had this to say about marriage:

The Southern Baptist Convention used to tell couples to wait until they reach financial stability, said Jon Akin, pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tenn. “What we’ve communicated to our young people is finances are more important than sexual sin, and the Bible seems to say the exact opposite of that.”

Now, the denomination is emphasizing practical and theological reasons to marry younger.

I backed right up, right then. Wait.

Did this guy just say he used to tell couples to conduct their love lives in a responsible, reality-respecting manner? Why yes, it sure sounds like he did.

And is he now telling them to live their love lives as if the lies he teaches them were true?

Why yes, it sure sounds like he is.

Reality Always Wins This Collision.

Evangelicals must exist in the real world. This is where they live and make their homes — not in the sky among fairy-castles spun of moon-sugar by Mark Regnerus and those other dishonest hucksters.

Lying to people about one small thing will inevitably make them wonder what else is a lie.

Christian leaders are only setting themselves up for failure by advising young Christians to marry young. When their marriages short-circuit and bomb because nobody can actually live according to right-wing Christian marriage rules, many will blame themselves for not Jesus-ing hard enough, yes. But a lot of others will use that disappointment as a springboard to examine their other beliefs.

That’s what happened to me when I realized prayer never produced miracles.

I chose to live in reality rather than try to reach fairy-castles made of spun sugar. And I think growing numbers of Christians are doing the same. By insisting on a vision of marriage that is completely unworkable as well as demeaning and unfair to half the human race, by pushing a framing of marriage that only ensures its implosion in reality, Mark Regnerus ensures only that his vision of marriage will continue to recede.

That mighty oak — diseased and eaten-through as it is — will continue to rot till it collapses. Meanwhile, tons of new trees are already springing up in the sunshine — healthy and growing and green.

NEXT UP: Mark Regnerus has some ideas about fixing marriage. I’m sure women will be especially happy to know that the onus for this fix depends mightily upon them! See you tomorrow!


Please Support What I Do!

Come join us on FacebookTumblrPinterest, and Twitter! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures.)

Also please check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview

If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is captain_cassidy@yahoo.com (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! This blog exists because of readers’ support, and I appreciate every single bit of it.

By the way, it’s thanks to you — my supporters and patrons — that I can get all these books, news site subscriptions, and movies I review and discuss here. I want to say thank you again for that support. Your support goes toward those purchases and makes a very big material difference to this blog’s content. Thank you.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
"Hang in there, and take care. I know how you feel."

Christian Games, Incomplete Participation, and Suspension ..."
"Nearly exploding the bag within 30 seconds of pouring the water in and folding the ..."

Christian Games, Incomplete Participation, and Suspension ..."

Browse Our Archives