Recent divorce statistics sent a distress signal to the Bible belt, and both religious and civic leaders are responding. Nevada, the longtime leader in divorce, still tops the list. But according to a statistical analysis released in November by the Associated Press, the rest of the nation's top five divorce states are notches on the Bible belt, whose citizens like to think of themselves as conservative, family-friendly people. Now Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma are waking up to the divorce crisis. Oklahoma Baptist Convention executive director Anthony Jordan told the AP that his state's statistics "hit [him] like a ton of bricks."The church has long been aware that its own divorce rates match those of society as a whole. And out of either compassion or cultural accommodation, even conservative churches routinely accept divorce as a painful but ever-present reality.Part of that adjustment has been good: the church is largely more sensitive to those who find themselves wounded, disoriented, and bereft of their relational and financial resources.What has not been good, however, is the increase in divorce among Christian believers, as well as a significant increase in the rate of divorce among adults who were raised in intact families.


In the face of these divorce statistics, we must recognize that divorce itself is not our main problem. Rather we face the broad weakening of the idea of marital permanence in our society. New efforts are emerging on that front.Forming new partnerships between government leaders and church leaders is key to those new efforts. Because marriage is both a civil and religious institution, turning around the worst aspects of the divorce culture requires both civic and church leadership.In a recent National Review article, Maggie Gallagher underscores the need for government involvement. She compares marriage to private property—an institution "which is not created by government, but which, in order to thrive, must be recognized and protected by it."When government fails to recognize the substance of the marriage union," she writes, "it is effectively undercutting marriage. It is acting like a government that decides to remain 'neutral' in disputes between the property owner and the thief."In addition, our social and ecclesial mobility means government and church leaders must unite in transdenominational and state or regional efforts.Until now, local communities have been the focus of divorce-prevention efforts. By forming a united front and signing a Community Marriage Policy, local clergy agree that no one will be married in a church or synagogue without significant marriage preparation—typically four months of premarital counseling and classes, which use both biblical and psychological insights.According to syndicated columnist Mike McManus, one of the architects of this pro-marriage revolution, the results have been amazing: In northwest Arkansas, implementing a Community Marriage Policy produced a 6 percent drop in divorces in just one year. In Kansas City, Kansas, and two suburban counties, divorce has taken a whopping 35 percent plunge in just two years. And the city of El Paso has reaped an incredible 63 percent drop since the beginning of efforts there.Now the pro-marriage struggle has moved to the state level:

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• Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has declared a "marital emergency" and called for a "50 percent cut in the divorce rate"--both in his state and across the country. How? Huckabee proposes that all Arkansas communities implement Community Marriage Policies.• The nonprofit Louisiana Family Forum has organized clergy in three key cities as the foundation for implementing a statewide Community Marriage Policy initiative.• Oklahoma governor Frank Keating has set explicit goals for reducing the divorce rate (by one-third in ten years) and has invested in a long-term strategy for doing so. Says Oklahoma's secretary of health and human services: "[R]eligious institutions are primary, but … we are also developing a plan for media, education, business, and state agencies."


Last summer, McManus's organization added congregational training to its marriage-saving arsenal. Churches can become Marriage Savers affiliates by sending a pastor and several experienced married couples to specialized training. So far, although over 5,000 pastors have signed the Community Marriage Policy, only about 20 congregations have become Marriage Savers churches.Yet McManus considers the goals articulated by the Oklahoma and Arkansas governors achievable. "If only one-third of America's 300,000 churches trained 10 Mentor Couples each," he wrote in a recent column, "there would be one million Mentor Couples who could easily save 600,000 marriages."We appear to be poised for a renewal of the permanence of marriage. And conservative Christians must take up this effort more broadly, especially since they know that when a marriage is destroyed, a profound symbol of Christ's love for the church is profaned. They can help by initiating and supporting Community Marriage Policies and training Mentor Couples. But even if Christians do not sign up for such specific programs, they should aim for these key things:

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1. Christians should be realistic in talking about the nature of real-life marriage experience so that couples will be better prepared for difficulty and less reluctant to seek help.2. Christians should be more proactive in teaching both the married and not-yet-married the proven skills that build and maintain relationships.3. Above all, Christians should take the initiative in dealing with the root causes of divorce. The aftermath of a divorce is the wrong time for the church to express disapproval.

This last point is key. Diane Sollee, McManus's secular counterpart and director of the Smart Marriages organization, told Gallagher that unlike marital therapists, marriage educators don't use a disease model."You don't diagnose, you don't need to dwell on childhood traumas, you focus on trying to replace those behaviors that lead to divorce with better skills," she said.If McManus's projections are at all reasonable—and if we put our minds to the task, they are—we could save approximately 600,000 marriages by 2010. If that vision doesn't motivate us, what will?January 10, 2000, Vol. 44, No. 1, Page 36

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