The big news was supposed to be that leaders from the nation's two largest religious denominations, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, were joining with the president of the largest umbrella group of evangelicals (National Association of Evangelicals) and mainline Protestants (National Council of Churches) to affirm their common commitment to marriage as a God-ordained "holy union of one man and one woman in which they commit, with God's help, to build a loving, life-giving, faithful relationship that will last a lifetime."

This "Christian Declaration on Marriage" was occasioned and driven by the various religious denominations' deep concern that our society "is threatened by a high divorce rate, a rise in cohabitation, a rise in non-marital births, a decline in the marriage rate, and a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying." Grieved and alarmed by the "adverse impact of these trends on children, adults, and society," the Declaration committed the various religious communions "to help couples begin, build, and sustain better marriages, and to restore those threatened by divorce."

The Declaration on Marriage did not say everything that any of these faith communions believed about marriage. Southern Baptists, for example, have an entire article on "the family" in their "Baptist Faith and Message" confessional statement. Instead, the Declaration stated both what we held in common about marriage and our shared alarm about the negative impact that failed marriages inflict upon society in general and the weakest and most defenseless among us in particular--the children.

But alas, during the November 14 press conference releasing the Declaration, most of the media questions revolved around whether the Declaration excluded same-sex relationships from inclusion in the definition of marriage. By November 17, Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), had sent a letter to the other three original signers, removing his signature from the document and noting that "a number of NCC member communions interpret the document more as a condemnation of same-sex unions than as an affirmation of marriage." He further noted that "the fact that the Declaration omits mention of same-sex unions is taken by some as proof that all of the signatories disapprove of such unions."

But the Declaration's central emphasis is on marriage, its God-designed benefits to society, and the need for the churches to do a much better job of providing a nurturing support structure for marital foundation, maintenance, and repair--not the status of same-sex relationships.

A growing body of research demonstrates dramatically that when marriages fail or are never formed, society is damaged in manifold ways. Waite and Gallagher's "The Case for Marriage" and Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee's "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" join Whitehead's "The Divorce Culture" in making an alarming case for the devastation divorce inflicts upon children well into adulthood.

Divorce, substance abuse, domestic violence, negligence in fulfilling family responsibilities, and a myriad of other failings occur too often in marriages. U.S. Census data paint a bleak picture. Between 1970 and 1998, the number of children living with unmarried couples rose 665%, the rate of non-marital births increased 224%, and the number of single-parent families rose 190%.

Acknowledging that such marital mayhem and divorce occur with equal frequency among churchgoers and nonchurchgoers, the various faith communions called on their constituents to recommit themselves to building strong marriages, strengthening weak ones, and restoring broken ones.

The three representatives, President Kevin Mannoia of the National Association of Evangelicals; Cardinal William Keeler, representing the absent through illness Bishop Anthony O'Connell, chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family Life; and I, on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention, all had made it clear at the press conference that while the Marriage Declaration did not address same-sex relationships, its definition of marriage would exclude same-sex relationships from inclusion within the document's parameters.

However, now that Dr. Edgar has withdrawn his support, it would be accurate to state that all of the signators do disapprove of such unions. If the price for Edgar's support was such approval, his would have been the only original signature that would have remained.

Dr. Edgar told a caucus of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people at the NCC meeting in Atlanta on November 16 that he favored same-sex unions, and he told the NCC General Assembly his views "are more progressive than those" of the assembly, citing his support for the inclusion of the largely homosexual Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in the NCC.

Given his convictions and the beliefs of influential segments of his constituency, many were more surprised that Dr. Edgar signed the document in the first place than they were that he subsequently disavowed it. The Marriage Declaration defined marriage as "a holy union of one man and one woman in which they commit, with God's help, to build a loving, life-giving, faithful relationship that will last a lifetime." If language still means anything in Clintonian America, same-sex relationships cannot be stuffed into that definition. Surely, Dr. Edgar understood that.

In his letter of disavowal, Dr. Edgar stated that his "withdrawal should in no way be seen as a weakening of my commitment to building the larger ecumenical table about which we have talked." But if Dr. Edgar's and the NCC's price for ecumenical endeavor is affirmation of same-sex relationships, then the price is, and everlastingly will be, unacceptable.

The fact that Dr. Edgar, as the NCC's general secretary, felt the need to disavow the Declaration on Marriage in order to register adequate support for same-sex unions underscores one of the major reasons the NCC represents an ever-declining segment of the American religious population.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus