The Mark Regnerus Case or Why We Don’t Like Prophets?

Mark Regnerus is a sociologist at the University of Texas and is a student of the sexual, family, and religious behaviours of youth and young adults in America. He’s the author of two books on those topics: Forbidden Fruit (Oxford, 2007) and Premarital Sex in America (Oxford, 2011). You may find HERE his CV.

In August 2009 I have written (in Romanian) a series of posts on this blog on a theme titled ‘Economy, Marriage , and Sexuality’. If you want to make some sense of them, you may use Google Translate, for an approximate rendering; they can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. They were prompted by a presentation that Brian McLaren did at a meeting in Geneva, in 2006, on the economic roots of the present day crisis in human sexuality.

The immediate opportunity for this series of reflections was an article by Mark Regnerus, published by Christianity Today, and titled ‘The Case for Early Marriage’. He explained later that his purpose in writing it was to push back against the current norm in American society, including churches, which says: ‘Slow down, keep your options open, get your career in order, figure out who you are before considering marriage.’ And he continues, explaining: ‘It’s a popular norm, but it’s a sexual disaster. I’m seeing it plenty in the church, and I think it sends a horrible message about the meaning of marriage; that it’s what you do when the best years of your life are over’. Quite sobering, isn’t it?

This article, like a previous one, published by Regnerus in The Washington Post, has received fierce criticism from both Christians and secularists. Christians resented Regnerus’s suggestion that they have given up to the ‘spirit of the age’, but pushing the age of marriage later and later, way beyond the natural limit of their God given physiology and that their major reaction to the expected consequence of ignoring this reality – the growing sexual promiscuity among Christian youth – was Phariseistically judgemental and merely corrective/ There was no sign of willingness to either assume responsibility or help change the situation.

Secularists, in turn, felt judged by the fact that Regnerus is ‘pushing marriage’ and ‘trying to reduce sexual temptation’ a charge that he, as a Christian, is gladly willing to accept, even if that was not his intention. He is primarily a scholar, trying to understand ‘what is out there’, rather than a religious hypocrite, trying to pass judgment on people’s sexual behaviour.

His analysis of the present crisis of traditional marriage is confirmed by the later statistics (see HERE a recent Pew report on this theme; you may find HERE a summary of the document). The implications of economics on the dynamics of traditional families are also well documented (see HERE another relevant Pew study). An in-depth article published recently by Time magazine confirms this trend, according to which marriage is becoming obsolete for more and more Americans. I am afraid things are not much different in most of the western world, if not also beyond it.

Regnerus argues in a recent article on Q Blog that, in spite of this, ‘most young Americans—and certainly the vast majority of Christians—still want to marry, and they don’t want to settle. But when I study how young Americans form their romantic relationships, Christians included, I’ve come to the conclusion that while lots of them may want to marry, they just won’t get there from here. There are emerging barriers that are making marriage rarer. Marriage isn’t gone. It’s not obsolete. And it’s certainly not unwanted. But it is becoming more unusual’.

As you could see also in the video that I have just published HERE, Mark is unabated by criticism and he has just published another book. The same is true about the Christians’ criticism of his uncomfortable analysis of sexuality in Christian communities in America. A recent article on Regnerus published by the Associated Baptist Press describes him as s ‘controversial author’. Indeed, anybody uttering such prophetic indictments about Christians compromising their most fundamental values for the sake of ‘the pattern of this world’, as St. Paul calls it (Rom. 12: 2), would be received in the same manner. Thanks goodness, we are living in civilised times. Otherwise Regnerus would be burned at the stake or cut in two with the seesaw, as they did to prophets in older days.

Regnerus is an unlikely prophet. He does not preach sermons or utter fatwas, but writes articles and books, and records videos. He does not use the pulpit of a church for his messages, but the lectern of a university. He does not threaten people with the flames of hell, as some of the warriors in the so-called ‘cultural war’, but uses cold scholarly analysis to reveal a very unflattering picture of American Christianity. What people do with it is their personal responsibility. So, neither will I threaten anyone who disagrees with me that Regnerus is a prophet. Rather, I would like to invite you to examine for yourselves his analysis.

His main conclusion is that without a return to an early age of marriage the traditional Christian ethics of the illegitimacy of sex before marriage is rather untenable. This seems to be absolutely reasonable. Yet, to accept it would require nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way present day Christians engage with the spirit of this age, including, particularly, its manifestation in economics.

To be fair, I doubt anyone will listen. Isn’t that the likely fate of all prophets?

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

5 thoughts on “The Mark Regnerus Case or Why We Don’t Like Prophets?”

  1. Here are two small extracts from the text which you gave as the link to:

    Too bad real life isn’t like that. Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life.

    But what really matters for making marriage happen and then making it good are not matches, but mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing. I’ve met 18-year-olds who can handle it and 45-year-olds who can’t.

    Today, there’s an even more compelling argument against delayed marriage: the economic benefits of pooling resources.

    It looks like too much planning is not so beneficial for people contemplating (or scared by) marriage.


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