An NPR report on the SBC’s recent push to sing the praises of marrying young hit Twitter a couple of weeks ago. As part of the push for sexual purity and upholding the family, many evangelical organizations - including the SBC - push the idea of finding someone and marrying them at an early age. “Early,” in these cases, is defined as between the ages of 18-24 years old.
It keeps people from breaking their purity pledges, the argument goes, and removes the temptation to have premarital sex.
I cover a large part of this argument in my book, Damaged Goods, but like a dog with a bone, I just can’t let this one go without (further) comment. There are a number of historical, sociological, and biblical reasons why the push to marry young is a capital B-Bad Idea.
Historically speaking, all the pearl clutching about people marrying later in life is out of proportion to actual trends. Pre-WWII, age of marriage was rising upward, with 27ish as the average age for men and 24/25 the average age for women (from When Sex Goes to School by Kristin Luker). It was only after WWII and significant loss of young men as soldiers and the Cold War that the age of first marriage dropped back down to younger and younger (something fairly common in wartime).
What’s more is that numerous sociological findings have found that age at first marriage is a major indicator of divorce. Younger couples are more likely to be poor (increasing financial strain in the marriage), less likely to be compatible later in life (people change greatly in their twenties) and less likely to have developed the necessary communication and conflict management skills needed for a successful marriage. The data are against the SBC if their hope is to create families that are the bedrock of society.
It’s been said over and over that modern day conservative evangelicals are basically wanting to repeat the 1950s, and nothing makes that more true than their emphasis on younger age of marriages. But there’s another element here that doesn’t often get spoken about: what they want is more marriages of the right kind.
A few years ago, television personality and Jon Stewart punching bag, Glenn Beck, started his own project seeking to hearken back to the days of a unified country immediately following 9/11. The so-called 9/12 project sought to remind people of what could be and to prepare people for the future. Such a movement was (and is) about fear - 9/12 was a day of uncertainty, of fear, and America clung to traditional values of prayer and unity and forgiveness because we didn’t know if more attacks were coming. We were shell-shocked as a country, and unified in our (often Islamaphobic, racist) anger over the losses our country had suffered. Fear is a great motivator, and so is the idea of being united against a common enemy.
For evangelicals who push for early marriage ad a return to the 1950s certainty about when men were men and women were women, a large part of this unconscious fear is demographic in nature. In a 2009 cover story for Christianity Today, discredited researcher Mark Regnerus made the “case for early marriage,” arguing that issues such as bad compatibility and lack of personal development can be worked through to successfully save a marriage against all demographic odds.
But one reason that evangelicals - including Regnerus and the SBC - argue for early marriage is because of babies. The early 20s are prime fertility times for those capable of having children, and the early the marriage, the higher likelihood of having multiple, “normal” children whom one can raise to be soldiers of Christ.
A family member (who attends John Piper’s church) once laid it out plain as day for me when I told him I didn’t know if I was going to get married: “People like you need to get married and raise a lot of Christian kids because the Muslims are reproducing at a faster rate than us.”
“People like me.” “Us.”
White people. White American Christians.
You see, when we hearken back to the fifties, we’re not just hearkening back to a post-war utopia built up in our minds. We’re hearkening back to a time when the white family and the 2.5 kids with a picket fence in the suburbs became solidified as the American Ideal. This ideal was used in that time as a ploy against the evil communist reds. And one of the arguments against Civil Rights in the 1960s? That they were seeking a communist utopia.
We see the same kind of rhetoric repeating itself today, only with “socialism” substituted for communism and Middle East Muslims subbed in for the Russian Reds. Because, you see, a lot of the wrong kinds of people are getting married young and producing children and enlisting them in their ideologies. So White Christian America needs to respond by encouraging younger marriage and lots of babies very quickly.
Early marriage isn’t wholly about sexual purity. It’s about dominance within demographics of Christians. It’s about producing children who will grow up to be white and Christian conservatives.