Thinking In Public

March 10, 2021

Christians and the Future of Marriage: A Conversation with Sociologist Mark Regnerus

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mark Regnerus is professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned both his MA and PhD in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Professor Regnerus has devoted his research to the areas of family, marriage, religion and sexual behavior. He's published dozens of academic articles, as well as four books with Oxford University Press. In addition to his academic and teaching responsibilities, Professor Regnerus is a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His most recent book is The Future of Christian Marriage, and this book is the topic of our conversation today. Professor Mark Regnerus, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Mark Regnerus:

Thanks, Al. Good to be with you.

Albert Mohler:

Your book follows a trajectory of the research and writing you've been doing for a long time, but there's one aspect of it that surprised me, so I just want to start out by asking, why is this not about marriage or Christian marriage in the United States? You're really taking on something more ambitious than that.

Mark Regnerus:

It's a good question. The thing is it grew out of the last book, Cheap Sex, which was entirely United States in its focus. So after that, I kind of went through this intellectual depression. It didn't last too long, but then I go, "Well, what am I going to do next?" And I really wanted something positive, so I wanted to focus on marriage. But I had a chapter on marriage mentalities, I think, in that book. I thought it got my head around how this was connected to marriage among young adults in the United States and I thought, "Well, okay, I haven't really done a deep dive on Christians, but maybe it's time to take this international a little bit and see if there are other people elsewhere who had good ideas."

Mark Regnerus:

At that time, related to some of the previous research I had been doing, I had a little bit more exposure internationally, and so my curiosity about what was going on elsewhere was growing at the same time. So, that's why I decided to expand it to be about Christian marriage in the United States as well as abroad. And yet, as you know, and I start writing that book, it increasingly seems like the book becomes about marriage in general, right? In part because people have different visions for what Christian marriage is, but lots of things that unite them. And yet as I go along, you start to see lessons for marriage as an institution, internationally, domestically. And so the further I wrote, the more it gets back around to the idea of marriage in general.

Albert Mohler:

When I saw what you were doing, the first question that came to my mind was, "Okay, so this is going to eventually reveal a pattern, and the pattern's going to come down to the fact that the rest of the world is more or less like the United States. That is, Christian marriage in the United States, or marriage among Christians in the United States. And at least by my reading, it turns out to be more the same than different.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah. So, we found some good ideas, I think, but we also found the parallels between the United States and the rest of the world, both as Christians go and as the world goes, it's clear that what happens here just doesn't stay here. In a domain and a world that is connected within an instant now culturally, like Pat Deneen talks about, there's a monoculture that's saturating the globe. So indeed, what happens to Christians here and how they think about it and how we talk about it carries weight far beyond our borders, which is staggering and it feels like a grave responsibility.

Albert Mohler:

Right, it's a rather chastening realization. As you begin the book, you talk about a Western recession in marriage. We've been noticing this for a long time, but some people thought it was temporary. It appears not. Explain that to us.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah. The temporary idea is still talked about a lot among my peers in the sociology of marriage and family, the idea that there's just a tempo effect. That, "Oh, people are just marrying late. It's not going to affect overall marriage rates." Well, I plugged those numbers in at a country level to see the tempo effect, the delay effect alters overall total marriage rates, and it's clear in all regions of the globe that a slowdown in terms of age at marriage, not only pushes it off, but it means fewer people everywhere are going to get married in the future than we've seen in the past.

Mark Regnerus:

So, I don't know that's going to convince any of my colleagues, because they seem fairly invested in the delayed approach and all that that entails. But I don't think their idea that it's no big deal and that it's just a delay has any real basis to it.

Albert Mohler:

Well, and of course just a delay would be a very significant sociological and moral fact, and there are two ways the delay could happen. One is that you're just looking at the big data and the percentages, but the other thing's looking at the timeline and recognizing that the delay of marriage itself eventually means fewer people will ever get married.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah, yeah. So when you look globally at this sort of thing, and it's happening across Europe, it's happening in Asia, somewhat for different reasons in those places, because culturally they're quite distinctive. But the overall share of the population who's married by different ages, 30, 40, 50, is far south of 100%, far south of 90, 80. I think some places top out at 80, but some places don't get that way until people are age 40. So, it's certainly more pronounced than we would have seen as recently as 30 to 40 years ago.

Albert Mohler:

Right. I think of my own timeline, I'm in my 60s, 61 right now, and everyone I knew in college expected to marry, with extremely rare exceptions, and everyone basically did marry, obviously with a few exceptions. Celibacy is, in a Christian context, clearly understood. But by the time you get to my daughter's college generation, also in a Christian institution, by its own affirmation and, I mean, substantially so. The fact is, the vast majority have gotten married, but now 10 years or more after graduation, that's not true in the same way it was true for my generation.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah, I think I grew up in probably a similar kind of place as you. I grew up in rural Iowa, where it was just in the water, figuratively speaking. Sociologists called that marriage naturalists, versus marriage planners. Somewhere in the past 40 years the naturalists have lost out, and almost invariably we inhabit a marriage planning world. And that planning is pushed off, we actively encourage our children to get their education done first.

Mark Regnerus:

We warn them about first loves, things like this, and tell them not to get serious. There's plenty of time for that. But behind this are two challenges for Christians who care. One is the means by how people are meeting, and are we doing a good enough job making a pathway for that? But the second thing, which happened almost without notice. It's as if we woke up one morning and realized the world, everyone, Christians included, thinks differently about marriage than they used to, right? So it means, but it's also mentalities, as a combination, have created a very different kind of environment for which people are trying to get married.

Albert Mohler:

Professor, one of the things that I've definitely noted lecturing and writing on marriage, sex, sexuality, family, children, procreation, contraception, all these issues for 40 years or so, but especially the last 30 years. One of the things I've noted is that Christians don't think they've changed their mind. They are unaware of what were, at first, subtle shifts, but are now, I mean, absolutely seismic shifts in the way Christians think about it.

Albert Mohler:

You mentioned Christian parents saying, "Wait, don't be in a rush, establish yourself professionally and all the rest." They don't recognize that they're basically turning their back on 20 centuries of Christians history, two millennia, and saying, "We know better now." But their reality window has shifted so much that I find Christian parents tend to panic now. I mean, parents of adult children. They tend to panic now when their children are about 29 and they realize, "Whoa, we're in big trouble here." But they were a part of the trouble from the beginning.

Mark Regnerus:

Right, exactly. The mentality of most people, probably of age 50 and up, especially in the broader Christian community, for the longest time was that marriage was this foundation, right? That you started this at a relatively young age, by 25-ish often. If you were a little late, no big deal. But it was a foundation, because it was something that you did together and then you weathered things together, could often be a little spell of poverty, et cetera, and from which you accomplished things. You built something because it was a foundation.

Mark Regnerus:

As if by means we don't know, here we are 40 years later and we don't really think of marriage as a foundation, we think of it as a capstone, like Andy Cherlin, the sociologist, talks about it. Which is a very different kind of thing than the foundation. It's, "All right, we're not building on it, we're capping off a well-lived young adulthood by thinking that marriage is somehow this reward for the beautiful, for the successful," and as you say, this kind of unravels over centuries of thought on this matter.

Albert Mohler:

Right. And by the way, I noted that you cited Andrew Cherlin here, and I watched his research as he was publishing it in articles, and then of course his most recent book came out. And the thing that gets me is... There are a lot of insights in what he writes, he clearly is tracking a lot of this very closely, but the overarching ethos of his research is, "Chill, don't worry." But I look at the same research and I'm very worried because I see more at stake here than the delay of marriage and the sociological redefinition of marriage.

Mark Regnerus:

Right, and I think he and you probably have different perspectives on both present and future goods. So I'm not surprised he said that, and that you are worried, and I don't blame you.

Albert Mohler:

Marriage as a foundation versus marriage as a capstone I think really is a powerful metaphor for understanding where we are. Where people say, "I'm not able to get married now," which used to be based upon achieving puberty and some capstones of adulthood. But those marks of adulthood were often granted rather than earned, as so the father who had a son and he had a farm, he would carve off a part of the farm for the son to begin and to establish a homestead. Given my own family background in the Anabaptist tradition generations back, that's exactly how this started.

Albert Mohler:

But now, it's assumed that the investment of parents is basically through, say, the college/university investment, maybe graduate school, and then after that there needs to be... Even though the educational process itself is extended and delayed, this extended adolescence and delayed adulthood, now there's got to be another period of proving yourself financially and professionally and personally before you can even think about getting married.

Mark Regnerus:

Right. It's ironic that the one thing that has long indicated marriageability in a man, which is the promise of adequate earning power, if not the reality, that's still in place but it's the only sort of thing that's been carried forward. And added on top of it now, are all these additional priorities, both from his side of the equation and from her side of the equation.

Mark Regnerus:

So we have probably a lot more deal breakers than we used to. Well, partly because in a way that's not true of the past, people can afford not to marry. And we risk, in doing so, investing with marriage this power and status that perhaps is too much for it, right? I mean, go back to Ecclesiastes and it seems a very practical, pragmatic, wise institution to enter into. And now, in some ways, we just think differently about it, as if it's somehow... I wouldn't say more sacred, but we invest it and endow it with meanings and expectations of it, including material expectations but also psychological expectations, that it might not be able to bear.

Albert Mohler:

Right. I mean, it wasn't intended to bear by itself. It was intended to be something like a long, blessed travail. It's not an accident that the most famous metaphor in the English devotional tradition for the Christian faith itself is a pilgrimage. I think of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. A pilgrimage includes flat land and arduous terrain, and marriage used to be what young adults entered into, a man and a woman, in richness and in poverty, in sickness and in health. But that's gone now. You can only have health and you can only have wealth, otherwise there's no reason to get married.

Mark Regnerus:

Certainly for entering into it. You think about the poverty thing, the capstone mentality today is not exclusively a domain or an idea that the middle class and upper middle class hold to. It's the same vision that's been sold to both the upper class, lower class, working class, and the poor. Everybody has the same material and psychological expectations of what marriage is supposed to look like, but only some of us have a ghost of a chance of reaching those unrealistic expectations.

Mark Regnerus:

So what happens is that the poorer among us, including Christians, feel like we can't afford marriage, and so we don't get married. So what you have is two people who can afford to and who have been successful enough to accomplish this together adding together their resources, while the people who desperately need the assistance, the pragmatic part of marriage, aren't getting together, which exacerbates inequality and it's why in the book I say, "Marriage may actually be the social justice issue of our time." It certainly isn't thought of that way by very many people.

Albert Mohler:

Well, the denial, effectively, sociologically, of marriage to many people, just based upon socioeconomic status is indeed a justice issue. And I see a justice issue very much in the fact that you've got the liberal elites who are living by a very different narrative than they're selling the rest of the population. They get married, they stay married…

Mark Regnerus:

Exactly, right. Oftentimes they get married, albeit a little bit later, but they have the resource and the means by which to stay together, and they realize that it's good for kids, even while they're happy to shred those of us who want to say that in public and in writing. They're actually living the thing that we know to be true, we all know to be true, for the sake of public esteem.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. I had just recently reason to talk to a very secular college student coming from a family of tremendous wealth. One of the interesting things that he affirmed is that if he were to get a young woman pregnant out of wedlock, it would be socially devastating for his family. And I thought, "Okay, now that's perfect, because you guys are saying to the rest of the world that's an old sexual morality, but your own family is going to hold to that tenaciously."

Mark Regnerus:

I mean, it's interesting. It almost suggests that one of the old archetypes, and essentially expectations, of marriage is a sexual union that is fertile. So it becomes shocking when we actually think about what that looks like in reality.

Albert Mohler:

Let's get to that in just a moment. Let me raise another point. There's one just rather incidental insight you make in the book that I think I want others really to know about, and this made perfect sense. I had not thought of it this way before, but you point out that even this idea of being economically stable, ready, able to get married is rooted in the fact that the people making the consideration tend to think of their parents with the wealth their parents had when the children were teenagers, not as how those parents started out.

Mark Regnerus:

That was the wisdom of an economist who had studied this very issue and found that young adults, when they were getting married, imagined or hoped or believed that what they should expect in the early part of their marriage is the same social and economic standing and resources and material access that they had when they were teenagers. He did that one back, I think, in the 70s or 80s, but it gives you a window into, "Oh, I'm starting to see how we have changed our mentalities about this stuff."

Mark Regnerus:

But how do you get there, right? You have to rule out childbearing early in a marriage if you want to be of that sort of means. It's like, "Oh, I need to afford a house, housing prices are going up. Honey, we have both got to be full-on in that employment market for several years before we can even give this a thought." So yeah, he was on to something that certainly frames a lot of people's mentalities now.

Albert Mohler:

Well, this is very similar to what the old adage used to be about the young law associate hire who thinks that lawyers make what partners make, and doesn't realize partner is the capstone and getting hired is the foundation. There are usually decades between the first and the second.

Mark Regnerus:

Yes, this happens to university admissions. I mean, it's almost like every kid now has a signing day where like, "I got into the University of Texas," or something more prestigious than that. And I keep thinking, "It's not that hard to get into some of these places." Now, the real accomplishment is four years from now, or five or six, increasingly. People want to rush to the end product. But I think about human happiness, from what they can tell, peaks towards retirement. So if happiness is what you want, you just merely need to age another 50 years first.

Albert Mohler:

One of the amazing things about this, and I don't want to jump into the childbearing quite yet, but here I go. But speaking about happiness, I just have not found the young couple with children who lives an absolutely untroubled life, but I've not found one such family that would trade it for anything. And so there's an outside and an inside here. I think it requires something as strong as really thick Christianity to convince people to look at it from the inside and not from the outside. It's growing increasingly difficult.

Mark Regnerus:

Right. One of my former post-docs who works at Pew now did a study on congregational fertility, and he found that was the level at which you could definitely tell an effect. The people who you are in contact with and in social relationship and friendships with have a powerful effect, the most powerful effect on how you think about your own ability in your family to navigate two, three, four, five, six children. Far more than a denominational effect, far more than even a family of origin effect.

Albert Mohler:

Well, you are speaking to a Baptist, so I'm pre-convinced of that. The congregation is absolutely central, and that's what gives me hope, because my wife and I are a part of a congregation right here in Louisville, Kentucky where the fecundity is obvious, and the joy in it is just transparent. The peer structure is absolute celebration and it has a real effect. It has an effect on people you can see come into the church as young adults and they weren't necessarily buying into all this, but you look at them 10 years later, they're bought in and thrilled about it. I want to speak about this marriage recession. You're good with the numbers, so give us some numbers. What does this marriage recession actually look like?

Mark Regnerus:

So we don't have numbers from Christian marriages, or even marriage among Christians per se-

Albert Mohler:

Just in the larger culture.

Mark Regnerus:

In the larger culture, but if you look at... In chapter one I show census numbers from different countries across Europe, Japan, as kind of a comparison, and basically you walk away from that with the understanding, okay, yeah, Scandinavia, they were early converters and their numbers dropped early, but they have kind of bottomed out. Whereas other countries were in these 80% of women by age 30 had been married back in 1980, and then it just dropped essentially a percentage point a year, as it has in the United States. 80 to 70 to 60, 50, to where were at today. We're talking about in the 40s, 30s, or even some of those countries in the high 20s, right? It doesn't mean that they're not going to get there, but-

Albert Mohler:

Italy you say 24.

Mark Regnerus:

... if only 30% of women have married by age 30, which is when peak fertility starts to decline, you're not going to find 80% of them married by age 40. And different countries, this varies some. In Russia, it's early. Early in, early out, which is its own distress. I could pick apart particular countries if you wanted.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I think the most important thing is to look at the general pattern, which by your chapter one is something like 80% to something like 50%.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah, I'd say even closer to 40. Peak marrying age in the United States has been 25 to 34, king of this range, and yeah, that share is now around 40%. Well eclipsed now by the share of people that age that aren't married yet, which is just staggering really.

Albert Mohler:

And of course, again, that is a direct line of causality to birth rate, because you don't have to have a degree in biology or physiology to figure that out. But also just lifestyle and what it takes to raise a young child, first of all, from one to five, and then not to mention from five to twenty-five. As you're looking at marriage itself, you make a couple of interesting arguments, or at least you hint at them. You're talking to a theologian, so I've got to press you on the impact of the Protestant Reformation in the West on marriage, because I've done a lot of work in this, I'm really... Because you hint at, you don't really quite have a thesis. Spell out the way you see that.

Mark Regnerus:

Right. I hint at that because I'm not a historian or a theologian. I quote a handful of people, but the thing that was most compelling about this to me is what happens when we start giving oversight of marriage to a civil authority rather than to a Christian authority? Marriage is a universal, so it exists fine outside of the Christian church, but insofar as you have civil authorities who are operating in tune with Christian authorities, you're probably not going to notice a whole lot of a difference.

Mark Regnerus:

So I mentioned, I think it was in chapter two, that in reality, on the ground, the effect of the Protestant Reformation didn't really matter a ton for what we saw. But you fast forward, slowly but surely, and you realize, okay, now... It's not just a thing in law, but the law is a teacher, so it's a thing in our minds, in our mentalities, is what is legal civilly becomes what is moral, in some ways, in our minds.

Mark Regnerus:

And as long as marriage norms and rules and laws tracked the greater Christian world in terms of churches and authorities with denominations, we're going to be okay. And when it starts to veer away, which is not just 2015, well before that, you start to see, "Ah, now we're kind of held hostage to the idea that marriage is a civil oversight, and so if they change it, what does that mean for us?"

Mark Regnerus:

Now, some people hide within the domain of, "Oh, well they can have their rules, we have ours." I think you and I probably agree on this, that that's precipitous, that's not a very good and helpful way to think, because then people are thinking about very different kinds of meanings of what marriage itself, that it's malleable, that it's by fiat we can do something quite different. So my point about the Reformation is mostly about how oversight of marriage becomes civil and the confusion that can generate.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, the pushback I would give, as a theologian and church historian, is that the pointing of the finger at Protestantism here is theologically, first of all, the redefinition of marriage and what the Reformers clearly saw as a more biblical conception, as a blessed covenantal right but not as a sacrament, but then the fact that there was a separation of throne and altar and the arrival of the modern divide between religious government and civil authority.

Albert Mohler:

But I don't believe that the Protestant Reformation's apart from that story, nor do I believe that if the Reformation hadn't happened that throne and altar would have stayed united. The moment that you have the separation in the mind and in the law between a religious authority and a civil authority, one of the points you make in the book, which is absolutely right, is that neither one can fail to have its own regulation of marriage.

Albert Mohler:

And so the people, back when same sex marriage was being debated in the United States, prior to Obergefell when it was being openly debated, there were a lot of Christians who said, "Well, it really doesn't matter what the civil society says, because we're going to define marriage this way." Well, there's no island you live on. Yes, we will deny that, as Christians. My denomination, my church, clearly denies, and the vast, unspeakably vast majority of Christians all over the world still define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, period, and nothing else is marriage.

Albert Mohler:

But we're living in societies in which the definitely is no longer the same, and eventually the civil authority has more temporal authority, by definitely, and so that split's just not whole. It reminds me of the historian and scholar John Shelton Reed, who said at one point, "If Henry the VIII is the beginning of your church history story, then marriage is problematic," and there's truth in that.

Mark Regnerus:

Right. This is John Shelton Reed of North Carolina fame? He was a professor in the department where I got my degree.

Albert Mohler:

Oh, I see.

Mark Regnerus:

Yep, long time ago.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, I didn't put that together.

Mark Regnerus:

Yep, he was kind of an institution.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, and world famous as an expert on many things, including barbecue.

Mark Regnerus:

Yep.

Albert Mohler:

But nonetheless, his historical insights into the Church of England and to basically its application to marriage, in this case, nothing is... Of course, I hold to a Christian and Augustinian understanding of human society, and that's rooted in human sinfulness. So we don't expect anything to be absolutely clear, absolutely straight, absolutely right. The question is, what's more right, what's more straight, and how do we know what straight and right are?

Albert Mohler:

And that takes us back to another point, which I want to ask you about in your book, which basically comes down to marriage, once delayed and then redefined, this means that Christians do have to go back and ask basic questions, and I mentioned Augustine. There is one big theory of marriage you talk about in your book, and you tend to say yes in part, no in part, and that's the exchange theory of marriage. I'd love for you to describe that, and then as a theologian I'm going to come back with Augustine.

Mark Regnerus:

The exchange theory about marriage, it's not popular with tons of Christians, although I do believe it is not un-Christian in its nature. It tracks with something I've been writing about for the past several years. So basically, at the core of marriage in my argument is that we have a sexual union of complementary types, man and woman, in an exchange environment. Not a purely gift environment, but love as gift, but also love as expecting things of the other person. I don't talk about it quite like that in the book, but there's an exchange relationship in the sexual union between man and woman at the core.

Mark Regnerus:

Surrounded by, and I talk about this in chapter three, surrounded by four key supporting expectations that serve that union. The idea that this is a comprehensive union, it's not partial, we're all in. The idea of fidelity, the idea of permanence, and the idea or expectation of children, if possible, to cement this union. So these four supports are in service to the core, which is why later in the book I problematize two things. Same sex marriage somewhat in passing because it's not able to replicate the core, even while they can, in theory, try to replicate the four supports. And then I problematize cohabitation, especially among Christians, among whom it's starting to grow in popularity, for thinking that all they really need is somehow this core, and that these other things can be added later in a piecemeal fashion. I say that's kind of scandalous from a Christians perspective.

Albert Mohler:

Well, it shouldn't be, in the sense that it's demonstrated by common grace in a general sense. But Augustine, the greatest of the church fathers, had his own basic exchange theory of marriage. He's very blunt about it, and there's something a man wants, there's something a woman wants, and marriage is the right way for each to get what he and she needs, and within the context of what is blessed by the Church and recognized by society, and exclusivity is very much a part of that. But the system worked, and as a matter of fact, if that's all you know about marriage, the system worked until men could get sex outside of marriage.

Mark Regnerus:

Certainly, mid to later 20th century development, that goes back to the book Cheap Sex, where I talk about the pre-pill mating market and the post-pill mating marked looked very different in how people conduct themselves on it, and what they can expect and what they can hope for. That changed a good deal about how people go about navigating this search for a mate, it's far more complex and open to duplicity and deceit and broken hearts than it once was.

Albert Mohler:

But this cheapening of sex, you track cross-culturally. I thought the most interesting aspect you dealt with in the book is the Russian experiment in Cheap Sex. I should say, Soviet experiment in Cheap Sex.

Mark Regnerus:

Right. I have a section where I... Since Russian was part of my data collection project, I'd started digging back into the history, come to find, and I'm not a historian of this, but I was surprised to see we didn't really have the first sexual revolution. The Russians managed to do that in the early '20s, where early Communist intellectuals convinced Lenin to ease up on marriage laws and promote the freedom and utter radical equality of men and women, children be darned in that framework, and that got put into law even over the vociferous objections of many of the people, from whom they actually asked their opinion.

Mark Regnerus:

So by 1926 they have... I believe it was '26, some formal codes that overhauled this. Lenin dies around that time, things are going south in terms of the communities, because men are not sticking around in predictable kinds of fashions. Children are not having mothers around, because mothers have to work, expected to work, et cetera. So you have foundlings all over the place, which is a disaster socially. And so by the time Stalin comes to power, I think it was about by '32, he puts the kibosh on this stuff and basically reverses the law saying, "We're not going to be able to build the Communist vision that we have in a disastrous community sense that we have today with the children. So, I feel for the people back then. The church had already been suppressed, but then to have this whip saw action from your government about intimate life and relationships must have been really disorienting.

Albert Mohler:

One of the primary witnesses to that is someone you cite in your book a couple of places, and that's Pitirim Sorokin, who really was the first professor of sociology at Harvard, and someone I've followed very closely. He was under the threat of execution by the Bolsheviks and eventually came to the United States, but he has some really bracing things to say about the necessity of marriage just to hold any society together, and he had seen the disaster you described.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah, Sorokin and one of the first fellows he hired, Carle Zimmerman, kind of the heart and soul of the Harvard sociology department, were unabashedly antagonistic towards some of the early indications of cultural change around marriage and family. And keep in mind, this is not '50s/'60s stuff, this is '20s, '30s, '40s kinds of sensibilities. So you're not seeing it in the data yet. What they're seeing it, and I describe this, is in cultural bits, in literature, in art, in film. Rather unhappy with some of the mentalities they're witnessing. So who pushes back at these guys? Some Hollywood figures, including Ronald Regan, who thinks they need to chill out.

Mark Regnerus:

Which is ironic to see how far we've come. We're a few generations removed from the acceptance of the patterns that they had given warning about back in the '30s. They were then pushed to the edge of the department of sociology not that long afterwards, now they're kind of an afterthought.

Albert Mohler:

Right. An embarrassment, frankly. Because Sorokin spoke in moral terms, as did another professor who was at Harvard for a brief amount of time, Christopher Dawson. Actually, the first Roman Catholic ever to teach on the faculty at Harvard. You look back at the language that was coming from the Harvard faculty at that time, and you think, "That's a world ago, just in terms of where Harvard is now."

Mark Regnerus:

It's hard to believe. And not that long in temporal history, but...

Albert Mohler:

Right. There are still people alive who had both of them as professors. As you look at other aspects, the category of uncertainty I thought was really helpful. I think as I look at marriage theologically, historically, morally, I think that element of uncertainty is one of the most subversive elements in the current marriage equation. So talk about how you came upon that, and how that plays out.

Mark Regnerus:

This was audible in listening to people everywhere. Some of it happened... It comes from different sources, the cause to angst, but the anxiety, uncertainty, second guessing of people about both marriage, and particular marriage partners sometimes, was audible everywhere. It most has to do with-

Albert Mohler:

Is it more common among men or women? Did you find that uncertainty more commonly among men or women?

Mark Regnerus:

Probably a bit more among men, but not profoundly so. They often have different things that they're anxious about, but some of this comes back to the digital turn in relationships of the last 20 years, and maybe even particularly in the last 10, 15 years, is the idea that we have so many more options that we can see. They're often ephemeral, they're not really real. We can see them, but it does a number psychologically on people, to think that, wow, you have an entire pool to pick from, how are you going to make up your mind about this?

Mark Regnerus:

And that's exacerbated by the fact that people are on online dating now. If you don't really marry in college, you rapidly lose the big pool. So yeah, maybe you can find it in church, but the problem with churches is, especially if you go a really large church, there's not really a good way of meeting somebody short of just walking up to them and introducing, which is not actually a bad idea.

Mark Regnerus:

However, so people have lost the means to date so they turn to online, which is quite common. But the online, it's a bottomless supply of people about whom you make up all sorts of ideas, fact and fiction, most of which are probably fictional, right? You don't actually have that many options, you just think you have a lot of options. So compared to an earlier era, as recently as 25 years ago, we managed to seal the deal with far fewer options than people do today, which just stifles people.

Albert Mohler:

There's really also an opportunity there, I think. So I don't get to watch, nor do I actually desire to watch much of what's on television, but my wife and I were watching a rerun of Frasier. Some will be alive right now who will recognize that show, and the plot of this particular episode was a Jewish mother. Very Jewish, very stereotypical, played right into the sitcom in which she was setting up her daughter for a date. And the amazing thing is, my observation seeing that was, "Okay, I didn't grow up in a synagogue, I grew up in the First Baptist Church, but it was filled with mothers just like that."

Albert Mohler:

And it didn't have to be your mother. Every mother was trying to match make all the time, and in the happiest, friendliest kind of way. And Mark, I really think there's a reticence now in the part of many churches for people to make such suggestions. It seems everything's now such a private sphere, I think we've really lost something there.

Mark Regnerus:

Right. I mean, I do talk a little bit about that in the back of the book, not so much connecting it to parents, but the notion that we're thinking of marriage as a very private matter, when it's far more of a public matter than a private matter. But yeah, parents don't want to overreach, and we've got, at the same time, this anxiety at the congregational level. Oh, are we esteeming marriage too much? I get accused of that all the time, right? And harming the feeling of singles, acting as if they're incomplete, et cetera.

Mark Regnerus:

It makes pastor's and priest's job very difficult to think, "How do I weave the right thread here?" So yeah, I think the way people used to do it actually is attractive to kids if they allow themselves to come to grips with that. I mean, elsewhere in the world, online dating was far more likely to be disparaged, except maybe in Russia, because people felt it was artificial. They felt it was not really real. If they tried it, they had one or two bad experiences with it and thought, "Well, this is just not the way it's supposed to be." In part because I think they still can rely on human mediators, and frankly, human mediators are much better at this. We've come to trust the algorithms as if they know us. How can an algorithm know you better than your own family?

Albert Mohler:

And how honest are you when you set up the algorithm?

Mark Regnerus:

Right. Do you really know what you want? Are you acting like you know what you want?

Albert Mohler:

Right. I mean, it's very frustrating. When I speak to these issues, which is fairly often, the pushback is often fierce. I'm in print and in public on these issues for a very long time, and I'm not speaking as a sociologist, I'm speaking as a theologian and Christian minister and moralist, ethicist. The reality is that I believe the scriptural revelation is very clear that marriage should be normative for human beings.

Albert Mohler:

Normative doesn't mean there are no exceptions, it does mean it's the norm. And by the way, human society, the flourishing of human society, depends upon it. The mandate to fill the earth, the reproduction mandate, the family intended to be a generative family, the conjugal union intended to be a generative union. All this is pushed back on not only by many people who say, "Well, that's just disparaging to people who aren't." Why by the way, the scriptures always... If that were a rule we follow, you don't set anything up where anyone doesn't fit this, then you can't have a Ten Commandments. You can't have a gospel, frankly.

Albert Mohler:

But the pushback comes, surprising to me, from some older people as well as some younger people. And it just tells me that somewhere in the last, say, 30 or 40 years, there's been a shift to this idea that all of this is merely private, which I think means eventually, Professor, it disappears. I think if it's private, then it just becomes so insignificant, it doesn't matter.

Mark Regnerus:

Right. It's distressing, to say the least. I didn't intend to include a private versus public discussion in the book, but it just came shouting out at me that as long as we're thinking of this as private only, the future of marriage in general and the future of marriage in the church is going to look more grim than it already is. So yeah, I'm with you on that in terms of the normative, the long standing good that marriage has done for civilization.

Mark Regnerus:

People, when they are thinking rightly, should generally be able to recognize that. You turn to the scriptures, it begins with a marriage, it ends with a marriage. There's a theme that runs throughout it. So in finishing that book, people ask me if I'm discouraged about the future of Christian marriage. Well, in the short run I don't think things are going to improve radically promptly. I'm not worried long terms, in part because this is an institution that people naturally gravitate towards. They want these things.

Mark Regnerus:

I mean, when I describe what marriage is and the key supports for it, everybody secular and sacred, when we go to weddings, are expecting and hoping for people these characteristics and traits and supports of it. It's written, dare I say, on the human heart. So it's got a future, it's got a future, but it sure would help if we safeguarded and protected it, esteemed it more prudently, intelligently, and not foolishly.

Albert Mohler:

I guess a part of the difficulty we face right now, in just thinking this through, is wondering where the bottom will come. Because I do agree with you, I think it's... Look, I'll start out by saying it's a creation institution, it's part of creation order. Marriage will not pass away in this age, because human survival eventually will depend upon it. If nothing more than just simply looking at where children are successfully raised and where they're not. Where there's some cultural endurance and where there's not. Where there's some moral equity and human flourishing, and where there's not. But I don't think we've hit the bottom in this, because right now people esteem modern, libertarian personal autonomy more than they do even any good for the larger society.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah, yeah, I think you're right. America has a distinctive kind of conservatism that is a blend of genuine social conservatism and the libertarianism of which you speak, which you visit other countries and look at their Christian communities, there is a little bit less of that libertarianism in other places. I even think of France, right? They went the same way as we did around same sex marriage, but the movement against it was impressive and it was not about libertarianism, it was about the idea that children did not need a mother and a father.

Mark Regnerus:

It was a threat to the idea of the very heart of the family and the distinctiveness of man and woman, which frankly was not a major player on this side of the Atlantic. Because I remember very well the argument from evidence about the importance of marriage for children really didn't fly.

Albert Mohler:

Right, because, quite frankly, in all honesty... You're the sociologist here, but trying to make that argument flies in the face of the fact there's not enough evidence one way or the other. I think it was Samuel Alito said, "Whatever same sex marriage is, it's younger than a smartphone." It's ludicrous to say we have evidence-based judgment to be made here.

Albert Mohler:

I appreciate the fact you brought up France. So the fascinating thing to me right now about France is that same sex marriage is probably more of a live issue culturally in France right now than in the United States. So this is France, French Revolution, radical libertarianism, and then of course everything from Paris to basically French culture, French cinema, tearing down any kind of vestiges of a repressive, biblical morality. But right now, same sex couples, when it comes to adopting children or having access to, for instance, IVF or other reproductive technologies in much of France is a very different picture than it would be in the United States.

Mark Regnerus:

And France isn't alone. A variety of European countries, they think differently about the place of a mother and a father in a child's life as necessary. And this was just sort of discouraging to me, to have seen that several years ago, that wow, the United States, and I'd probably say Britain and her former colonies, led the way in a very permissive, progressive sexual mentality that didn't really regard what we owe to children and what we would want for children as part of any sort of public, moral norms.

Mark Regnerus:

So it's interesting, even Michael Emerson, the sociologist who writes about race, spent a year in Copenhagen several years ago and he remarked to me, "Yeah, they're liberal on this stuff, but you just don't see it. It is not like you see in the United States."

 

Albert Mohler:

Right, For example, people will say in Stockholm and other places, you generally see a mother and a father walking with small children, in a way that is even different than what you would see here, frankly, in Manhattan. By the way, it reminds me of a comment that I saw in a biography of Ernest Hemingway years ago, and it simply said that Ernest Hemingway and other American writers like him went to Spain, went to France and talked to people, came back and said what the French and Spanish people thought. But actually, it was just what the kind of Spanish people who would talk to Ernest Hemingway thought.

Albert Mohler:

It actually had very little to do with Spain or France. But that become kind of mainstreamed in American society. In other words, it kind of like right now, the discussions in American politics. They want this little aspect of Scandinavian economic policy, they don't want it as a whole. That's a testimony to coming grace as well.

Mark Regnerus:

A few of us worked with a couple of Texas legislators a few sessions ago, trying to make some ground and headway on surrogacy, and libertarian state like that, boy, we couldn't even make an inroad on the idea that hey, let's not have the State of Texas enforce surrogacy contracts, right? But that was a bridge too far. It was just hopeless. It's depressing to think that, "Wow, we've made our own bed," right? Why are we surprised that Obergefell happened? It's probably happened later than we should have expected it to, given that we had paved the way for so long.

Albert Mohler:

Right. No, it's not necessarily just a domino effect, it's like lighting one firecracker in a box. It's not if, it's when.

Mark Regnerus:

And then hoping that the big one doesn't go off, right? That's just not realistic.

Albert Mohler:

So Professor, let me ask you this. What's it like to write about these topics and to write with the kind of clarity you do, for instance, in a place like the University of Texas at Austin?

Mark Regnerus:

Right. Kind of solitary. I would say lonely, except my personality tracks towards being okay with going off by myself to write. So it doesn't bother me too much, personally. It's had its moments along the way. 2012, after the new family structure study, that was a particularly poignant year or two. Various times along the way, you understand that the university is not happy with you. And yet, let's see, I think it was 2017, even though my colleagues said they don't think I'm worth promoting anymore, the university president sort of saw through that and said, "I think there's animus going on here, we're not treating this fellow fairly in comparison to his peers," and they promoted me to full.

Mark Regnerus:

Which sort of felt like, "Okay..." You kind of breathe a sigh of relief at that point, knowing that any squabbles, battles going forward are not about your academic right to be here. So, it's had its moments, but it's also.... It's Texas, I love the State of Texas. I like many of the people on campus. The students I find quality and warm, and even empathetic sometimes. So it's been better than some people might think. Some people would say, "Oh, why don't you go someplace where they like you?" One could try to do that, but I think I have a strong sense of calling and responsibility that's reinforced over time to keep a foothold in a secular university if you've got one.

Mark Regnerus:

I don't think I write things that are outrageous. What is outrageous, really, is the shrinking space and territory for having significant arguments and discussions about things that matter. So it's one of those things where I think I totally belong. I can't believe you don't think so, right?

Albert Mohler:

Well, I'm very thankful you're there, and I do have to wonder if a young version of yourself could be hired these days.

Mark Regnerus:

Yeah, that's a good thing to wonder.

Albert Mohler:

But nonetheless, a part of our Christian commitment is to fulfill the stewardship we have been given, and you do that regularly. And I want to tell you how much I appreciate your book, The Future of Christian Marriage, and I commend it. Pastors need to read it, Christians need to read it, and I do believe it's going to be cited decades into the future. And I hope you will convince some, if not many.

Albert Mohler:

Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Mark Regnerus:

Thanks Al, appreciate it.

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to my guest, Mark Regnerus, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find more than 150 of these conversations at AlbertMohler.com, under the tab Thinking in Public. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to SBTS.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to BoyceCollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

Topics

Abortion Adultery Anglicanism Animals Art & Culture Ask Anything Atheism Bible Birth Control Books Childhood Church & Ministry Church History College & University Coronavirus Court Decisions Death Divorce Economy & Work Education Embryos & Stem Cells Environment Ethics Euthanasia Evangelicalism Evolutionism Family Film Gambling Heaven and Hell History Homosexuality Islam Jesus & the Gospel Law & Justice Leadership Manhood Marriage Mormonism Obituaries Parental Rights Pluralism Politics Population Control Pornography Preaching Publishing Race Religious Freedom Roman Catholicism SBC Science Secularism Sex Education Sexual Revolution Singleness Social Media & Internet Spirituality Sports Technology The Apostles' Creed The Gathering Storm The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down Theology Tragedy Trends United States Womanhood