We last encountered Mark Regnerus in the pages of the Washington Post, singing the praises of early marriage. Last week, while I was blissfully unawares on vacation, he took his argument to a friendlier audience with a cover story in Christianity Today. In the new piece, Regnerus casts himself as a truth-teller to evangelical America, informing them that in their emphasis on sexual purity, chastity, and virginity, the movement has forgotten to encourage healthy marriages, particularly among the young. He writes (emphasis mine):
Evangelicals tend to marry slightly earlier than other Americans, but not by much. Many of them plan to marry in their mid-20s.Yet waiting for sex until then feels far too long to most of them. And I am suggesting that when people wait until their mid-to-late 20s to marry, it is unreasonable to expect them to refrain from sex. It's battling our Creator's reproductive designs. The data don't lie. Our sexual behavior patterns—the kind I documented in 2007 in Forbidden Fruit—give us away. Very few wait long for sex. Meanwhile, women's fertility is more or less fixed, yet Americans are increasingly ignoring it during their 20s, only to beg and pray to reclaim it in their 30s and 40s.
This message will be, I think, powerfully attractive to many progressive Christians. It accepts — and even celebrates — the naturalness of sexual desire. Regnerus writes, "sex feels great, it feels connectional, it feels deeply human. I never blame [young adults] for wanting that."
And yet, if you plumb Regnerus' worldview, you see that just beneath the sex-positive surface is a deep yearning for traditional gender roles. He's upset with Christian America not just because it has made sex so shameful, but also because the community has bought into a trend in the wider culture: that of encouraging both men and women to delay marriage into their late-20s, in order to focus on education, career success, and financial stability. "Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed," he laments.
That's true — and there are major benefits to that. As Regnerus admits, financially-stable, highly-educated, slightly-older couples are much more likely to avoid divorce. His solution to this problem is to encourage parents and communities to offer more "support" to young couples in love. He seems to envision all these young lovers as middle-class college students with bright futures ahead, and parents able to offer a gentle push toward bourgeois marriage, preferably with open checkbook in hand. With their families' and ministers' approval and counsel, Regnerus imagines, young people can reasonably marry at the age of 20 or 21, and thus engage in guilt-free, God-sanctioned sex.
But in his enthusiasm for young women hunkering down at home with hubby and kids — they must not "ignore" their reproductive destinies! — Regnerus simply ignores the class implications of his argument. Poor people in their early 20s don't have the inherited socioeconomic and educational advantages that would make success at early marriage more likely. Economic instability and early marriage are leading predictors of divorce. Put together, they are disastrous for a couple's future.
If Regnerus really wanted to encourage early marriage and more stable, young families, he might support government social safety nets, such as universal health care, child care, and maternity and paternity leave. All of these make parenthood and marriage more tenable for the young and poor. Yet he describes himself in the piece as a lifelong "fiscal conservative." It's hard, then, not to conclude that, like the evangelical Christian movement as a whole, Regnerus is really more interested in promoting "traditional" family life — with a woman at home — than in revisiting notions of sexual abstinence.
cross-posted at TAPPED