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Conference explores challenges facing marriage, family

4/2/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert (615) 742-5470 Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available with this story.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Rebecca Chopp, president of Colgate University and former official at Emory University, gives the concluding report "Sex, Marriage, and Family: The Challenges of the New Century," during a March 27-29 conference. Photo by A. Poyo, courtesy of Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory. Photo number 03-131, Accompanies UMNS story #199, 4/2/03
ATLANTA (UMNS) - Modern families, sex in the scriptures, the role of religion in marriage and numerous topics in between were discussed by scholars from a variety of religious disciplines for three days at Emory University.

"Sex, Marriage, and Family and the Religions of the Book," was an intense discussion by more than 70 scholars on research papers with titles ranging from "Happily Ever After? Sex Marriage, and Family in National and Global Profile" to "Trends in Dating, Mating, and Union Formation Among Young Adults."

More than 600 participants, including over 200 students, attended the event, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and convened by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at United Methodist-related Emory. The center was created in 2000 with a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Sex, Marriage, and Family and the Religions of the Book" is the result of its first two-year project.

Opening the conference, John Witte Jr., Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Ethics at Emory University and director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion, acknowledged current events might seem to overshadow the discussion.

In this time of war, devastation and bloodshed, contemplating the "intricacies and intimacies" of family life may seem incongruous, he said.

"It's worth noting that there are three things most people will die for: their faith, their freedom and their family," he said.

Conference speakers repeatedly referred to the statistics:
· In the United States from 1975 to 2000, a quarter of all pregnancies were aborted.
· One-third of all children were born to single mothers.
· Half of all marriages ended in divorce.
· Two-thirds of all juvenile offenders came from homes of divorce.
· Three-quarters of all African-American children were raised without fathers.
· Divorce rates have doubled in the United Kingdom, France and Australia in the last four decades.
· Marriage rates have dramatically decreased, while illegitimacy, domestic violence, and sexually transmitted diseases have increased around the globe.

In one of the most spirited sessions, "I Do, I Don't: The Cases For and Against Marriage," four panelists debated the pros and cons of marriage.

The panelists took on the tough issues of whether marriage should be celebrated as a community strength that makes men and women healthier and happier; abolished as a legal category that discriminates against single or cohabiting couples; maintained as a way of keeping fathers involved in childrearing; or kept as a societal control to ward off sexual chaos.

"Being married changes people in ways that make them, their children and their communities better off," said Linda J. Waite, director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago and co-author of The Case for Marriage. "Marriage is a public promise to stay together for life."

But marriages today are far from unbreakable since the "no-fault divorce revolution," argued Martha Albertson Fineman, professor of feminist jurisprudence at Cornell University.

Given this and other changes in patterns of intimate behavior and gender roles, Fineman proposes that marriage should no longer be the only such privileged legal connection. A diversity of loving and reproductive relationships exists among adults. "Family is not synonymous with marriage," she said. "Why should marriage be the price of entry into state-supported subsidies of families?"

Indeed, marriage as a legal concept is problematic, said Anita Bernstein, Sam Nunn Professor of Law at Emory. "Marriage is thought of as freely chosen, but that isn't 100 percent true," she said. "Some people want to be married but nobody will have them. Some people get jilted by their spouses or fiancés. And sometimes children suffer detriments based on their parents' marital status. We do choose marriage in that we say, 'I do.' But most people who enter into marriage don't know its legal consequences."

In turn, healthy, viable marriages encourage responsible fathering, said William J. Doherty, professor of family social science and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota. "Fathering outside a good-enough marriage is an endangered species," Doherty said. "In two-parent families, father involvement is more dependent on the wife's expectations than (the father's) own."

Also, fathers are more likely to withdraw from their children if the marriage is in trouble. "Fathering appears to be a triadic relationship," he said. "Men co-parent with mothers." Ideally, fathers would provide lifelong emotional and financial support for their children and their children's mother, even if the marriage fails. But in reality, this may not occur.

"The utilitarian approach is not robust enough to ground an ethic of fatherhood," Doherty said. "We need our religious traditions to do that."

Rebecca Chopp, president of Colgate University and former provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory University, took a look into the future with her report, "Sex, Marriage, and Family: The Challenges of the New Century."

She noted that the conference had emphasized "naming" the challenges of sex, marriage and family. "Naming - our responsibility and our opportunity - is the first clear act of humans in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and it runs through the scriptures as an act of blessing, responsibility and power," she said.

No transformation of marriage and the family can occur without addressing "the heart of the matter," said Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, in her session, "Happily Ever After?"

The family is "the site of our deepest longings and most terrifying fears," she said. "Families ... intensify every basic human urge, from our most generous capacities to give life to and sustain others to our most passionate desires to dominate. Families nurture us, care for us, mold us, or damage us, and send us out into the world either well or ill equipped for its complexities.

"The family is rather like the canary in the mine shaft," Elshtain said. "It gives us an early warning system of where things are wounded and broken and need to be healed or mended."

Go to the Web site to view Webcasts and highlights of the conference.
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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

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