Marriage Matters

An Interview with Patrick Fagan

Patrick Fagan is the founder and director of MARRI, the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (see Allied Front). MARRI studies the impact of marriage, family, and religion on society. Once a practicing psychologist, Dr. Fagan moved into the field of public policy as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Family and Community Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services under President George H. W. Bush. He recently announced the launch of Marripedia, an online social-science encyclopedia that makes research related to family, marriage, sexuality, and religion accessible to the public.

Dr. Fagan spoke with us about what makes for a healthy society, the importance of what he calls "the two great loves," and what he sees as a growing crisis for men.

What was your goal in founding MARRI and now Marripedia?

We're like a middleman between the academic research world and the lay public. Social science that's well done, using rigorous methods, large samples, and replication—all the usual scientific
criteria—cannot but illustrate the way God made man. It cannot but illustrate human nature, is another way of putting it. There are variances across cultures, but there are also patterns that hold across cultures, across time, across families, across nations.

There are two big lessons that come out of all the work on marriage, family, children, and child development that are sine qua non. The one that will be universally accepted is that children need love, which is attention and time. Love is one of the key dimensions within the family. Now, for love to be in the family, you need love between the parents. The greater the love between the parents, the more likely there will be plenty of love within the family. The second one is that the more people worship—whether they're Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists—the better they do on every outcome that we measure.

I would reduce it to the two great loves: the love of God, which in sociological terms would be frequency of worship; and the love of neighbor, the closest neighbor, of course, being spouse and children. So the two great loves would be religion and marriage. When you look at all the different outcomes in the federal survey system—and we looked at over 140 different social outcomes—you find that the intact married family that worships weekly is the core strength of the country on every outcome.

So knowing that the two critical things needed for a healthy society are strong marriages and religious worship, how do we promote those?

I think what's needed is cooperation between three primary institutions—family, church, and school—with other subsidiary or volunteer organizations that would cluster around those. You've got parent-teacher associations and organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, which can provide resources at a very local level. But the three big caring institutions are family, church, and school.

I think it's the duty of leaders in society—leaders of different institutions, leaders in media, teachers, university professors, thought leaders—to talk about this. This stuff is very fundamental. It's been around forever. There is nothing new about it. We've been violating it a lot in the last generation or two. That's part of the reason for the silence. I think it's uncomfortable to bring up persistent truths that are being violated. But savvy people and gifted people can find good ways to do that.

So where should this message come from? It should be coming from all over the place. Who doesn't need love? Who doesn't need happily married parents? Who doesn't need worship and prayer? They're pretty universal goods.

They are, and yet society has fallen so far from this. Have churches fallen down on the job?

Oh, without a doubt. The work of churches—and I'm using that word in a generic way: church, synagogue, mosque—is twofold. One is bringing those who are well disposed on to greater strengths, to greater love, to more giving. Second is pulling in the broken.

For instance, say you've got a broken marriage. There are two sides to a broken marriage. If one party was the breaker, the other is the broken. There's an innocent and a guilty. But both need help from the church. In the whole area of sexuality, you can see the chaos that's present across churches on that. One of the pieces we recently did on Marripedia was the presentation I gave to the World Congress of Families on the relationship between chastity and stability in marriage, which is extraordinarily strong. It's new information now, but it wouldn't have been new to our grandparents. If you fool around, your marriage is going to be in trouble. If you fool around before you get married, the chances of your marriage being affected later are pretty high.

And the data show that. We know from big national survey data what proportions of five-year-old marriages are still intact relative to the number of sexual partners the spouses had prior to marriage. For those who had no sexual partners other than each other, the percentage is in the high 90s. If the woman had one partner before marriage, the number goes down to 62 percent. That's more than a 30 percent drop in marital stability from just one other sexual partner. With two, it drops down to 50 percent. Then it stabilizes. But you can see that having just one or two partners prior to marriage has a huge effect.

Teachers are not talking about this. Pastors are not talking about this. But in a way, there's nothing new in this. When teenagers and young adults are jumping into bed prior to marriage, they're not thinking of the effect that behavior's going to have on their marriage ten or fifteen years from now. Or the effect it's going to have on their children or their grandchildren. This is where you need a strong culture that guides and shepherds people, particularly on sexual matters. That's why sexual taboos were pretty powerful social structures. There is a need for them. You need to have strong barriers related to the sexual goings-on in the culture. And if you don't, the damage is just replete.

To women who are having children, how do we get out the message about the importance of getting married and their children having fathers?

There ought to be a broad message on this. This is a cultural message that everyone in this country should get—schools should transmit it; colleges should transmit it; media should transmit it. Every child has the right to the love of his married parents. Without it, that child does not become the adult he could be. It's a violation of the rights of the child when his parents are not married and don't keep their marriage healthy. That's one way of saying it.

There are a thousand facets to this. But it's a major cultural message that needs to be transmitted, and that's not happening. One of the first places you would expect this to be transmitted is in schools and colleges. And of course there's a massive divide in the country on this. We're a culture divided. But the consequences are very clear for the kids. If you don't have married, loving parents, you're not going to have a stronger next generation. You're going to have a weaker one, a more troublesome one.

So you think schools could really be a first line of defense on this?

Yes, very much so. One of the things we hope to do with Marripedia is to take the data on individual topics and make available one-page synopses with a short summary paragraph, five or six key bullet points about the research, and then a wrap-up. It's important to drive home repeatedly, in myriad ways, the need for marriage and the need for worship—the need for both combined. This material could be used by churches, schools, doctors' offices, human resource departments.

As a social scientist, are there other areas of concern for you?

One of the huge crises that I don't think we're giving enough attention to is the separation of men from family life. When a marriage breaks down or isn't formed, the cultural norm is that children stay with the mother. So the mother has a real purpose in life: taking care of her children. But what happens to the father of those kids? What we have is a growing cohort of what I'd call culturally dispossessed men who have less and less purpose in life. They're not harnessed the way a man is meant to be, which, for the vast majority of men, is by being a good husband and a good father.

All the data point to the fact that the gender that's in crisis is not the female, it's the male. You see it in education, in job performance, in jobs themselves—employment versus unemployment. Increasingly, it's the men who are in trouble. And I think the reason is that they're not harnessed and they're not motivated.

History is full of ups and downs when it comes to societies that have valued marriage and worship versus those that haven't. Where do you think we as a society are headed on those two things?

I think the data on worship is pretty good. There's a growing number of what are called "nones" [as in "none of the above"], people who don't identify with any particular religious denomination. But the nones are a very interesting group because they are often quite religious and quite spiritual but just not identified with any particular denomination or with a particular church. I think religion in America is still in pretty good shape. It's a changing countryside out there, but it's still very strong, and I think with that will come a lot of other strengths.

On marriage—that one has gotten a lot worse actually. Look at differences in this regard among the five socioeconomic status groups. Marriage has long since disappeared from among our poor. But now in the second group up—what we call the working class—it's gone from there, too. In the last twenty years, serial cohabitation has become the norm there. So that's not looking good, and it's creeping up into our middle class.

The upper class, however, has retained marriage and has actually re-strengthened marriage. The stability of marriage there has grown significantly. The numbers aren't huge, but it's a growth that, given the rest of the culture, is very significant among our elite. Our college graduates increasingly have stable marriages—and religious worship has held there, too. It hasn't increased, but it hasn't decreased.

So if our elites, who tend to head up many of our institutions, would talk the way they live, we could begin to have real leadership on these two loves, these two great sources of strength. Our elites have recognized these two basic human needs for themselves. It's time to start transmitting that to the rest of society .

is the author of the newly-released book, Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids, published by Our Sunday Visitor.  She has been covering family issues for twenty-five years, as a producer for CBS News, a contributor to National Catholic Register, and a Senior Editor for Salvo magazine.  She has written for, First Things, WORLD magazine, and Touchstone.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #36, Spring 2016 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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