Yesterday morning, Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, spoke on his daily podcast about the general migration of the American population away from rural and suburban areas and toward urban areas. He then pivoted off of that topic to address declining marriage rates among young Americans. The moment of transition is excerpted below:
Mohler is a leading thinker amongst theologically conservative Christians, and so the assumptions that drive his thinking are worth investigating. In particular, I’m curious about the inextricable link he seems to assume between married life and suburban or rural American life.
Mohler’s train of thought on the matter as presented in this transition between the topics seems to be as follows: “Young people move to cities to work. When they meet other young people and get married, they are supposed to move out of the city and settle into a real, grown-up, less selfish life in a suburb or in a rural environment. Young Americans are moving into cities faster and are less inclined to move out. Therefore, young Americans are choosing to put off marriage, choosing to not have children and deliberately fostering a less socially stable society.”
Now, it is undeniable that young Americans are marrying at the lowest rates ever recorded, though I think Mohler overlooks the fact that young Americans often want to get married but feel unable to. A popular video that circulated amongst my friends last year highlighted the fact that many millennials feel that, through no fault of their own, they walked into an economy that has made it impossible for them to live the life to which their parents and grandparents encouraged them to aspire:
But the bigger issue at play for me is Dr. Mohler’s apparent assumption that marriage necessitates abandoning urban centers. In Mohler’s argument, if only young Americans would get married and have kids, they would move back to suburbs and rural towns. It’s okay to use a city for the sake of getting a job out of it, but urbanism is inherently selfish and the path to maturity leads to a suburban or rural life.
This line of thinking seems rooted in mid-century secular materialist assumptions about the proper relationship between an individual and the civic community. If your chief end is to leverage yourself into a better, more powerful, more secure position in your surrounding community, then the narrative Mohler prescribes makes perfect sense: You move to a city to develop sought-after skills then use those skills to secure a more luxurious place for yourself and your nuclear family in a less-competitive suburban or rural market.
But that isn’t the Bible’s prescription approaching the place you live and work:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
God’s message to his people living in the most oppressive, spiritually stagnant of cities was to stay there. Commit to it. Care for it. Get married there, raise your family there and teach the next generation to seek the city’s shalom (health) and tikkun (healing). Jesus didn’t condemn the city that was about to send him to his death—he wept for it. He went to his death longing to embrace it.
Dr. Mohler’s line of argument doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that young people who met in a city and married in a city would choose to remain in a city and even raise their children a city, but is the thought really that far-fetched?
I’m a member of a church in a metropolitan center. The vast majority of our congregants are in their 20s and 30s. Since I moved to this city three years ago, it has seemed as though hardly a week goes by without a new engagement, a new marriage or a new baby. Most of these new families opt to stay in the metropolitan area. Not because they are selfish, but because Jesus’ selflessness is actually encouraging them toward some kind of more selfless urbanism.
One of the most distinctive virtues Christians can bring to the public sphere is a commitment to the neighborhoods, towns and, yes, even cities in which we live. When you and your neighbors talk about the latest local controversies, can they sense that your relationship with them and with their community has an expiration date? Or do they trust that you genuinely care about them and that you’re not about to cut and run on your community? Because that’s the kind of approach to your civic community the Bible recommends—even if that civic community is an American city.
Update: A sentence has been added to the opening of the article to more clearly convey that this blog post addresses the rhetorical hinge Dr. Mohler uses to pivot between his two topics, rather than the points he makes about either topic.