Apparently, Urban Marriages Don’t Exist

EKNeighborhood

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.

An Internal Policy Shift For A Post-DOMA Landscape

When I started this blog, one of the guidelines I gave myself was that I’d try to avoid getting into the topic of homosexuality. Blogging is, at its core, a casual form of discourse, and the development of the concept of “sexual identity” (a fairly recent phenomenon given the general scope of human history) seemed to pit casual and nuanced conversation about gay issues at odds with one another. Maybe a better writer could thread that needle, but not me.

However, the Supreme Court’s decisions yesterday regarding California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) make avoiding the topic pretty difficult. It’s clear that from here on out, for a Christian to be an effective ambassador of a more human way of life in his or her civic existence, he or she must be able to talk about homosexuality with comfort, humility, compassion and fluency.

This has probably been true for years now—it’s not like the court issued yesterday’s rulings unbidden. They were responses to cases various citizens brought before a series of courts, those cases in turn being the result of years of shifting attitudes amongst the general citizenry. 

You can’t search for Christian approach to public life if you don’t allow yourself to talk about gay marriage and sexual ethics. Like many of you, yesterday’s rulings sent me down a number of different paths, prompting diverse conversations and a lot of reflection. 

I’m grateful that, in the weeks ahead, I’ll get to share some of that with you.

Presidential Debate: Watch Wisely

The first presidential debate of the 2012 general election is just hours away. Watching televised debates is probably not the best way to decide which way you’re voting in an election—candidates place so much emphasis on theatrics that are meant to stir up visceral, emotional responses and distract from the content of what they and their opponent are actually proposing—but if you watch actively and critically, they also aren’t the worst.

Luckily, how-to website LifeHacker.com has put together a handy primer on how to keep yourself on guard against fallacious arguments while watching a debate. Check it out prayerfully and see if it makes a difference in the way you respond to the candidates this evening.

Election Year Fear

Former senator Rick Santorum ended his campaign for the Republican nomination for president this week, effectively inaugurating the general election. Former governor Mitt Romney, long the presumptive nominee, no longer faces any realistic challengers in the Republican primary, and he and President Obama have begun attacking one another more directly in their public remarks.

In the weeks ahead, the two major political parties, along with scores of television anchors, radio hosts, and deceptively named political action committees will begin advocating for their preferred candidates aggressively. They’ll hold rallies to motivate sympathetic voters. They’ll release ads designed to persuade undecideds. They’ll send volunteers and paid staffers door-to-door armed with talking points written by researchers who have studied the psychological profile of people from every demographic, professional guild and magazine mailing list to which you belong.

And most of them will try to make you afraid.

Afraid of a general American decline. Afraid of a war against a particular right or class. Afraid of the death of an industry. Or just afraid of death.

“My opponent doesn’t want to see you flourish,” is the message underpinning too much political conversation in this country. What makes it such a dangerous message to use as a political attack, though, is that, to some degree, it’s universally true: We know that every human being is fallen, and that means that every human being has a propensity to try to seize power and authority that only belongs to God. We are prone to self-interest and we look out for our own tribe when the scripture calls us to seek the peace and prosperity of strangers, enemies and hostile cities.

It takes a deep, abiding humility born of the gospel to admit that kind of fundamental brokenness without the admission crushing your sense of self. And keeping that innate, fallen disregard for Other Groups in check requires that you be surrounded by people who are bold enough to call you out on it and sympathetic enough to encourage you to transcend it. Being a judge, a legislator or a chief executive doesn’t exempt you from human nature. When candidates imply that a universal human fault is true only of the “other side,” it becomes a little harder for everyone to remember that we are all fallen.

However, just being told that a candidate doesn’t want to see you flourish isn’t always enough to incite the kind of fear that secures a vote. No, the fear really gets stoked when the campaign volunteer on the other end of the phone implies that if the other party wins the election, they’d actually have the power to keep you from flourishing.

Christians reject the belief that any candidate or party has ultimate, apocalyptic power over the fate of a nation because we know the fate of all nations, and it isn’t degradation. It’s renewal.

For millennia, people hoped that the cycle of death and the slow encroaching of entropy weren’t the final truths. Against almost all evidence, the prophets of the Old Testament affirmed those hopes, saying that the will of God was to gather all the nations to Himself, raise up the low places and make the bent paths straight.

For Christians struggling with the dire forecasts of a presidential campaign year, Jesus’ resurrection offers us two assurances: It tells us that life and flourishing can and will overcome even the most inexorable forces of decay and death, and it tells us that the ultimate victory of life over death will come from God, not from our own hands. The apostles didn’t need to administer CPR to raise Christ from the dead.

At the resurrection, even the most inept public administrator will see that all things worked for the good of God’s beloved people. No policy, no matter how badly bungled, can stop all the old, worn things of this world from eventually being made new.

When you’re at a bar, or a coffee shop, or your children’s baseball game, and a friend tells you to be afraid, you have the right to respectfully refuse.

Keep Not Fear Alive

Good Stuff Eatery

Much like New York

After work today, I’ll get on a bus and head to Washington, D.C., where I’ll meet up with an old friend and spend the weekend hunting down good burgers and checking out the Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart’s attempt at putting together a “million moderate march.” While I don’t know exactly what’s on the docket for the rally this weekend, I’m expecting a good show with some entertaining speeches, and I’m expecting a staged conflict with Stephen Colbert, whose rival event–the March to Keep Fear Alive–is scheduled for the same time and place.

Colbert’s theme raises a big issue that is of central importance to Christians who are trying to figure out their place and posture in public life: fear.

As things get rolling, I imagine we’ll be talking about fear regularly and in greater depth, because it is a major part of many campaigns for public office. Fear of what will happen to us/our children/our schools/our jobs/our environment/our health/our country/our planet/our values if “the other guys” get elected is an easy and powerful motivator, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians trade on it so often. It encourages us to react quickly and single-mindedly, which is always good for getting out the vote.

Fear is also a recurring theme in scripture, but scripture tends to find it less useful. Under a variety of circumstances, Jesus exhorted his disciples to “Fear not” and “Be not afraid” as often as he commanded them about anything else. Both before and after his resurrection, his message was fairly consistent: “I know it seems like you have plenty of reasons to freak out right now, but don’t.” Even after his ascension at the end of the gospel narratives, “don’t freak out” remains a recurring theme in scripture. Under some of the most dispiriting and threatening possible circumstances, Paul wrote from prison to his young colleague Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love and self-control” (or, as the KJV puts it, power, love and “a sound mind”).

According to the sermon on the mount, one of the roles believers in Christ are collectively supposed to play in their communities is that of a “city on a hill.” Jesus dares Christians to live as a visible example of the gospel’s story and promises rather than being driven solely by the same concerns that drive their immediate cultural contexts. Christians are asked to operate under the assurance of ultimate freedom, ultimate peace and ultimate flourishing, not under the specter of fear, and we should consider that carefully when we think about how (or if) to use our votes.

A Christian who is truly invested in the peace and prosperity of their community may need to consider not just whether their own vote is based on personal fear, but also whether it would contribute to fear being sown amongst the people around them. Might a candidate whose campaign trades in fear have policy positions that a Christian thinks offer a legitimate chance to make the earthly state around us function better? It’s perfectly possible, and there’s no cut-and-dried answer for how we should order our priorities in such a situation.

If you’re thinking about voting (I know a lot of Christians aren’t. We’ll talk about that later.), there are many factors that could shape your vote: Take the time to look at the candidates’ websites, read their position papers or use the League of Women Voters’ voting guide to get the lay of the land. Vote on which vision of government seems best to you, which policies seem soundest, which candidate seems most capable or who has a message you would most like to see take root among your friends and neighbors.

But when you’re weighing these factors, just remember: Stephen Colbert is probably joking when he says you should keep fear alive, but when Jesus says not to freak out, he’s definitely serious.