Event Summary: Marriage Movement and the Black Church

June 2, 2004

With marriage rates declining sharply within the African-American community, the Brookings Institution assembled a panel of ministers, scholars, policymakers, sociologists, and community leaders today to discuss the problem and determine what role, if any, black churches could play in strengthening the institution.

Although Americans have retreated from marriage in recent years, the trend is most pronounced among blacks. Marriage rates have steadily declined over the past forty years, nearly seven of ten black children are born to unmarried mothers, and roughly 85 percent of black children are expected to spend some or all of their childhood in a single-parent family.

“We are seeing a sea-change in African-American life that cannot continue, or we will not continue as a viable people,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said. “It’s impossible to overestimate what has happened to our community in only a single generation or two, or what might happen to the next generation if it continues at this pace.”

Panelists agreed that marriage carries both economical and spiritual benefits, and serves as a cornerstone for relationships and communities. Brookings Senior Fellow Ron Haskins presented evidence suggesting that marriage reduces poverty by 27%. In addition, he noted that marriage affects physical and mental health, education levels, and incarceration rates.

“There is no question that if we increase marriage rates, we will have a very substantial impact on poverty and we would also have impacts on children’s development and the lives of adults,” Haskins said.

The Reverend Leslie Braxton, a senior pastor at Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church, focused on marriage’s economic benefits, saying that “a marriage movement in the black community has to be a movement to educationally and economically empower black men. The bottom line is that men without stable jobs and men without economic esteem don’t marry or don’t stay married. The best social program is to give a man a job.”

However, not everyone agreed that economics and other external circumstances could completely explain diminishing marriage rates. “Between 1865 and 1965, despite the fact that we endured slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, ten years of the Depression, no representation in government, the Ku Klux Klan, and no police protection, black marriages flourished,” said National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise Founder and President Robert Woodson. “Don’t tell me external circumstances were responsible for altering that.”

Although black churches have historically served as a central social institution within black communities, some panelists cautioned against placing too heavy a responsibility on black churches to revive marriage within their communities. “We are not a panacea for America’s ills,” said the Reverend Michael Nabor, a senior pastor at Detroit’s New Calvary Baptist Church. “We are a spiritual enclave?To say that we’re going to go into black communities, fix marriages, and everything else will fall into place is ridiculous?The entire arena around marriage must be improved for marriages to flourish.”

The Reverend Thabiti Anyabwile, an associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, worried that marriage proposals could also blur the line between church and state and impinge on the spiritual mission of churches. He worried that such proposals could limit his ability to freely preach the gospel, reduce the time his staff could spend on church services and other important activities, or turn churches into “another social organization.”

Ronald Mincy, a professor of Social Work Policy and Practice at Columbia University, urged panelists to be realistic about the ability of churches to reach those most in need of relationship counseling. Given low church attendance seen in many congregations across the country, Mincy said,”the church is only effective to the extent that it has an effective outreach to African-American men so that they’re there to hear the pulpit when it speaks out on these issues.” W. Bradford Wilcox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville, also presented evidence indicating that only 3 percent of black churches had designated marriage ministries.

Despite these concerns, Diann Dawson, who directs the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Regional Operators, maintained that churches were best positioned to promote marriage. “The marriage movement in America will never be fully realized until we have the full participation and commitment of the black church?The black church is the strongest institution in our community, and the African-American Healthy Marriage Initiative realizes the importance in partnering with the black church to successfully reach the black community on the benefits of marriage.” The African-American Healthy Marriage Initiative, a product of HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, seeks to “promote and strengthen the institution of healthy marriage in the African-American community,” according to the program’s website.

Wilcox used researched gleaned from The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to show the positive role churches can make in supporting marriage. According to Wilcox, churchgoing African-American women are more likely to be married at the birth of their child and to report excellent relationships with their husbands. Additionally, Wilcox said that church attendance can also help reduce stress and racism, and can provide struggling individuals with an outlet besides drugs and alcohol.

“This is a world in which marriage can thrive again,” Del. Norton said. “Somebody has to speak up for marriage. Somebody has to speak up for family. Somebody has to talk some turkey about it?Somebody needs to bring the moral and practical clarity up front about marriage and about what it means to family life and what it has meant about the progress of African-Americans from slavery to today.”