Convenant Marriage Movement at a Standstill

Trying to Strengthen an ‘I Do’ With a More Binding Legal Tie (NYT rss)

In front of more than 5,000 cheering constituents in a North Little Rock sports arena, Gov. Mike Huckabee took the former Janet McCain to be his lawfully wedded wife Monday night, just as he did nearly 31 years ago, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do them part. This time, although the actual vows were not repeated, the emphasis was clearly on the “until death” pledge. Upgrading their vows to that of a covenant marriage, a legally binding contract available only in Arkansas, Arizona and Louisiana, the Huckabees hope to jump-start a conservative movement that has shown little sign of moving in recent years. A covenant marriage commits a couple to counseling before any separation and limits divorce to a handful of grounds, like adultery or abuse. “I know that some people have thought this whole thing is cynical, that it’s some sort of marriage-plus or high-octane marriage,” Mr. Huckabee, a Republican and a former Baptist minister, said in an interview before the ceremony. “I think people enter into covenant marriage not because they want a super marriage, but because they understand that marriage is fragile.”

The Huckabees’ ceremony was only the most prominent of a series of events organized over the Valentine’s Day weekend by covenant marriage supporters who say they sense that the time is right to reinvigorate their stalled movement. No state has adopted a covenant marriage law since Arkansas in 2001, while two dozen have considered the idea and declined to embrace it. Even in the three states where it is legal, it is not mandatory and only small numbers of couples have opted for it, somewhere from 1 percent to 2 percent, according to studies. “Truth is, it’s not been much of a movement,” said Steven Mintz, co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization of academics and clinicians who study family issues.

But now, after President Bush won a victory that many attribute, in part, to his championing of traditional family values, proponents of covenant marriage sense an opportunity and say they can bring to the movement the same energy that opponents of same-sex-marriage brought to outlaw it in 11 states last year.
Covenant marriage was born out of growing concern about the rise of single-parent families, especially among the poor, and unease among conservatives about no-fault divorce laws, which they say make it too easy to end a marriage. There is also some embarrassment among religious and political leaders in the Bible Belt that many of its states, including Arkansas, have some of the nation’s highest divorce rates. “We really feel the no-fault culture has been destructive,” said Dennis Rainey, president of Family Life, a Christian group based in Little Rock. “There’s something wrong when it’s easier to get out of a marriage than it is to get out of a contract to buy a used car.”

While the covenant marriage idea strikes me as interesting, it takes an odd approach. Presumably, almost everyone who decides to get married really, really wants it to work out. They love each other and honestly expect to grow old together. That evaporates when life intrudes and they realize that both can’t live exactly as if they were still single, except that they’ve got a roomie. So, simply committing to an extra special marriage up front isn’t going to solve the problem.

To the extent that confering legitimacy on a couple’s relationship is the proper role of the state, it makes sense to increase the barriers of entry and, especially if there are children involved, those of exit. I’m not sure that requiring counseling is particularly helpful, given the vastly different training that clergy and other counselors get (many denominations require graduate degrees; others merely the proclaiming of a calling). Certainly, though, a cooling off period of at least a month seems in order. Also, if precluding serial marriages of the JoLo variety is desired, something along the lines of matrimonial bankrupcy could be imposed, taking away one’s right to remarry for, say, three years after a divorce.

Still, I’m not persuaded that any real solution exists to the divorce problem. A society that where both partners pursue a full-time career is going to have a difficult time maintaining the institution of marriage as a permanent arrangement. Sustaining a marriage was always difficult and many “survived” in the past only because divorce was socially stigmatized and economically devastating. Add to that, though, the increased energy the second partner (almost always, the wife) puts into a career–and thus necessarily not into supervising the household, tending to the children, aiding the other’s career goals, and so forth–and have serious strain. And that’s not even accounting for the additional pressures of both partners now being subject to the need to move, facing layoffs, hidden competition between partners for career success, and myriad other factors. This has also coincided with the decline in the nuclear family, so that fewer of us live near the grandparents, eliminating a previous resource.


    Ann Althouse finds the Huckabee display “utterly repugnant.”

    Will Baude is “uneasy” about the covenant concept which violates his libertarian sensibilities.

    Jesse Taylor argues, “[I]f we’re going to save marriage, we’ve got to start discouraging it. Too many people get married that shouldn’t. It’s not a good idea, it won’t work, and it’s obvious from the beginning with marginal digging into their personalities.”

    Jacob Sullum contends, “Although most people who support covenant marriage presumably oppose same-sex marriage, the policy they advocate points the way toward a separation of marriage and state that would allow people to enter into any mutually agreeable arrangement.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jen says:

    I think a key component to a successful marriage is pre-marital counseling. A couple that goes through some sort of pre-marital counseling will be forced to tackle some of the issues they will face once they are married – finances, children, discipline styles, etc. I daresay that a lot of couples are so wrapped up in their gooey feelings for one another that they don’t have the serious discussions they should about the key components of a marriage. So they clash on how they will spend/save money, whether or not to have children or how many children, how to raise those children, etc. Sadly, when life intrudes on the love, they’re not equipped to deal with these issues together. This is where the covenant marriage idea could be helpful.

  2. Peter Samwel says:

    Actually I think you’re premise is off. You assume that because a great many marriages end in divorce it is because “life intrudes”. I don’t disagree that “life” brings obstacles, but I would argue that a great many marriages end up in failure precisely because the couples know how easy it is to divorce (relatively speaking of course).

    Were marriage more legally binding it would do two things. The first being prevent marriages that are not serious in the first place (e.g. Any marriage by Brittany Spears or the rest of Hollywood for that matter). Second, once in the marriage, couples would inherently make significantly greater strides to work things out when they go wrong, and/or make an effort to change so the marriage could prosper.

    Ultimately, marriage is better served if it means what it says (i.e. “Til death do us part”). If this were the case, I would suspect a great many people would opt not to get married so quickly. However once they did, I think much more thought and preparation would go into the consequences resulting from such a decision.

  3. kappiy says:

    I am not sure how, as the article states, the idea of “covenant marriage” is remotely conservative as it further involves the state in private affairs to an absurd degree.

    Everything James said in his last paragraph is right on the mark. The only thing I would quibble with is the idea that rising divorce rates constitute a problem.

    As implied by James’s commentary, women have much more economic and social autonomy these days than they did back in the 1950s–which is where Big Government clowns like Huckabee want to take us. Women can more easily leave abusive partners and have their own earning power, giving them much more freedom.

    Higher divorce rates must be understood as a product of more autonomy and social integration of women in the marketplace. To that end, there is nothing particularly wrong about divorce.