October 11, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Robert M. Franklin, Jr., Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, is emerging as a leader of the middle generation of African-American clergy. He is a former student and sometime colleague who I work with on "The Child in Religion, Law, and Society" project at Emory in Atlanta. He is taking some courageous stands and making bold scholarly moves to "approach African-American clergy about efforts to promote marriage."
In a September 6 "Roundtable Interview," he rues the fact that "the non-marital birth rate in African-American communities is about 70 percent," and that, since the 1970s, there's been a dramatic decline in marriage rates. In the 1890s, 80 percent of all African-American households were of the two-parent sort. He believes the clergy can address this issue. The clergy he refers to are "these area leaders who primarily focus on … political goods -- ensuring that minorities have the right to vote, run for office." They also focus on "economic goods" and "goods of personal development."
"Healthy families and marriages often don't get on the radar screen of these busy leaders." He and his colleagues call attention to this lost ground in the post-Civil Rights Movement period, and work to identify pastors who can lead. They come back with "field reports" on what congregations are doing and leave behind research findings that can help the cause. Franklin speaks of "pastoral capital," which can be put to work among pastors who recognize the problem. Many of these pastors agree that most materials on the subject of stable marriages "simply weren't culturally competent and culturally sensitive."
Another focus was to revive a "culture of healthy dating." Teens in most places get no guidance about dating and the messages they do receive, from TV and peers, gives them the sense that dating has to involve sex. Still, another issue is "reclaiming men," to raise the "male investment in marriage and family" from its all-time and steadily declining low. Pastors urge men to trade in their "player's card" for a marriage license.
Here is where Franklin sees the culture: "the notion of monogamous relationships that entail fidelity and commitment over a long period, and bearing and rearing children, [is] really countercultural. And here again, no one in the community was making the case for marriage …" The Roundtable also asked Franklin about federal programs to address the issue, mentioning that, along with hesitancy about the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative, African-American clergy are also increasingly resistant to the Administration's Faith Based and Community Initiative, which Franklin treats as a separate issue.
According to Franklin, the Initiative raised expectations and hopes that have been frustrated. The funding has been slow in coming, and small informal congregations don't have the wherewithal or capacity to compete for the grants. The big dollars are going to intermediary organizations that can provide some training and technical assistance, but "that trickle-down process just feels like too much bureaucracy for what these pastors hoped would be rapid-response funding for community crises."
Colloquially, even this faith-based grant-making is a "them as has, gits" project. Franklin and colleagues hope to change that.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.