Divorce's Toll : by Martin E. Marty

January 21, 2013

Last Wednesday the Chicago Tribune alerted readers to the release that day of an ambitious set of findings about the effects of divorce on children. Reporter Manya A. Brachear called the project "unprecedented." I crossed the street to the site of the release, Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, 271 steps away—I once measured it. "I have an interest," as I knew well several participants in the research, two of whom, Elizabeth Marquardt and Amy Zietlow, led the session and another, the Rev. Joyce Shin of the church's pastoral staff, hosted. You may think my "interest" must be strong if and since I post my Sightings on the topic of divorce on the day of a presidential inauguration.

Rationale: such inaugurations occur every four years, while the effects of divorces on children are perennial, immediate, intense, and, according to the report, often misunderstood or mishandled. This is the case in mainline Protestant churches, the focus of this study, but, mingle with Roman Catholics and many kinds of evangelicals on the topic, and you find similar problems. Angles on such and on the larger public are features of a column by Peter Wehner, a conservative writing for Commentary, whose e-column appeared a day later.

Wehner quotes the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was asked forty years ago to discuss the biggest change he had seen in his forty-year career. "The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world." Wehner would say, "You haven't seen anything yet," citing statistics from the recent past. The changes occurred, writes Wehner, before and alongside and independently of the current challenges offered by the gay marriage theme.

The Marquardt/Zietlow report begins with a question: "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change." The language of the report is not whiny or scolding, but, armed with statistics and ethnographic scripts and personal testimonies the document is indeed a challenge, to be faced urgently by all kinds of churches. The authors argue that much of the often-noted decline in the mainline churches results from the changes in the family resulting from divorces. That is only one sign of what amounts to a crisis.

The oral presentations included comment on "shame," which keeps divorced or divorcing church members from being ready to discuss the issue in congregations, or unawareness of the implications on the part of pastors, priests, and counselors in churches. When Sightings discusses the life of faith or drift or un-faith in intimate settings such as parishes or families, so often splitting or split, it may seem as if we are departing from our charter to deal with "public religion." Both the Wehner article and a report on which he relies and the "Shape Faith" documents demonstrate boldly just how public are the consequences of action or neglect in church and family and other institutions often shelved as "private."

The report, which issues from the Institute for American Values, is too rich and complex to be probed or expounded in a short column. Those of us exposed to the findings come away from the discussions and the reading with new reasons to look very closely at the crisis to which these point. And what the various studies turn up deserves prime attention on the agendas of those who would make a difference tomorrow.


Manya A. Brachear, "Researchers: Even Amicable Divorces Take Toll on Children and Their Religious Attendance," Chicago Tribune, January 16, 2013.

Peter Wehner, "America's Exodus from Marriage," Commentary Magazine, January 17, 2013.

The Institute for American Values hosts the website "Divorce and Faith: The Next Generation," from The Center for Marriage and Families.

Elizabeth Marquardt, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?: Calling the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change (Broadway Publications, 2012).


Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com