The Religious Right Gets Real on Marriage

Billy Graham had a rule. He was a powerful man, away from his wife and children more often than he was with them. Aware of the significance of his reputation and convinced of the moral value of the Gospel message, he took precautions to guard against his own human weakness. He gave his ministry colleagues explicit instructions: never leave me alone in a room with a woman who is not my wife. (Click here to follow Lisa Miller)

If only someone had given John Ensign similar advice. Or if someone did, that he'd heeded it. The Ensign story continues to reverberate not because of its delicious best-friend's-girl plotline (for who among us is surprised anymore that politicians sleep around?), but because he said he stood for something else. He is a "family values" Republican who voted for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and in 2004 lent his support to a constitutional amendment defining marriage, saying, "Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country, and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our Constitution." To which the obvious retort is: but not the ordinary step of protecting your wife and children from public humiliation? Ensign has become the latest example of what so many see as the failure of the right to retain any credibility on the marriage question.

No one denies that conservative Christians have a marriage problem, a dizzying gap between their articulated ideals and their success in achieving them. According to the Pew Forum, evangelicals are more likely to be divorced than Roman Catholics, Mormons, the Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists. Of course, every person who utters "till death do us part" and then separates is, in a sense, conceding defeat. But when evangelicals are leading the charge in the marriage movement (and now, the anti-gay-marriage movement) arguing that sacred unions between one man and one woman are good for society because they're good for children, one would hope that they'd have worked out the kinks a little better than the rest of us.

A new generation of leaders is trying to reclaim the high ground by asserting publicly what everyone who has ever been married knows: marriage is hard. It wasn't so long ago that the failure of a Christian marriage was regarded as shameful. Divorced women, in particular, were ostracized or shunned. As a result, marriage vows were carried like a Christian duty; problems were kept hidden. Christian men of the Greatest Generation were "more regimented" when it came to marriage, says Jim Daly, the president since 2005 of Focus on the Family. "You do this out of duty. You respect authority and institutions."

Daly, himself the son of a single mother, is trying to soften the conservative rhetoric on marriage while maintaining its critical social importance. At a press conference in February, he said he found Barack Obama's family life exemplary, a comment for which he has "taken a lot of grief." But success in marriage depends on telling the truth about it, says Daly. "There's got to be a better understanding on the right that people fail. It's one of the challenges we face: the church tries to project perfection. Even after a conversion, you still have to deal with temptation." Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church, is similarly gritty on the subject of marriage; he and his wife, Kay, admit, publicly and often, that their first two years of wedded bliss were anything but. "At first," Warren told me in a long-ago interview, "opposites attract. Then opposites attack." Gary Chapman, who is the Christian world's Dr. Phil, has just published a revised version of The Marriage You've Always Wanted. Studded with Scripture, the book talks turkey about premarital sex, STDs, cohabitation, money troubles, working mothers, and in-laws. No perfect picture here: Chapman just asks couples to try to love each other more.

Last week the Institute for American Values, together with the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting, released its Marriage Index, an algorithm based on five different measures. It found, not surprisingly, that the health of marriage in America is on the decline. "It's so important that we practice what we preach," says Linda Malone-Colon, director of the NCAAMP. "It's as true with Christians as it is with other religious groups. They don't live by what they're talking about." Billy Graham, though politically astute, was rarely self-serving. He knew how to protect his children from his chaotic life—and he did.