mark regnerus and successful marriages
Reading Time: 11 minutes What Mark Regnerus wants. (From a vintage Pyrex advertisement called "Successful Marriages Begin in the Kitchen")
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we looked at a really awful post by pseudoscientist Mark Regnerus on Christianity Today. In it, he held forth on what he saw as a very serious crisis in the state of marriage. Mostly, he blamed it on a mixture of evil secularism, feminism, technology, and heathenry-in-general (ESFTH). But his post contained not only the diagnosis but also the treatment! Never fear! Mark Regnerus is here to totally fix marriage as a whole and get the Western world completely back on track — and make marriage the complete domain of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like his fanbase!

mark regnerus and successful marriages
What Mark Regnerus wants. (From a vintage Pyrex advertisement called “Successful Marriages Begin in the Kitchen”)

(Obviously, everything in this post applies only to people seeking opposite-sex people as spouses. As far as Mark Regnerus is concerned, those are the only people seeking marriage. I’m pretty sure his general advice to those seeking same-sex marriages is a screech in a register that only Cocker Spaniels can detect.)

The Marriage Ideal, According to King Mark Regnerus.

In Mark Regnerus’ ideal Republic of Gilead, marriage consists of a contract between two decidedly unequal parties. One party (Prima, always a woman) owns all the sex but cannot fend for herself outside of the marriage relationship. The other party (Secundus, always a man) owns all the marriage as well as the means of production but cannot get the sex — without a lot of effort and risks, at least!

Neither party wants the thing they own. Instead, they want what the other party owns. It’s like curly hair, I guess.

So they make a deal: the first party will give up the sex in return for protection and provisions, and the second party will give up the marriage in return for the sex. In addition, Prima agrees to perform (or gets roped into doing) literally all of the work around the home the two share as well as all of the more tedious and onerous childrearing tasks. Prima also agrees to obey Secundus’ whims and fulfill his desires. To alleviate this burden, Secundus agrees to treat Prima with consideration and respect.

Secundus owns all of the power in the relationship as well. Sure, Prima can refuse to give up the sex even though she’s receiving provision, or she can skip out on the housework. The tribe ensures that she complies, for the most part — if they find out. But Secundus gains an enormous amount of personal leisure time and comfort either way, all at Prima’s expense. And no force compels him to live up to his end of the agreement.

The Republic of Gilead contains no authorities Prima can appeal to for justice, either. Its masters cannot ever concede that their system would ever require such a thing.

The Worst Thing Imaginable to Mark Regnerus.

So to Mark Regnerus — and by extension the right-wing Christians his work exclusively targets and panders to — the worst thing that could possibly happen to marriage is exactly what’s happening right now:

People are marrying for love and compatibility rather than for basic survival. They’re freely trading sex without marriage requirements. They’re rewriting gender role requirements and ignoring Gilead’s life scripts. They are asking more of marriage — and getting it fairly consistently.

And when they realize their contract terms have shifted too much to maintain it, they’re dissolving it rather than sticking with it in misery.

And all that is a BAD AWFUL TERRIBLE thing to Mark Regnerus!

The Stakes At Hand.

He sees his vision of marriage as the literal foundation of Western society.

In fact, he uses the term “the West” five times in his post, and without defining it. That’s fine. His tribe will perfectly understand this dogwhistle for white evangelical culture. So obviously, if people start marriage-ing differently then that shift threatens the dominance of his entire religion and even cause the utter collapse of Freedom Land. That’s how important his version of marriage is! See? SEE?

He writes:

Since the secularization of the West feeds on and sustains the flight from marriage, the life of faith is key. But if the church becomes marriage’s primary defender in the West, how exactly do we protect and encourage it for those inside and outside our sanctuaries?

He’s just thinking of us, y’all! He just wants us ickie ESFTHs to be safe and sound!

Real talk: I don’t know how he can claim that white evangelicals are “marriage’s primary defender” when their divorce rate is the highest out of all other religious groups. They’re certainly the main group trying to claim a monopoly on marriage. And yes, they seek constantly to make their awful marriage rules the only acceptable ones for everyone else.

But evangelicals don’t defend marriage. They’re busy fleeing from it themselves.

A Vision in Search of a Reality.

The vision Mark Regnerus paints of marriage — his preferred kind — doesn’t look like reality for the vast majority of evangelicals. Many of them try hard to conduct their marriages by those rules. They set up the husband as breadwinner, and the wife as homemaker — if possible. If their finances won’t allow it, then the wife works outside the home and afterward takes on the second shift of homemaking while her husband relaxes with his favorite hobbies and pastimes.

Regnerus specifically describes both of these situations with praise in his post. And his couples love it. They declare that it completely works for them. His “Rachel” sighs happily:

“I think men are meant to be the providers,” Rachel said. “You know that’s kind of what they’re designed for.”

He praises a Polish couple, Pawel and Marta, for marrying young and poor:

One Polish family in my study serves as an example. Pawel, 24, and Marta, 29, are a recently married couple living in Krakow. Marta is a full-time mother to their one-year-old daughter, while Pawel is in the middle of graduate studies in philosophy at a nearby university.

Of course, he never reveals how these two churchmice actually support themselves. He only tells us that their lives are “hardly simple.” He also informs us that in Lebanon,

When [women] do marry, they seem to work more, not less, since the cost of living in Beirut outpaces salaries. Spare time is swamped with domestic responsibilities.

And again, he never reveals how these women feel about doing all this work, or how their husbands make space for their wives’ extra load.

Instead, TRUE CHRISTIAN™ couples each joyfully give 100%. They never ever fall out of balance. Nobody ever misbehaves.

I cringe to imagine couples taking this advice and thinking it works in Reality-Land.

The Fix Becomes Easy.

If one’s vision of marriage relates almost not at all to the situation on the ground in right-wing Christianity, and if the problems seen in it don’t actually relate to what these couples experience nor what people as a whole experience, then the solution can be as simple and easy as anybody pleases. I’m just surprised Mark Regnerus didn’t include unicorn dust and fairy wings as ingredients in his potion recipe.

The hilarious thing is that if ESFTH is the problem, then he can’t solve it.

He can’t stop secularism, because well, um, that’s the law. He’ll never stop TRUE CHRISTIANS™ from using technology and relying upon it. He’ll never convince women to enter unequal relationships with men who’ll take advantage of them and dump them with all the work. And he can’t stop people from turning heathen, because his religion lost its powers of coercion a couple of decades ago and will never get it back.

So instead, Mark Regnerus concentrates on telling his tribe to Jesus harder. It’s just comical to see him scramble to find ways to totally fix this problem that he cannot possibly shift even one inch.

Predictably, his advice runs along a few dank culture-war alleys.

1) Get Married Young and Poor, DAMMIT WOMEN.

Then Regnerus presents that young Polish couple who married poor and are totes happy now and doing great financially. In fact, he lauds these two with the highest praise imaginable in his circles:

But she and Pawel were convinced that there’s far more to the good of marriage than satisfying friends and neighbors [with a fancy wedding]. [. . .]  Their life together, while hardly simple, reflects a confidence in their Maker that eludes many of their peers.

D’aww. Let’s not tell this dipstick that divorce laws in Poland are really ickie. Nor that domestic violence is perceived as a huge problem there. Poland literally just changed its laws regarding rape a few years ago to make addressing it slightly less traumatic and dangerous for the women victimized that way. YES IT IS TOTALLY SUCH A HAPPY COUNTRY WE SHOULD ALL WANT TO EMULATE!

At no point whatsoever does Mark Regnerus engage with what other sociologists — real and way better ones than him — have found regarding marriage under these terms.

  1. Getting married young is the ultimate predictor of divorce.
  2. Poverty might be the #1 runner-up predictor of divorce.

Those two facts might be responsible in large part for exactly why evangelicals have such a high divorce rate compared to other religious groups. They marry young, and they don’t tend to be well-educated or wealthy people. Worse, their tribe keeps them well away from good conflict-resolution skills — and contains no mechanism for correction if men refuse to live up to their side of the contract made.

Mark Regnerus, like his tribe of right-wing Christiansdoesn’t care even a little about those facts.

2) Stop Screwing Around Before Marriage, DAMMIT WOMEN.

Undeterred by either the facts around divorce or Poland’s ickie human rights record regarding women, Regnerus swiftly moves on to chide Christian women for having unapproved sex, which he thinks will totally make men not want to marry them later.

He might be right — about right-wing Christian men. They’ve all bought into rhetoric like what he spoon-feeds them. Seriously, I’ve heard them. They cite pseudoscience research like his all the time and declare that they’d never ever marry women who’ve had previous partners. They talk about “pair-bonding” and whatnot like they actually have any idea how it happens (or even what it is).

Mark Regnerus sings to them the song of their people. HOW MEAN it is of SOME MEN to LEAD ON these virtuous sweet Christian women who just wanna get mawwied:

For many Christian women, this dynamic puts them in a familiar double bind: Do I prematurely sleep with a man who shows considerable promise, or do I say no and risk the probability that he may leave me for someone who will?

We’ll ignore that I’ve seen a ton of Christian women’s blog posts regarding just how sex- and appearance-focused their community’s men are toward women. Many Christian men demand sex on the first date — and insta-dump women who won’t provide it. And most of these men seek only conventionally-beautiful, thin women. One young Christian woman I encountered wrote a heartbreaking post in 2014 about navigating that culture while fat. Six years later, she’s probably still waiting for a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ husband.

3) Stop Expecting So Much of (Right-Wing Christian) Men in Marriage, DAMMIT WOMEN.

Third, Mark Regnerus thinks that women today — even right-wing Christian women — just expect way too much out of the men in their groups regarding marriage. He quote-checks one of the worst stealth-evils of evangelicalism here:

Tim Keller, author of The Meaning of Marriage, is also skeptical of this turn. “Simply put,” he writes, “people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.”

Yikes! Poor Tim Keller’s wife! See, Mark Regnerus and Tim Keller both subscribe to a notion of marriage that requires inequality between partners — and low expectations of the men of their tribe. Regnerus writes:

Matrimony has long depended on an exchange based on inequalities between the spouses: He needs what she has, and vice versa.

Many balk at this notion. “If the basis of marriage is specialization and exchange,” wrote the late UCLA demographer Valerie Oppenheimer, “then marriage seems an increasingly anachronistic social form.”

Indeed. And Regnerus can’t cope with that:

But marriage is what it is. Demand too much from it, and you will be disappointed. All of our social, cultural, and legal efforts have not fundamentally altered the nature of the union. [Citation needed. — CC] Marriage isn’t changing. It’s receding. In an era of increasing options, technology, gender equality, “cheap” sex, and secularization [Ah! those ickie ESFTHs — CC], fewer people—including fewer practicing Christians—actually want what marriage is. That’s the bottom line.

So I guess, um, people just need to start wanting what his vision of marriage involves: inequality between partners, solidified and ossified by law to force men and especially women to remain there, and all of it functioning as a prop to evangelicals’ real idol: male privilege.

Don’t Worry: Team Jesus Will Totally Win This Fight.

It amazes me how often right-wing Christian pseudo-researchers study something, discover it really makes their tribe look awful or indicates serious decline for them, and they zip right around to declaring — completely without evidence or basis in reality — that actually all that research means that their tribe will totally come through and vanquish all its enemies. Mark Regnerus doesn’t bust that c-c-combo, either:

Despite all this bad news, though, there is reason for hope. The oak will not perish. In fact, marriage will increasingly become “a Christian thing,” which means the church will bear increasing responsibility for an institution with an uncertain future.

Hilariously, he thinks this way because Saint Augustine totally defined “three goods” that consist of “fidelity, children, and a sacred bond.” Even though none of those “three goods” is uniquely Christian and Regnerus knows and freely admits exactly that, he thinks that right-wing Christians, with their supposed focus on those three goods that are not at all uniquely Christian, will somehow come to define marriage as a uniquely Christian construct.

Yes, that was Mr. Totally a Scientist leaping from “these traits aren’t uniquely Christian and even I know that” to “our tribe’s marriage model will come to dominate society because we focus on these traits.”

Also, it’d super-suck for him if it turned out that right-wing Christians don’t actually laser-focus on those “three goods.”

They ain’t taking one for Team Jesus any more than ESFTHs are.


Regnerus then offers three suggestions for saving marriage.

  1. “Studying and fostering the social conditions that help enable marriage. That includes the role of parachurch organizations.” (Translated: Buy Mark Regnerus’ books.) He offers no tangible ideas here, but he seems to be urging church-adjacent groups to do more to match up their singles.
  2. Encourage single TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to Jesus super-hard and not worry about finding spouses, because ain’t that always the way it works? The minute you stop looking for your TRUE CHRISTIAN™ car keys, they pop into sight a minute later on the doorstep.
  3. Stop “idolizing and idealizing marriage.” In other words, women need to stop expecting to find respectful, loving husbands who’ll treat them right and make them happy. Cuz they won’t. (At least, not in right-wing Christian culture.)

Y’all hear that? Jesus the Jesus Jesus in the Best Most Correct-est Jesus Way, and you will totally turn this ship around! Everyone will see the word marriage and think WOW, those TRUE CHRISTIANS™ sure do it right! We should check out their religion!

Totally the Key to A Healthy Society!

He finally and mercifully signs off by declaring, completely without citation or evidence, that marriage represents the main method through which “the West” totally succeeded where other societies, presumably Eastern ones, did not:

By now, the West is living off the fumes of countless sacrifices that husbands and wives, mothers and fathers have been making for many decades. We know that those committed marriages are key to a healthy society. [We do? Citation please! — CC] But we’ve lost sight of the fact that marriage is in many ways a corporeal (and spiritual) act of mercy not just to our own spouse and children but to the world beyond our household. The West’s successes have been built upon this family social structure, and dismantling it will leave us far more vulnerable and psychologically unmoored than we realize.

Let’s not tell him that America isn’t actually anywhere near the greatest country in the whole world when measured on a variety of functionality markers, and especially not that right-wing Christians actually destroy any community and country they come to dominate. Dude thinks Poland totally nailed marriage, FFS.

YouTube video

The iconic scene from “The Newsroom.”

It’s downright ickie to imagine marriage as “a corporeal (and spiritual) act of mercy” to one’s spouse, but again, non-right-wing-nutjobs don’t think of marriage as a fixed contract between two unequal people. 

Inequality as a Necessary Fact of Life.

It really says something about Mark Regnerus that he’s gone the route he has and made these suggestions. His entire lifestyle — and by projection that of the people supporting his work — depends on women accepting inferior status and allowing men to rule over them. It depends on couples marrying way too young and having no choices about staying together.

And most of all, Mark Regnerus’ conceptualization of marriage completely and absolutely depends on everyone in the group accepting that men need more leisure time and comfort than women.

But social forces conspire against him. Marriage is in fact evolving — and we’re moving way past anything right-wing Christian men can offer or even fit into.

When Mark Regnerus talks about people expecting too much out of marriage, he means women are starting to expect too much out of right-wing Christian men. And so on down the line of his reasoning. Like his peers, Mark Regnerus has always designed everything he writes to buttress the complementarian ideal that culture-warriors love so much.

Stop! Or They’ll Say “Stop” Again!

But you know what you never ever see?

Christians as a group changing anything they’re doing just cuz someone said they should.

Like everyone else, they perform a cost-benefit analysis of their life decisions, though they often allow pie-in-the-sky thinking to influence them too much.

Consequently, I’ve seen many hundreds (if not more) screeds from Christians telling the tribe to Jesus harder, but I’ve never actually seen anybody convince the tribe to do so. They know it doesn’t benefit them to obey — and nobody can force them to obey. Sooooooooo……. they don’t!

Thus, marriage will continue to evolve as ESFTHs continue to marry and as couples in and out of the sheepfold negotiate their relationships to their own liking. And TRUE CHRISTIANS™ themselves sure won’t change to an extent that would even register on the radar of that evolution.

NEXT UP: The allure of weird religion. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...