- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2000

Gen. Colin Powell moved America this last when he spoke of 2 million jailed Americans. "Two million convicts, not consumers… . So many of the problems we worry about go back to how we raise our children. We either build our children or we build more jails."

True, but how do we "build children?" It can only be within enduring marriages.

Sadly, only 42 percent of those aged 14-18 live with their married mother and father. Fully a fifth live with a divorced or separated single parent, and another fifth in a stepfamily. The rest are with never married or cohabiting couples.

In Wisconsin, children of divorce are 12 times likelier to be jailed than kids in a two-parent family and those living with a never-married single parent are 22 times more at risk. says the Heritage Foundation, in a landmark report, "The Effects of Divorce on America," by Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector.

A child living with a single mother is 14 times more likely to suffer serious physical abuse than those in intact two-parent families, twice as likely to drop out of school, 3 times as likely to get pregnant as teens and far more likely to commit suicide.

And girls living with a stepfather are at least 6 or 7 times more likely to be sexually abused, and may be 40-fold more at risk, than daughters in homes with a married mom and dad.

Therefore, it is time to put marriage on the public agenda to "build children."

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did so last fall, grimly telling 400 pastors, "Arkansas' divorce rate ranks as one of the highest in the nation. It's time to declare a state of marital emergency in Arkansas."

He became the first governor to call for "slashing the divorce rate in half" by the year 2010. How? Mr. Huckabee acknowledged, "There is a limit to what government can do. It cannot change the hearts and minds of men and women. But it can encourage churches, synagogues and people of faith to unite together to help people prepare for marriage. Today people spend more time preparing to get their driver's license than preparing to get married."

Therefore, he urged clergy to adopt "Community Marriage Policies" in every town, agreeing "that they will no longer be 'wedding factories,' blessing hundreds of marriages which might be doomed to fail before they begin." There are now 129 Community Marriage Policies in 37 states in which pastors jointly demand rigorous marriage preparation of at least four months including taking a premarital inventory and talking through the issues it surfaces with an older "Mentor Couple," plus training in communication and conflict resolution.

A premarital inventory can predict with about 80 percent accuracy who will divorce. More important, a tenth of those who take one, decide not to marry. Their scores are equal to those who marry and later divorce. So they are avoiding a bad marriage before it has begun.

At my church in Bethesda, my wife and I have trained 52 Mentor Couples since 1992 who have met with 292 couples considering marriage. About 50 broke their engagement. But, of those who did marry, we know of only six divorces in eight years, a failure rate lower than 3 percent.

In Community Marriage Policies, diverse clergy also agree to strengthen existing marriages perhaps with an annual retreat for married couples. And they pledge to restore troubled ones by training Mentor Couples whose marriages once nearly failed, to tell those now considering divorce how they overcame such problems as adultery, alcoholism or abuse.

The result? Gov. Huckabee noted that since the pastors of Modesto, Calif., adopted the first Community Marriage Policy at my suggestion, the divorce rate there plunged by 30 percent, and "in Kansas City, Kan., and its suburbs, by 35 percent in only two years." By contrast, U.S. divorces fell only 1.5 percent in 19 years.

More cities in Arkansas are now creating CMPs and Mr. Huckabee has invited my wife and me to meet with the state's religious leaders to accelerate the spread of these reforms.

The Heritage Foundation urged other governors to "promote" CMPs: "A well-executed Community Marriage Covenant project can save up to 80 percent of marriages headed toward divorce, reconcile more than half of the separated couples, and enable 80 percent of those in stepfamilies to be successful."

Heritage also urged Congress and states to "establish by resolution a national goal of reducing divorce among families with children by one-third over the next decade." It suggested creating "pro-marriage demonstration programs," a step taken by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who has committed $10 million of surplus welfare funds. Finally, Heritage called for an end to "no-fault divorce" for parents with children under age 18.

Those running for office should make marriage a campaign issue. Married people are healthier, happier, wealthier, live longer and build happy children. Why not call for a Presidential Commission on Marriage to examine how to restore marriage?

What is important to clergy is that they can virtually eliminate divorce in individual congregations. Trained Mentor Couples can, in effect, put a "safety net" under every marriage.

Pearce Memorial Church near Rochester, N.Y., has had only one separation in two years among its 1,000 members. Christ Lutheran Church in Overland Park, Kan., with 1,500, has had only two divorces in three years. (To learn more, see the Website: marriagesavers.org.)

What God has joined together, churches can hold together. If only a third of the nation's 300,000 congregations each trained 10 Mentor Couples by 2010, there would be a million Mentor Couples who could clearly save half of 1.2 million marriages breaking up.

That's how to "build children" rather than to "build jails."

Michael J. McManus is co-chair with his wife, Harriet, of Marriage Savers and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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