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Promoting Marriage

President Bush's marriage advocate, Wade Horn, believes your marriage can make a difference.

Wade Horn doesn't view himself or his ideas as particularly revolutionary. He'd say he's merely the promoter of an obvious prescription: Healthy marriages can cure all sorts of societal ills, and they should be promoted by government and advertised by happy couples.

When Congress last summer began updating 1996's welfare reforms, Horn took center stage as the Bush Administration's point man on marriage and family policy. The proposal: Spend up to $300 million a year encouraging couples to get—and stay—married, through tax incentives, access to counseling, and mass-media campaigns. The end result, he hopes, will be a lower divorce rate, fewer out-of-wedlock births, and, ultimately, fewer people living in poverty.

The idea that strong marriages build a strong society isn't exactly a revelation. But remember: This is Washington. Sometimes logic doesn't work here. The down-to-earth, 47-year-old Horn likes to joke that the length of a government official's title is inversely proportional to how much power he has. Then he rattles off his: Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Time magazine called him simply, "Bush's marriage guy." Under Horn's Theory of Titles, that's a much better reflection of the influence he wields. He's a child psychologist, worked on family policy in the first Bush Administration, and in 1994 helped found the National Fatherhood Initiative. In that role, Horn latched onto the lynchpin behind his current push: Strong, stable marriages improve children's well-being.

His own 26-year marriage to consultant Claudia Blair Horn (they met as undergrads at American University) provides a constant backdrop. He says the most important thing they've learned together over those years is that marriage is a lifetime commitment, with a lifelong responsibility to take care of each other. So it follows that he approaches his administration role with "a commitment to ideals and a focus on the needs of others."

There's also a measure of emotional gratitude to his approach, considering how close Horn's wife came to being a widow and his daughters came to growing up without a dad. In 1989, at age 34, Horn battled and defeated testicular cancer. His daughters, Christen and Caroline, were 7 and 4. Today, Wade and Claudia live in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with their daughters, now 20 and 17. The life-threatening experience, combined with a loving wife and family, helped Horn hold his career with a light touch—then and now.

"My marriage keeps me grounded in what's really important in life: my wife and kids," he says. "The rest is what I do, not who I am."

He also brings a refreshing, and unusual, perspective to Washington each day: He says what he believes, floats ideas that might offend some, and doesn't hesitate to admit when he realizes he's wrong. After all, once a guy's beaten cancer, how much is he going to be frightened by critics and bureaucrats?

"If there are groups out there that want to stand in the public square and tell the American people that marriage is a horrible institution that needs to be deconstructed, well, fine, it's America. They can do that," he says. "I just don't think that's a message that resonates with most Americans around the kitchen table."

A Broken System

First, a cultural snapshot: Ninety to 95 percent of Americans are married, have been married, or will be married, Horn says. Despite the drivel you may have read about the popularity of "starter marriages," most Americans aspire to one, lifelong marriage—not a series of marriages. And scholarly research is showing that marriage, by and large, makes people happier, healthier, and better off financially.

Now the bad news: America's divorce rate, while a little lower than it stood a decade ago, remains "unacceptably high," Horn says. Out-of-wedlock births are historically high. Most concerning of all to Horn is "a false impression by young couples that the best way to insure a long-term, lifelong marriage is to cohabit before marriage—to make sure they're right for each other." He's not just moralizing. Indisputable evidence shows that couples who live together before marriage stand a far higher chance of getting divorced.

So we can agree that marriage as an institution isn't as healthy as it should be. But should government be in the business of providing access to marriage counseling, through vouchers for either religious or secular agencies? And aren't conservatives such as Horn all about family values, but also about government keeping its nose out of those private matters?

Horn contends government is already involved in family life. "Except it's all involvement after marriages fail, or fail to form in the first place," he says. "We spend extraordinary amounts of money to pick up the pieces after a marriage has failed, or when a child is born out of wedlock. It seems to us not unreasonable to spend a little bit of money to try to prevent some of those things from happening in the first place.

"You want to talk about government being involved in the intimate affairs of life?" Horn asks. "Go get a divorce. You're going to have the courts and government agencies telling you when you can see your kids, how often you can see your kids, how much money you have to spend on your kids. That's pretty intrusive."

Marriage: The Next Generation

Washington policy aside, what can a happily married couple do to improve the state of marriage in our culture? Simple, Horn says: advertise. Be role models. The more good marriages young people see, the more a good marriage becomes the norm, not the exception.

"One of the things that drives young people toward cohabitation," he says, "is not a fear of marriage but a fear of divorce. And there's good reason to be fearful of divorce, because there are a lot of divorces out there. So the more models we have of successful marriages, the more our young people will understand that this is an attainable aspiration—something they can go into joyfully, as opposed to with great trepidation."

Next, Horn says, a happily married couple can support and encourage other marriages around them. Do you know a couple whose marriage is struggling? Encourage them to stick it out. Remind them that divorce introduces at least as many problems as it solves. And research shows that about 8 of 10 couples who persevere in "bad" marriages are much happier and rate their marriages as stable and happy just five years later.

In short, don't stay silent while we lose marriages that could be saved. That not only brings more pain to those getting divorced, it also sends a damaging message to kids: When marriage doesn't go so well, flee.

Instead, Horn says, couples can be real, honest role models for the next generation. We can do that by telling stories. Not myths, in which everything's perfect, and we never fight, and he never leaves up the toilet seat, and she never decorates the living room with teddy bears. But tell true stories about the ups and downs of any good marriage. Financial struggles. Date nights. Mother-in-law issues. Great sex. Sin.

"We need to let our young people know all of us have faced challenges in our marriage, that every marriage has conflict," Horn says. "It's a challenge, of course, but also a great joy for we who are in good, sustainable marriages, that we've overcome those challenges and conflicts."

One thing we need to debunk, Horn believes, is the mystical view of marriage. There's this idea, believed by some and reinforced by television and movies, that a good marriage is magic. That nobody truly understands what makes one marriage work and another fail, and that there really isn't much a couple can do but hope for the best. If things don't work out, well, then they just weren't meant to be.

Nonsense, Horn says.

"There's a lot you can do about it. And it's worth it to work through difficulties—because when you come out on the other side, you're often more deeply in love with your spouse than you were before. That's certainly been true in my own marriage."

The Political Game

Can public policy and money really change our culture's attitudes about marriage? And, in turn, can new attitudes about marriage decrease poverty?

While Horn admits he doesn't know, he thinks they can be two components, along with that intentional, grassroots promotion of marriage by happily married couples. He does know what he sees: a culture that devalues marriage and the traditional family a little more each day. And the fallout: broken marriages, broken families, broken hearts. So he believes the administration's ideas are worth a try, that they're not just experimental, as his critics say, but that they're based on reliable research.

Sure, there are distortions about what the new policies really would do—from advocacy groups' press releases saying Horn is a dangerous social engineer who'd threaten women's rights, to David Letterman and Jay Leno joking on late night television about the government running a matchmaking service.

But that's all part of the game in Washington, and Horn sees it as more of a sideshow. The initiatives got early support from influential Congress members of both parties—maybe because they listened to their constituents.

"This is much more controversial in media circles and at the hearing tables in Washington than it is around the kitchen tables in ordinary American homes," Horn says.

And to a guy for whom family means everything, the words spoken from those kitchen tables around the nation are the ones to which he's listening.

Jim Killam is a freelance writer and teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Commitment; Marriage; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2002
Posted September 30, 2008

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