Mark Oppenheimer, who works the religion beat for the New York Times, has a very frustrating feature-length piece about marriage and monogamy in today’s paper. He tackles the question of whether or to what extent the practice of nonmonogamy can be a realistic option for some married couples. I say “nonmonogamy” rather than infidelity because extramarital sex in this case would be governed by rules that were part of a marriage covenant. It would be open, not secretive, and with the partner’s consent.
The article’s main advocate for nonmonogamy is an uncredentialed sex columnist named Dan Savage. Savage, a gay married man and father of an adopted child, is responsible for the recent “It Gets Better” campaign on TV.
Everything Savage says isn’t terrible. He encourages married couples to be honest with one another about everything—especially their sexual needs and frustrations; to try to save a marriage even after an affair; and to put the interests of the couple’s children ahead of one’s own interests. In his own way—and this isn’t saying as much as I’d prefer—Savage is pro-marriage. And even as he advocates nonmogamy for some couples, he admits the arrangement wouldn’t work for most couples.
Of course, the question of why nonmonogamy doesn’t usually work from his perspective has nothing to do with the Creator’s intention for humanity and everything to do with unfortunate biological and cultural programming. Savage believes that if we human beings could only get in touch with who we really are, and stop repressing our natural drives and instincts, then we would be really happy. In the meantime, since the vast majority of couples seem stubbornly unable or unwilling to separate love from sex, monogamy will have to do.
Be that as it may, what frustrates me more is this larger question: Who cares what Dan Savage has to say about sex and marriage? I mean, plenty of people care, I’m sure, but why should they? Savage isn’t an expert on the subject. He has no credentials. He hasn’t studied it. He has no therapeutic experience working with couples. He can’t cite peer-reviewed research for any of his opinions.
And all of that is fine. We all have opinions, and—look at me—I’m expressing my own. Isn’t the First Amendment wonderful? But my opinions aren’t the subject of a 5,500-word article in America’s “paper of record.” And even if they were, why wouldn’t a journalist talk to actual experts who may (and probably would) disagree with me?
But even this isn’t mostly my problem with the article. I’m a pastor, not a journalist.† If you read the article, you would never know that most marriages (certainly the beginning of the marriage, which is the part that includes the vows) take place in the context of a church and a religion. Most people, therefore, even in our highly individualistic culture, reject the article’s underlying premise that the meaning of marriage and monogamy is up for grabs—that the boundaries of the covenant that couples enter into is (mostly) negotiable.
Since this is inarguably the case, wouldn’t it be helpful for the writer to bring up the subject of religion (aside from a quick glance at pre-marital counseling that clergy do and Savage’s religious upbringing)? What does the church have to say about marriage and monogamy and why? Why do most Americans seem to agree with the church on the subject, even while so many marriages suffer infidelity and end in divorce?
The article only reinforces the idea of a secularized world in which religion and God don’t matter to people anymore. This happens all the time in the media—not only in journalism, but in movies, TV, literature, music—throughout popular culture.
But pop culture, in general, doesn’t reflect reality—even as it helps to shape reality. This is why I’m happy to see those rare instances when something in pop culture takes religion seriously—even seriously enough to make fun of it. To act like it doesn’t matter to people is a terrible distortion.