By Margaret Carlson's judgment, an American politician who renews his commitment to his wife and encourages his constituents to do the same compares unfavorably to an adulterous British royal and his mistress. The American's offense? Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tried to revive his constituents' interest in challenging a culture of divorce by choosing voluntary covenant marriage.
On Valentine's Day, Gov. Huckabee, and his wife Janet, with thousands of other couples in Little Rock's Alltel Arena, "upgraded" their marriage to covenant marriage status. Existing covenant marriage statutes establish a completely voluntary alternative to the standard "no-fault" divorce model. Couples who choose covenant marriage must complete marriage counseling before they wed and before they divorce. Additionally, divorces are allowed only after a set waiting period, usually following separation, and require justification unlike universal "no-fault." Huckabee's covenant marriage ceremony was intended to renew interest in covenant marriage in Arkansas and elsewhere. Huckabee has pledged to cut Arkansas's soaring divorce rate in half in ten years.
To Margaret Carlson, such idealism is an outrage -- literally. She termed it her "Outrage of the Week" on CNN's Capital Gang on February 19. With her usual mix of ignorance and snobbery (she couldn't resist mentioning that the Huckabees lived in a double-wide while the governor's mansion was renovated), Carlson argued in her syndicated column that Huckabee's a political huckster crassly manipulating moral issues in preparation for a potential White House bid. While Huckabee "flaunted his moral values... [in a] made-for-TV wedding" like Prince Charles's first wedding, "Charles and Camilla are likely to do a lot more than Mike and Janet for the institution of marriage, for the simple reason that their wedding is for them, not us."
To Margaret Carlson, any politician who voices the idea that the state ought to discourage divorce is an opportunist cashing in on the culture war. But Huckabee was just laudably drawing attention to a crisis that demands more coverage and discussion.
As an institution integral to any healthy society, marriage deserves much more legal protection than it receives today. The recent gay marriage battle is merely the "last stand" in a war ignored for decades. Huckabee sees that any solution addressing the divorce crisis must involve the law. Divorce rates are a function of both the culture and the law. No-fault divorce laws were a response to increased divorce rates -- justified as measures to remove the acrimony from the divorce process -- and a cause of many more. Allan Carlson of the Family Research Council cites research in the Journal of Marriage and the Family showing that 57,000 divorces a year nationwide are directly attributable to no-fault divorce.
In principle, voluntary covenant marriage legislation is an improvement and advances an important discussion. Such laws demonstrate states' disapproval of full, no-fault divorce and its ills. Marriage is undoubtedly troubled and even the most symbolic gestures on behalf of the state to shore it up are helpful.
Some states and activists are eyeing voluntary covenant marriage legislation. Three states have already adopted it in recent years and about half have considered it. The Indiana and Ohio state legislatures could take a look at it this year. That the author of the Louisiana law, Tony Perkins, is president of the Family Research Council ensures a degree of national attention and influence for such legislation in coming years.
But it is important to keep in mind that statistics and research show that voluntary covenant marriage is just a start to reducing substantially divorce rates. Only Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana have adopted such statutes. Covenant marriage has been optional in Arkansas since 2001, and from 2002 to 2004 only 768 couples out of almost 112,000 marriages chose it -- less than one percent. Consequently it is not surprising that the number of divorces hasn't declined (in fact, it increased by one percent in 2002 and then dipped by three percent in 2003). Arizona enacted its law in 1998. Since then divorce numbers have slightly varied: in 1998, there were 25,798 divorces, and in 2002, 25,896.
Voluntary covenant marriage is a worthwhile token, contra Margaret Carlson. But the law's proponents should recognize it as such and seek a more fundamental solution to the divorce crisis. Ultimately, this will require facing down no-fault divorce laws.