April 7, 2003

Conference examines marriage, sex and the family

By Mary Loftus

A not-so-old friend returned to Emory March 29 to close out a conference that pulled together more than 70 scholars and some 600 attendees to examine two of the pillar institutions in human existence: marriage and family.

Rebecca Chopp, former Emory provost and current president of Colgate University, appeared in the closing panel discussion for “Sex, Marriage and the Family and Religions of the Book: Modern Problems, Enduring Solutions,” a conference held March 27–29 in the Emory Conference Center Hotel and sponsored by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion (CISR). Chopp was joined by Martin Marty, who next year will join the University faculty as Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor, to speak on “The Challenges of the New Century.”

“Family has never had one name,” Chopp said. “Family has never had a life in Eden. The greatest family value of all must be continual adaptation.”

Changes in U.S. family institutions parallel 20th century changes in Christianity, Chopp said, adding that central church bureaucracies are losing sway as Americans demand more local control in their faiths. Technology played a big role, as well; as contraception became more and more effective, it altered how everyone thought about sex, marriage and family.

The closing panel topped off an extremely successful—and relevant—conference, said CISR Director John Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Ethics. “It’s worth noting that there are three things most people will die for: their faith, their freedom and their family,” Witte said. “[A conference like this was] precisely what is needed to come to terms with both domestic culture wars and international military wars over questions that cut to the heart of our identities.”

Through lectures, panels and robust conversations, the three-day event (supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts) cut to the heart of many questions related to marriage and family. In his opening session March 27, current Woodruff Visiting Professor Don Browning, director of the Religion, Culture and Family Project at the University of Chicago, said the “unsettling forces” of modernization and globalization are disrupting families perhaps as much as wars, oppression and racial discrimination.

“Modernization and marriage cannot coexist unless modernity is in some ways curtailed and marriage is in many ways redefined,” Browning said, foreshadowing Chopp’s thesis that followed two nights later. “[Religion] must play a decisive role even today in the reconstruction of marriage and family ideals, as it has in the past.”

In their March 27 panel on “The Teachings of Nature, Religion and Tradition,” University of California-Berkeley sociology professor emeritus Robert Bellah and Frans de Waal, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior, agreed that, while private family units are often viewed as a cornerstone of humanity, the concept of society almost certainly evolved first.

Small “families,” as they are modernly defined, have existed for only about 200 years, Bellah said. Before that, at all levels of society, households were both public and private spaces. De Waal agreed and said that in both humans and other primates, survival of the group is paramount.

“Reproductive success drives evolution,” de Waal said. “The human family would not have come about if pair bonding and paternal care did not improve both male and female reproductive success.”

These panels were just a few of the conference offerings. Also debated was the very necessity and relevance of marriage itself, as Linda Waite (director of the Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago) and Martha Fineman (professor of feminist jurisprudence at Cornell University) argued for and against, respectively, the continued status of marriage as a privileged legal category.

In his address, Robert Franklin, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics in the Candler School of Theology, said the absence of fathers in African American families must become an urgent priority for communities and congregations.

“There is a 2,000-pound elephant in the room, but few are inclined to publicly acknowledge him,” Franklin said.

In all, some 35 sessions were held over three days, studying marriage from the perspectives of antiquity and contemporary society, of law and religion, of children and adults, of America and abroad, of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other faiths.

The conference concluded a two-year CISR exploration of sex, marriage and family, and this fall the center will begin another two-year project focusing on children, to be led by Marty.