United We Divide:
The Convergence of Law, Politics, Theology, and Daily Life in the Production of No-Fault Divorce
By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.
In Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins, edited by Margaret McCarthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 131–52.
Divorce became a defining feature of American society during the closing decades of the twentieth century, with roughly half of all marriages being terminated by civil proceedings. Although this national breakdown in the marriage culture resulted from numerous factors, much of it was facilitated by the adoption of “no-fault divorce” legislation in the 1970s. This legal change in the divorce laws made it possible to get a divorce for any reason whatsoever, or no reason at all. Before no-fault divorce, family courts granted divorces only when fault had been demonstrated: if the husband was abusive, or the wife adulterous, and so forth. After the advent of no-fault divorce, assigning fault became irrelevant to family courts.
How did no-fault divorce become imaginable? How did it become legal? And, once legal, what has made divorce not merely possible but, in fact, probable? Both the origin and the ascendancy of no-fault divorce have complicated histories, but four factors go a long way toward explaining the rapid, and thus far persistent, decline of marital stability in America. Those factors center upon law, politics, theology, and daily life.
An Epilogue of Hope
Rare is the person whom God calls to redeem an entire culture. However, God does call upon each of us to serve as channels of His love to the people in our midst, particularly to those whom He has entrusted to our care through marriage and procreation. Even without the repeal of no-fault legislation, Christian spouses bear witnesses to God’s fidelity whenever they forgive and reconcile. Their example testifies to a wayward culture that marital permanency is more beautiful and fulfilling than its fashionable counterpart, divorce. Quietly living out their lives in mutual love, reconciled spouses seek not so much to make divorce illegal as to render it unthinkable. This transformative point of view is one of the greatest gifts that adults can give to the rising generation.
Policymakers may struggle in the coming decades to garner a coalition capable of effecting legal reform. Pastors may find themselves isolated even within “conservative” church bodies that no longer cherish the virtue of lifelong marital fidelity and no longer understand that forgiveness is divinely oriented toward reconciliation. Nevertheless, daily opportunities remain for those persuaded by the experience of fidelity. One marriage reconciled can make all the difference in the world to a man, a woman, their children, and their children’s children. And the rebuilding of one broken family, through forgiveness in Christ, can become part of a new foundation upon which the broader society can be reconstructed. Ultimately, the perpetual forgiveness and reconciliation that marriage requires of husbands and wives points beyond this world to the coming wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).