This book arises from the “Sex, Marriage, Family, and the Religions of the Book” initiative sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. The Center uses international, interreligious, and interdisciplinary investigation to “take stock of the dramatic transformation in marriage and family life in the world today, and to craft enduring solutions to the many new problems it has occasioned.” (x) Witte and Ellison assemble an impressive range of religious and legal scholars whose essays explore historical and contemporary thought concerning marriage as a covenant. Contributors assume that marriage is a contract, but can also be more than a contract; this more than contractual bond is designated as covenant. In a contract, parties agree to carry out certain responsibilities specified in advance. If parties neglect minimum contractual obligations, punishments can be externally imposed by a legal authority. In a covenant, people pledge themselves not simply to particular tasks, but to a committed relationship that is open-ended and somewhat unpredictable. They are prepared to give beyond the minimal call of duty. Their fidelity is internally motivated; “they are morally as well as legally bound.” (17) As contributors Margaret Brining and Steven Nock put it, “Unconditional love strikes against the heart of contract law.” (268)
Following the editors’ introduction, eight chapters cover religious marriage traditions: Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Islamic. Some traditions, at various points in their history, have been preoccupied with contractual aspects of marriage more than its character as a covenant. Some traditions include trajectories which consider consecrated celibacy a purer expression of faith than marriage. And, these faith traditions have differed in practices regarding prenuptial arrangements, weddings, and divorces. Nevertheless, points of convergence are evident among ‘Religions of the Book’; all regard marriage as a contract, but also as more than a contract. All agree that marriage finds its purpose in God’s creation and commandments; all consider marriage a social institution impacting constituencies besides the married couple, and have created wedding rituals which involve these stakeholders; all value marriage as part of God’s plan for passing on the faith, especially to children; all see marriage as a reflection (or an experiential image) of God’s covenant with the faith community.
The remaining three chapters are devoted to legal and sociological analysis of ‘covenant marriage,’ available in Louisiana (as of 1997), Arizona (1998), and Arkansas (2001). The covenant marriage option in these states provides for “concrete legal pluralism.” (25) Couples who choose covenant marriage opt out of the standard marriage contract, with its “minimal formalities of formation and attendant rights to no-fault divorce.” (1) Instead, covenant couples participate in premarital preparation with a licensed counselor, publicly pledge a lifetime marriage, and relinquish the option of hasty no-fault divorce. While the three state covenant marriage statutes are not identical, they allow for divorce only for grave reasons such as adultery, abuse, or felony conviction—or, absent such grave reasons, after a waiting period longer than for standard divorce (2 years in the case of Louisiana). Before obtaining a divorce decree, covenant couples must demonstrate that they have taken “reasonable steps to preserve their marriage,” (246) such as counseling.
Since I live in Louisiana, I found the book’s discussion of covenant statutes especially informative. Currently, only 2 to 3 % of Louisiana couples choose covenant marriages; however, the low rate may be partly due to documented failure of Clerk by Courts employees to inform citizens of the option as required by law, coupled with neglect by many religious leaders to publicize the option (244-246). Chapters by Katherine Shaw Spaht and Peter Hay explain uncertainty regarding enforcement of covenant marriage for parties who move to non-covenant states or countries and subsequently seek divorce. Although ‘conflict of laws’ provisions have yet to be tested, I believe concrete legal pluralism in Louisiana, Arizona, and Arkansas provides a valuable, built-in occasion for engaged couples to discuss intentions for marriage, and possibly defer weddings if they discover their expectations are mismatched. For some couples, this conversation about licensing options may be the only significant marriage preparation they undergo. Thus, I believe government officials and ministers have a moral responsibility—not only in their leadership roles, but as concerned fellow citizens—to encourage couples to take this premarital discussion seriously. Using this book as a resource, counselors, teachers, and ministers from non-covenant states will find it a valuable exercise to have clients/ students/parishioners use covenant license statutes as a case study for examining their own presumptions about marriage. From a pastoral perspective, the reality of concrete legal pluralism serves as a “teachable moment”. It prods people who might not intuitively consider covenantal dimensions of marriage to ask themselves, “What is the purpose of marriage, and what investments and sacrifices am I willing to make for the sake of this relationship?”