Johnson County: America's first divorce-free zone?
At the climax of the insidiously entertaining movie, Pleasantville, the teen protagonist consoles his distraught, divorced mom on being dumped by her latest boyfriend.
“It’s not supposed to be like this,” she weeps.
“It’s not supposed to be like anything,” he answers.
Such is with what passes for wisdom in Hollywood. Indeed, Pleasantville’s producers can not even imagine an alternative to the chaotic world they inhabit, an America in which half of all first marriages and nearly two-thirds of subsequent ones end in divorce. As messy as this world may be, they find it preferable to what they see as the oppressive sterility of the nation’s idealized past, the 50’s, “Pleasantville.” In their cynicism they are hardly alone. Most people in the media, indeed most Americans, accept the nation’s divorce culture as unfortunate perhaps, but inevitable for sure.
But not everyone. In Johnson County, Kansas, church leaders have come to believe that divorce is much worse than unfortunate and much less than inevitable, and they have done something very nearly heroic about it.
At any given moment all 450,000 Johnson Countians seem to be in their SUVs, shuttling from sparkling new school to soccer practice to fast food joint and back to a home whose trees are no taller than the kids. In the cinematic imagination—in movies like Pleasantville, for instance, Ice Storm, or even ET--it is affluent suburbs like these that breed instability, immorality, materialism, and divorce.
About Johnson County, however, Hollywood could not be more wrong. While divorce statistics nationwide--and even on the Missouri side of the state line--have stayed depressingly constant over the last several years, divorce in this Kansas City suburb has plunged steadily from 880 cases in 1995 to 508 in 1998 (the last year for which official statistics are available), a 42% decline in just three years. In 1998 the divorce rate in Johnson County stood at a stunning 1.2 per 1,000 people, a figure half as low as the lowest state, half as low as the 1950’s American norm.
These numbers can not be written off to mere suburban bliss. St. Louis and Clay Counties, both comparable fast growing suburban counties in Missouri, have a divorce rate respectively three and four times as high as Johnson County’s. Nor does some implicit Kansas virtue account for Johnson County’s success. In Wichita’s Sedgwick County folks are five times more likely to divorce than in Johnson County; in rural Coffey County, twelve times. In fact, America’s Bible Belt suffers more divorce than any part of the country. That a largely Protestant county in its midst could do so well demands attention.
Although impossible to prove with any precision, the Johnson County phenomenon does have an explanation. 1995 marked the beginning of a conscious community-wide effort to eliminate divorce in a largely Republican enclave predisposed to cooperate. In that year, The influential, if often ill-advised, Reverend Robert Meneilly of Village Presbyterian Church recruited 18 churches and synagogues into a program called Marriage Foundations For Newlyweds. In 1996 the Reverend Jeffrey Meyers of Christ Lutheran Church organized an even more ambitious “Community Marriage Covenant.”
The Community Marriage Covenant is the brainchild of Mike McManus, whose Maryland-based organization, Marriage Savers, has helped communities across America shore up the institution of marriage.
As the Covenant works, a critical mass of pastors and rabbis in a given area agree to implement a comprehensive marriage saving program. The key to the program is the recruitment of couples from among a congregation to serve as mentors. After rigorous training, these mentors work with other couples to prevent inappropriate marriages, strengthen or save existing ones, and even reconcile couples that have separated. At too many churches, McManus says wryly, the pastor invites the abandoned spouse to the singles group with the unstated lure, “Hey, if your husband’s committing adultery, why not you?”
Meyers and his colleagues on the pastoral front lines take marriage seriously. When approached by couples seeking to wed, Meyers asks them point blank if they are looking for a “five year plan or a life long plan.” He refuses to marry couples who lack a firm commitment to the latter.
Despite the rigor of the program, couples are still choosing to marry at Christ Lutheran. With so many other churches participating in the Covenant—or implementing their own programs—Johnson Countians now have trouble avoiding pre-marital counseling. This is the gist of the community-wide Covenant.
One of Meyers’ key recruits has been the Reverend Leroy Sullivan who has helped spread the word into neighboring Wyandotte County, Kansas. Between them, Sullivan and Meyers have approached some 200 ministers and convinced about 50 to sign on. Tellingly, the numbers in the heterogeneous—a little bit country, a little bit R&B-- Wyandotte County have also declined significantly from a rate of 4.2 to 3.5 per thousand people over the three year period.
The Covenant has also generated considerable publicity. Thanks to The Kansas City Star’s zoned editions—“our megaphone,” says McMahon--most of it has been in Kansas. (This may partially account for the disparity between states). Nearly half of those couples who seek out Meyers’ church are not current members, and some have clearly sought it out because of what they have read or heard about the mentoring program.
For those couples who do choose to participate, Meyers offers “virtual marriage insurance.” He believes the program can increase a couple’s odds of a successful marriage from 50% of to 95%. These numbers might all just seem academic, as Meyers well understands, were it not for the devastating effects of divorce and single parenthood on children.
For years, Americans have comforted themselves with the cheery bromides dispensed by the media. A recent Sesame Street episode, for instance, has Kermit the Frog, as reporter, interviewing a little bird about her living habits. She plays in one nest with her mom, the bird tells Kermit, and another with her dad, and it is all OK, “because they both love me.”
Judith Wallerstein doubts that the children of divorce would buy Sesame Street’s warbling. As the architect of an extensive longitudinal study on divorce, Wallerstein had tracked more than 100 children of divorce over a 15-year period. Only when prompted to do a 25-year assessment did she realize how the specter of divorce haunts these childhood victims throughout their adult lives.
Wallerstein has long understood the immediate effects of divorce on the nation’s young: more depression, more learning difficulties, and more severe psychological problems; more tendency towards early promiscuity, drugs and alcohol; less marriage, more children out of wedlock, and more divorce down the road.
Still, Wallerstein had expected these young people “to rally.” What she discovered instead—as revealed in her new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce--is “that the whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience.” Some adapt to the experience better than others, but almost no one ever really recovers, even as adults.
Given the scope of the problem and the urgency of the task, Pastors Jeff Meyers, Leroy Sullivan and others have declared war on divorce and adopted, as Meyers describes it, an “in-the-trenches kind of ministry.” Indeed, if the war on divorce is ever won, the nation may one day look back and celebrate the Kansas experience as its Concord Bridge.
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