The Best Defense is a…Middle-Market Newspaper Article from 2004

Prince Carl-Philip and Princess Sofia believe in binding ties.  (source)

Last month I had the pleasure of visiting Stockholm over a long weekend, and the city was positively abuzz with marriage. Sure, there was the royal wedding featuring Prince Carl Philip, Duke of Värmland, and Sofia Hellqvist that weekend, which drew much interest and caused parts of the city to be shut down for the festivities. But the ado about weddings wasn’t limited to the hustle and bustle of rubbernecking tourists and television crews in the inner city—that same day Stockholm’s famous Skansen outdoor museum hosted a drop-in wedding. A drop-in what, you say? Well, follow me like a leopard and find out:

Every year, in the month of June, Skansen celebrates the year’s most love-filled day. You are welcome to marry outdoors at the lovely Tingsvallen site on 13 June 2015 – and you don’t even need to book! The special ‘Wedding Entrance’ for couples wanting to marry is open from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon (10.00 – 15.00), but the ceremonies continue until everyone who has turned up before 15.00 has been married. The marriage ceremony can be held in English if desired.

Officiants are available for celebrating both civil and church weddings. Ceremonies take about ten minutes. There is a fee of 800 SEK for each couple.

In the wedding area you will find photographers, florists, make-up artist, nail stylist, and many other services. There is also a Champagne bar where you can buy drinks and couples can choose music in the song tent. Skansen’s fiddlers perform on the dance floor at Bollnästorget. Skansen’s restaurants have special wedding menus and people who want to enjoy the fresh air can order a picnic basket. Coffee and strawberries are also available. And there are special activities for children.

drop-in wedding

Drop-in wedding at Skansen.

I don’t know how many couples participated that day, but there were long lines of them. While I am sure that some feel that such festivities violate notions of wedding decorum—e.g., it ought to focus on a single couple, be months in the planning, and cost the bride’s family a fortune—the drop-in wedding was a festive occasion, the backdrop unmatched, the weather unusually good, and it was a great bargain to boot: 800 SEK (about $90) for the ceremony, plus whatever other services were used—try getting a better deal anywhere in Scandinavia!

Defense of marriage cover

August 2015 Ensign cover

Fast forward a month, and (the absence of) Scandinavian marriages have arrived on US shores with a 2004 USA Today article titled “Nordic family ties don’t mean tying the knot” making the rounds in Utah-based media, pressed into service as a talking point in Mormon efforts to defend marriage. I first noticed the reference in the August 2015 “defense of marriage” issue of the Ensign as the source of a statistic cited by Elder Bruce C. Hafen in his article “The Proclamation on the Family: Transcending the Cultural Confusion”:

In parts of Scandinavia, 82 percent of firstborn children are born outside marriage.

Then the same statistic from the same article cropped up on Tuesday in a Desert News column pointing out “What defenders of traditional marriage may be forgetting”:

In Scandinavia, 82 percent of firstborn children are born outside marriage.

That this well-seasoned article would surface twice in quick succession in the sea of information at our fingertips is quite remarkable. Why are prominent authors in the Ensign and Deseret News hanging their hats on an eleven-year-old article from USA Today? Let me venture a guess. First, the authors of the DN column are likely Ensign readers, and Elder Hafen simply put the the statistic and its source back in circulation. Second, the cited statistic appears to neatly justify concerns expressed in both publications about the direction of society:

Ensign: “the children of divorced or unwed parents have about three times as many serious behavioral, emotional, and developmental problems as children in two-parent families. By every measure of child well-being, these children are far worse off. And when children are dysfunctional, society becomes dysfunctional.”

DN: “The largest threat to our society and to our economy is not the way people define marriage, but how enthusiastically and committedly they participate in it. Sadly, and particularly among the millennial generation, fewer and fewer get married while more and more choose the lower-commitment option of cohabitation.”

With this statistic carrying so much water, I decided to go ahead and read the article from whence it came. As I suspected, a little context goes a long way. Here are some excerpts:

In the USA, the percentage of children born to unwed mothers has more than tripled since 1970. But there’s still a stigma in the USA for women who have a child out of wedlock. Not so in the Nordic countries.

Traditional households headed by male wage earners have waned, giving way to everything from single-parent households to families that combine the children that parents have had together and with other partners.

In turning away from marriage, Scandinavians have done little to harm their quality of life. Norway ranked first and Sweden second in the United Nations’ quality-of-life survey for 2004, which rates per capital income, education levels, health care and life expectancy in measuring a nation’s well-being. The USA came in eighth.

Scandinavian people tend to see American views on marriage and children as conservative at best and hypocritical at worst, pointing out the high divorce rates in the USA.

Social welfare policies in Scandinavia treat all parents the same, married or not.

In Scandinavia, there is no “family values” debate, no soul-searching for ways to reverse the upward trend in divorces and separations. Instead, “the discussion has been more focused on how can we help people who want to split up? How can we make it easier for single parents?” she says. “It’s not that the government encourages it. They adapt to make it easier for single parents, single mothers.”

Of course, there is some concern among Christian groups about the shrinking number of married couples in Scandinavia. Some critics have raised questions about the impact on children of these relationships.

There is little religious pressure to get married. Even though there are state churches in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, few people go. Church attendance in Sweden, for example, is just 7% for men and 11% for women. (In the USA, 59% of people say they go to church or synagogue at least once a month.)

Unless society is defined narrowly in terms of Sabbath observance and wedding vows, that doesn’t sound dysfunctional to me. But you don’t have to go with my assessment or rely on a decade-old newspaper article for an argument; you—as well as the authors of well-researched articles appearing in the magazines and newspapers of record—can go right to the source of data on Swedish families and society (in English even!): Statistics Sweden.

Under “Population Statistics”  you could find information on, for example, the “Number of persons by type of household, household status and sex” and discover that Swedes tend to live together in consensual unions, marriages or a registered partnerships. You could try to estimate the impact of unmarried parents on their offspring by looking at the living conditions of children and their families or viewing the results of surveys of children including their relationships with parents and friends and their health.

I believe you will find that the apocalypse is being ushered in elsewhere. As a former BCC perma and long-time resident of Scandinavia observes, “most of these children are born into legally-recognized households, not short-term hookups.” Just as the headline of 2004 article claims–Nordic family ties don’t mean tying the knot. Regardless of the marital status of their parents, children overwhelmingly report getting along well with their mothers and fathers, who have time for their children and allow them to take part in decisions that affect them. Swedish children overwhelmingly report being in good mental and physical health and believe they will live a comfortable life. In the absence of the blessing of the church and state, families still form ties and society still functions pretty well, in some respects likely even better than in the United States.

Now, it could very well be that the United States with its unique constellation of circumstances would be dysfunctional without its still relatively strong religious traditions and stigmatization of unwed mothers and children born out of wedlock. And maybe Sweden would be even better off if marriages played a greater role in establishing family relationships. But the Scandinavian experience suggests that family gate keeping–whether performed by civil or religious authorities–is not a universal glue necessary for holding society together. In fact, defending families in the sense of facilitating healthy relationships among relatives could be a function of practical public policies more so than principled positions on proper procedures.

Still, even if things appear to be muddling OK without widespread participation in the institution, the Scandinavian marriage is not yet facing extinction. Royal and drop in weddings may not be  representative of the state of matrimony in Mother Svea, any more than the orphan statistic cited in the Deseret News and the Ensign is indicative of the big picture, but lawful unions in Sweden are actually on the rise:

Marriages in Sweden_2011-2014

So that ought to give those of us who find value in marriage encouragement, and I hope that the fruits of Scandinavian family-related practices will prompt us to think harder about what factors allow the family to flourish as we move forward to defend it.

Comments

  1. Absolutely superb, Peter. A great, careful, well-presented set of observations that make the argument entirely on their own. Bravo!

  2. Thank you, Russell.

  3. Rosalynde says:

    Peter, I agree that it’s pretty weak to have this old USA Today article circulating as if it were sufficient evidence on its own. Especially because there *is* contemporary evidence to make the argument that social conservatives want to make about the overall health of marriage — lots of it is compiled in the last appendix to the notorious amicus brief submitted pre-Obergefell by conservative scholars. http://www.supremecourt.gov/ObergefellHodges/AmicusBriefs/14-556_100_Scholars_of_Marriage.pdf

    As you acknowledge, on social issues Sweden is a flawed crystal ball for less developed, less wealthy, more diverse, and more individualistic populations. Anybody who knows how to Scandinavianize the world, please raise your hand! If you look elsewhere in Scandinavia, you will see different outcomes — different-sex marriage rates have dropped in the Netherlands since adopting same-sex marriage, for instance. Looking beyond Scandinavia to Spain, the heterosexual marriage rate has dropped quite drastically since both liberalizing divorce and adopting gay marriage. These examples are also cherry-picked, of course. When you look more closely at individual countries, you’ll also find that overall rates mask starkly divergent regional trends — something we’re familiar with here in the states, where marriage has collapsed among certain populations while remaining relatively healthy among others.

    It’s a tricky question to tackle, no doubt.

  4. Rosalynde, it’s unclear to me why the presence of gay marriage would lead to a decline in heterosexual marriage. The connection between the two has never been firmly established in my mind.

  5. Rosalynde says:

    Steve, you are clearly not alone in your sentiments! :)

  6. There is a lot of ruin in a civilisation. No reason to assume things will always be rosy in Sweden or elsewhere were society had become so politically polarized that something as foundational as marriage is now “conservative”.

    The Book of Mormon plainly shows that with 4 or so generations the fruits of turning away from the plain truths of God will become bitter indeed.

    Consider how each generation will raise their children and so on. What makes us who we are? Can you fundamentally alter your family upbringing and still expect to be the same? And your children? And their children?

    In more ways than our approach to marriage, I have often thought we are consuming the fruits of generations, cutting down proverbial forests, and the future generations week pay a price.

  7. The Book of Mormon does show that. But in the Book of Mormon it’s not marriage or the lack thereof that causes the problem. It’s how the people treat their poor. Sweden’s doing much, much better in that department than the United States.

  8. MikeInWeHo says:

    The Book of Mormon sure seems to support Scandinavian-style social policies, as Tim points out above. Anybody who has spent time in these countries has seen that conservative American political arguments are a big can of surströmming.

  9. The United States government and citizens can learn much from other countries.

  10. John Mansfield says:

    Trying my hand with “Families with children and young persons aged 0-21 and average number of children per family by the child’s age, type of family and the mother/fathers country of birth (Sweden/abroad),” I find that in 2013 there were 204,601 children 13-17 born to Swedish-born mothers and fathers, and in 2008 there were 286,808 children 6-12 born to Swedish-born mothers and fathers. A loss of over a quarter of that cohort from Sweden’s population in just five years is highly unlikely. Can anyone explain where I am going wrong in querying the database?

  11. 13-17 is five years, while 6-12 is seven years. That explains the difference.

  12. How we treat the poor and the behavior of the poor is a product of how we are raised, is it not?

    How does a godless (ie. Non religious), entitled approach to an increasing portion your neighbors income play out over the span of generations?

    Remember the poor zoramites were also commanded to repent of their hard hearts and unbelief in the Savior. The poor must also be taught to behave a certain way and are not a trump card to escape correction.

    The problem with many of these programs is they all depend on capitalistic growth rates to sustain the public debt and eventually you run out of other people’s money when growth slows down as it inevitably must (Europe is starting to see this, the answers of inflation through monetary policy, higher taxes, our budget cuts are not pretty). How will many of the poor respond if their programs were cut off tomorrow? Does that give you a clue to what’s in many hearts? Could that be changed by successful families? Again, consider over the generations the impact… the solution? Raise families across generations by teaching them to look to God and live (which of necessity implies serving as well)

    Why latter day saints think they can bracket this truth and not lead to the marginal degradation of generations is beyond me considering how much we ought to understand about the generations of our families across time.

  13. Jack Hughes says:

    Good points. It frustrates me whenever the strident conservatives in my ward start disparaging Scandinavian countries as socialist, atheist, etc. while trying to prop up the USA as “God’s country”. Their privilege blinds them to the fact that our politicians and business leaders are constantly finding creative ways to unfairly tax, penalize and dis-incentivize families; meanwhile, our Nordic brothers and sisters have policies that clearly demonstrate that supporting families and the good of society are priorities, irrespective of what certain cherry-picked statistics may indicate.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    And citing statistics and infographics from USA Today is the academic/journalistic equivalent of submitting a resume to a potential employer in Comic Sans font.

  15. John Mansfield says:

    Thank you, Jack Hughes, for identifying my error. Maybe I’ll be able to learn something from this data source without another such mistake halting me. The problem will be the subtle mistakes that don’t halt me, but let me go on in error.

  16. Geoff - A says:

    ac, Some how after years of caring for the poor, and without the dubious benefit of capitalism, the scandinavian countries have lower debt to gdp ratios than the USA. Perhaps theirs is a sustainable system. Perhaps their form of socialism is more sustainable than US capitalism.

  17. How we treat the poor and the behavior of the poor is a product of how we are raised, is it not?

    Sure, that’s part of it. Do you think the poor and those who treat them are less well off in Scandinavia due to their low rates of church attendance?

  18. Rosalinde, your “different-sex marriage rates have dropped in the Netherlands since adopting same-sex marriage” is true, however shown in context (what this article is all about) it will show that such drops have happend before, not related to Same-Sex Marriage. Just like Sweden, The Netherlands also have open data, See here for example: http://statline.cbs.nl/Statweb/publication/?DM=SLNL&PA=37772ned&D1=0-4,35,38&D2=a&HDR=G1&STB=T&VW=T

    See here for a graph I created on the fly: http://i484.photobucket.com/albums/rr205/SuHwak/Mariages_zpss3c5j6sw.png

    So as you can see, mariages have seen similar drops before, and the number of SS mariages is pretty insignificant compared to the man-woman mariages.

  19. Geoff - Aus says:

    you have written this post, which I think questions the accuracy/application of these out of date figures in Bro Hafens, Ensign article.
    Would you or someone else please write a blog questioning the basic assertions of the article (especially as this is one of two) which seem to me to be; that individual human rights have to be balanced against Social interests, that that balance was right about 1960 to 1970, and isn’t now.

    Historically, laws maintained a workable balance between social interests and individual interests because each element plays an important role in a healthy society. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. courts began to interpret family laws in ways that gave individual interests a much higher priority than social interests, which knocked the legal and social system off balance.

    So who have improved their position since then, women, racial minorities, and gays. Who has lost as a result, white males?

    A story. in 1968 my wife got a job as a private secretary to a manager in a multi national company. After a couple of months the manager came up behind her, rubbed against her and put his hands on her breasts. She fought him off and went to see human resources, who told her she must be very good at her job because he doesn’t usually wait this long, that there was no point complaining, one woman did and she was sacked. So my wife resigned. This was acceptable back in the good old days. Hopefully not now

    One of the proofs that things are out of balance is that

    Domestic violence against women has increased, and poverty has shifted increasingly to children.13
    Like most of the other list he gives they are not signs that things are getting worse, but that they are now reported. Police didn’t recognise domestic violence as a crime then.
    The whole logic that society was better in the late 60 and now, because women, minorities, and gay have civil rights, society is going down the tubes, seems like a false concept. That it is in the official magazine of the church, as gospel/doctrine, should be questioned.

    As there is more of this to come next month will someone please question it!!!

  20. The whole logic that society was better in the late 60 and now, because women, minorities, and gay have civil rights, society is going down the tubes, seems like a false concept.

    I agree. Traditional structures suffer when the formerly powerless are empowered, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.