Marriage and Divorce Bill: Ugandan Religious Leaders are Making a Losing Argument

“It is clear, therefore, that for opponents of the Bill, conjuring up the presumed immorality of cohabitation or simply referencing a few Bible verses on Christ’s teachings on divorce will not carry the day.”

CHURCH WEDDING IN PROGRESS: As the debate over the Marriage and Divorce Bill rages on, the author laments the incoherence of opposition messages from the Ugandan religious leaders, and makes a strong case for marriage and family. PHOTO: Daily Monitor

CHURCH WEDDING IN PROGRESS: As the debate over the Marriage and Divorce Bill rages on, the author laments the incoherence of opposition messages from the Ugandan religious leaders, and makes a strong case for marriage and family. PHOTO: Daily Monitor

 

As the debate over the proposed Marriage and Divorce Bill rages on, a palpable unanimity among Ugandan religious leaders in opposition to the whole Bill has emerged. While this general aversion to the Bill is not particularly surprising, the different statements posited by the clergy to rationalize their opposition to the Bill are jumbled, inadequate, and arguably inefficacious.

A few examples will suffice. Commenting on the purpose of the Bill, Rt. Rev. Paul Ssemwogerere, Bishop of Kasana-Luwero Diocese, called the Bill “anti-Christian,” adding that the Catholic Church does not believe in divorce as a solution to marital problems and suggested that legally recognizing cohabitation is a precursor to legalizing prostitution. The Most Rev. Stanley Ntagali, chairperson of the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC), wants instead laws and policies that uphold the sanctity and inviolability of marriage, arguing that marriage can only be extinguished by the death of one of the partners. The Bishop of Masaka Diocese, Rt. Rev. John Baptist Kagwa, was plainspoken in his assessment, directly linking Judeo-Christian no-divorce philosophy with social policy, and calling upon Members of Parliament to desist from passing laws that contradict “God’s teachings.” The Daily Monitor reported that religious leaders in Tororo and Mbale see this supposedly ominous Bill as unbeneficial to the vast majority of Ugandans, and one that serves to simply distract from other pressing social issues like poverty and corruption. These clergymen want the whole “diversionary” Bill trashed. Then there is Bishop Kisembo of St. John’s Cathedral in Fort Portal who characterized the USh5 million given to MPs for facilitating constituency consultations as “wastage of public resources.”  Lastly, the Archbishop of Kampala, Dr Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, is not happy with the Bill’s appellation; he would like it changed to “Marriage and Family Bill.”

The incoherence of these messages is astonishing. In the face of a presumably well-organized support for the Bill, not having a superior messaging strategy is a recipe for failure. In this whirlwind of disjointed and competitive messaging, a sliver of information reaching the overwhelming majority of devoted Christians and Muslims is that divorce is religiously wrong, and thus, politicians should not pass any laws that may be construed to promote it. But this is a shallow and losing argument, primarily because it presupposes that every married Ugandan is religious, and seemingly disavows the reality of divorce or cohabitation. Such an argument is spurious and fairly easy to shoot down. A quick rejoinder can be put forward based on (i) the prevalence of divorce in Uganda, (ii) the duty of government to protect the individual rights of couples in marriages that have irretrievably broken down, and (iii) the obvious political and legal barriers to passing and enacting a divorce and marriage law that is wholly in sync with religious (e.g., Christian and Muslim) teachings while preserving the fundamental freedoms and rights of every Ugandan.

Better and Unified Messaging is Key

It is clear, therefore, that for opponents of the Bill, conjuring up the presumed immorality of cohabitation or simply referencing a few Bible verses on Christ’s teachings on divorce will not carry the day. The Religious Right in the United States is losing the battle over the question of gay marriage partly because their best argument is that gay marriage runs contrary to the Bible teachings, often eliciting strong accusations of bigotry and insensitivity to gay people. The winning argument, repeatedly fronted by the LGBT community, invokes the popular idea of the inherent freedom of every individual to love whoever he wishes to love. Predictably, gay activists in the United States are on a winning streak, and are now within reach of a constitutional redefinition of marriage. In a related example, the Religious Right have clearly won the abortion fight, in large part because of a laser-focused message that dwells not on biblical teachings and  subjective, uncomfortable questions of morality, but on the widely accepted idea that an  embryo (or fetus) is a distinct human organism in its earliest developmental stage and deserving of protection from harm. These two contemporary examples demonstrate the importance of appropriately calibrating one’s message in a political battle where each side of the aisle has a lot at stake.

It follows, therefore, that for religious leaders and opponents of the Marriage and Divorce Bill, clear-cut messaging is paramount. It is especially important that the Marriage and Divorce Bill is not reduced to a simplified notion of right versus wrong. To begin with, two important questions warrant consideration: (i) How prevalent is divorce in Uganda? (ii) What is the likelihood that Sections 140 through 161 will collectively diminish the institution of marriage and speed up the process of dissolution of Ugandan communities? While the first question merely satisfies our curiosity of an evidential problem, the second question is particularly important, because as I previously argued, the institution of marriage is likely undergoing an assault by virtue of the proposed Bill.

In Favor of Marriage

If it is established that with this Marriage and Divorce Bill, Members of Parliament are on a course that will lead to the eventual disintegration of marriage, then it is worth reminding ourselves of the importance of marriage, and why it is worth protecting. I believe a better argument should draw sharp, unambiguous distinctions on the importance of marriage viz-a-viz divorce and cohabitation (divorce and cohabitation have emerged as a major sticking point in this whole debate). The question, for me is, “what good is marriage?” I answer this question based on research data obtained around the world.

First, it is imperative that we understand what marriage is. Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson gave a concise definition of marriage in an important article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, saying, “Marriage involves: first, a comprehensive union of spouses [husbands and wives]; second, a special link to children; and third, norms of permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity.” A proper end of the marital act is children, and as such, marriage is a unique relationship. Research by social scientists in the United States and other countries around the world have produced unanimous consensus on why marriage is good for us and divorce is not. For example, men and women in their first marriages tend to be healthier and happier than their counterparts in every other type of relationship—single, widowed, cohabiting or divorced. They are also less depressed and anxious, and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Married adults are more sexually fulfilled, and are better parents, better workers, and less likely to be perpetrators or victims of domestic violence. In addition, marriage offers men a proper channel for their sexual energies (think about it: most men, left to their own fallen, animal instincts, would be promiscuous), allowing them to think and act for long-term goals rather than fleeting, short-term pleasure. Further, social scientists have reached the conclusion that married men are less likely to commit crime and more likely to hold down jobs. But the benefits of marriage do not end just with the spouses; marriage is particularly essential for the proper upbringing of children.

When we think of marriage as the bedrock institution around which Ugandan communities are organized and, writ large, around which the nation is organized, it becomes clear that protecting this cultural jewel is a worthy endeavor, particularly for the benefit of children. There is no doubt that families with children have always been, and still are, the engine that makes Ugandan communities work. How do children fare when their parents are divorced or cohabiting? The answer: terrible. Social scientists have determined that no matter the outcome being examined—the quality of the mother-infant relationship, externalizing behavior in childhood (aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity), delinquency in adolescence, illness and injury in childhood, early mortality, criminality as adults, sexual decision making in adolescence, school problems and dropping out, emotional health, and/or any other measure of how well or poorly children do in life—the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married. Divorced parents produce the next best outcomes. Even more striking was the finding that the results did not change whether the parents remarried or remained single while the children were growing up. Never-married women produced the worst outcomes [all of these statements apply after controlling for the family’s socio-economic status]. The take-home point: intact families (not just two parents, but a married mom and a dad) are better for children.

The logical conclusion from these research findings is clear: to guarantee the longevity of our communities, to protect the family—the indispensable engine that makes Ugandan communities work—it is critical that we protect marriage. Instead of making laws that encourage divorce and attract young adults to cohabitation, lawmakers should use their power and prowess to promote laws that strengthen the Ugandan family. For example, restrict the legal grounds for divorce (see Section 147 of the Marriage and Divorce Bill) to only adultery and cruelty. Also, why not attach some nationally guaranteed privileges for married couples? For example, if two married couples work different jobs to support their family, give them tax breaks on their payroll, or make them eligible for discounted health insurance, etc. Incentivizing marriage should be an underlying theme of any Marriage and Divorce Bill—we would not be the first country to do that! Lastly, Ugandan men need some encouragement and a reminder from their political and religious leaders of the importance of marriage and the reasons (see above) why sticking with your wife is a good thing, not only for your children, but also for community’s sake. When all is said and done, I believe these arguments are better and potent retorts that can be effectively deployed in support of marriage and the Ugandan family.

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