The Family And The Unification Church Edited by Gene G. James

Crisis of Single Adults: An Alternative Approach - Michael L. Mickler


A year prior to the convening of the New ERA conference on "Family Values and Spirituality" in Jamaica in February 1982, a group of more than four hundred church leaders, including some of the best known and most active proponents of single adult ministries in the United States, met in Dallas where they attended workshops and general sessions designed to study the problems and challenges of ministry to single adults. The three day conference was called SALT I, "an appropriate name," according to Christianity Today, "for those who consider that the nuclear family was a bomb in the 1970s and that, as a result, single adults will continue to proliferate in the 1980s" (Maust, 1980). SALT I (Single Adult Leadership Training), the first national interdenominational gathering of its kind, is evidence of expanding single adult ministries in the United States since the mid-1970s, much of which had been popularized by Robert Schuller's Garden Grove (California) Community Church where single adult memberships rose from 200 to 1,300 in 1974-78. "SOLO Ministries," a division of SOLO magazine -- originally a publication of Schuller's Garden Grove Church -- was organized as a resource agency in 1979 and a year later planned SALT I. During that same period, SOLO magazine, a bi-monthly magazine aimed at "Positive Christian Singles," increased its circulation from 1,200 to 12,000 prompting some SALT I participants to speak of "a coming, larger 'single ministries' boom." One conference organizer asserted that the singles movement was "becoming as strong as Youth for Christ in the late 1950s and early 1960s" (Maust, 1980).

While such hype may smack of contemporary evangelical entrepreneurship, marketing singles as the newest brand of religious consumers (one only need refer to the sudden Christian growth industry of single pen pal clubs, tour groups and newspapers aimed at Christian single adults), SALT I, to its credit, also faced some of the hard issues of singleness. Foremost among these, at least at Dallas, was sexuality. Conference leaders recognized that many people join singles groups for "relationships with the opposite sex," and described those "looking for an accommodation for their promiscuity" (Maust, 1980). A 1979 survey conducted by one SOLO Ministries staffer of 203 formerly married and "born-again" Christian adults within a singles program in a large California church found that only nine percent of the men and twenty-seven percent of the women remained celibate after their divorces (Smith, 1979). Another hard issue was that of divorce, including the problem of "divorced persons who rush into a second marriage and find this relationship also on the rocks" (U.S. census figures report that 59 percent of second marriages versus 37 percent of first marriages fail. A final hard issue was the status of single adults in the churches. With the growth of single ministries, one perceived danger was that of "singles becoming self-centered 'in-groups'." Here, SALT I leaders made it clear they "were not building a church for singles." As one organizer put it, "We're the family of God, not the singles of God" (Maust, 1980).

While SALT I exhausted neither the possibilities nor the problems of single adult ministries, the very targeting of single adults raises questions of single identity in contemporary culture. I intend to explore some of those questions in this paper. In the first section, I will survey the contemporary situation of single adults in the United States. Utilizing U.S. Census Bureau statistics and psychological literature on single adults, I will profile America's single population and highlight the central ambiguity of the contemporary situation: that is, the discrepancy between increased social acceptance of singleness as a lifestyle and systemic psychological maladjustment among single adults. In the second section, I will locate the source of this discrepancy in the current inadequacies of the two predominant models of "being single"; namely, "nonvocational" singleness of modern culture and "vocational" singleness of the Western Christian tradition. In the third section, I will suggest that one appeal of the new religions which proliferated throughout the 1960s and 1970s involved creation of a viable single identity and lifestyle. Taking the Unification Church as a case in point, I will show how it has revitalized contemporary models of singleness while at the same time attempting to integrate "being single" and "being married" within an overall model of wholeness.

The Contemporary Situation

There is no question that the previously ignored single adult assumed a new visibility in the 1970s. There were two major reasons for this. The first and most obvious was the fact of increased numbers. According to the 1970 census, single people were one third of the adult population of the United States, if adulthood was defined as beginning at age 18. That is, out of 133,313,480 adults, 44,508,113 were living without spouses in 1970. By 1980, the number of single American single adults had increased to more than 50 million with nearly 20 million "non-family" households (people living alone or with an unrelated person) -- this latter figure a 66 percent increase since 1970. In terms of visibility, these figures are compounded in that single populations tend to congregate in major urban centers -- over one half of the total populations of Boston, San Francisco and Washington, DC; and over 40 percent of the total populations of St. Louis, New Orleans, Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles are single adults. Thus, by dent of numbers alone, single adults are a social force of considerable proportion. The other major reason for the new visibility of single adults in the 1970s was increased acceptability of singleness as a lifestyle option. According to anthropologist Herbert Passim of Columbia University: "For the first time in human history the single condition is being recognized as an acceptable lifestyle for anyone. It is finally being possible to be both single and whole" (Edwards and Hoover, 1974).

Despite increased numbers and acceptability, the contemporary situation of single adults is not without complexity and problems. In the first place, the single adult population of the United States is by no means homogenous but reflects a "kaleidoscope pattern of subgroups differing from one another as much as from married adults" (Davis and Coleman, 1977). At least four subgroups are clearly distinguishable: the "Never-Married" who were 22,379,107 in 1970; the "Divorced" who were nearly 5 million in the same census; the "Widowed" who were 12 million in 1970; and the "Separated" -- a catch-all category including couples separated, though not divorced for financial or other considerations, and those with spouses in the military, prisons or mental hospitals -- who were 2,763,044 in 1970. Besides the significant differences among the four subgroups, there are additional differences within each subgroup making any notion of "common-cause" highly unlikely. For instance, although 10 million of the "Never-Married" in 1970 were 18-21, the majority of whom would marry before the age 25-29, there were 6 million people forty and above who had never married and with whom the younger age brackets would have limited resonance. Gender is another differentiating factor with there being twice the number of single divorced women as single divorced men and five times as many single widowed women as single widowed men. Differing economic and social statuses further complicate the situation, rendering a diverse set of attitudes and perceptions that belie any simple or single-minded approaches to the "singles movement."

A review of the psychological literature on single adults also shows the complexity of the contemporary situation. Ironically, although the 1970s witnessed increased social acceptance of singleness as a lifestyle, research indicates limited self-acceptance among single adults, themselves. A 1975 Psychology Today article stated that: "All the married groups -- men and women, over thirty and under, with children and without -- reported higher feelings of satisfaction and good feelings about their lives than all the unmarried groups -- the single, divorced, or widowed" (Campbell, 1975). Other studies reached similar conclusions (Bradburn and Caplovitz, 1965; Glenn, 1975). Some studies equate singleness not only with lower rates of life satisfaction but also with higher rates of mental instability. Studies of both in-patient and out-patient mental institutions, for example, indicate that single adults are more prone to mental illness than married adults, and that single men are more prone than single women (Bachrach, 1975; Gove, 1972a). Maladjustment appears to be especially pronounced in the single male. In studies of the single community, single men are classified as more psychologically impaired (Srole, Langner, Michael, Kirkpatrick, Opler and Rennie, 1962), and experience more life stress (Uhlenhuth, Lipman, Baiterand Stern, 1974). They commit more suicides (Gove, 1972b), and have higher mortality rates (Gove, 1973). Research on marital status, according to one recent study, has led to two major theories that explain the data. The "selectivity" approach holds that maladjustment in the single population is the result of natural selection so that those who are emotionally unstable or maladjusted are less likely to marry. The "reactivity" approach holds that maladjustment is the result of the social role of singleness. Although the theories are not mutually exclusive, research lends greater support to the reactivity hypothesis (Thiesen and Cooley, 1979).

Whatever the validity of these theories, psychiatric research highlights the key ambiguity in the contemporary situation of single adults in America: that is, the ambiguity between increased social acceptance of singleness as a lifestyle and systemic psychological maladjustment among single adults, themselves. In the following section, I will locate the source of this ambiguity in the inadequacies of the predominant models of "being single."

The Identity Crisis of American Single Adults

The discrepancy between increased social acceptance of singleness as a lifestyle option and systemic psychological maladjustment among singles themselves is one symptom of the contemporary identity crisis of American single adults. Although this crisis affects all single groupings, a preliminary distinction must be drawn between those who are single by choice and those who are single by default. In distinguishing those who are single by default, I refer to those for whom singleness is a secondary, or unavoidable, lifestyle option. They may have wanted to marry, but didn't and think they have been passed over because they are not worth having. They may come to singleness out of a sense of guilt and failure over a broken marriage, or they may come in anger or feel useless and discarded after the death of a loved one. For all of these people, any identity crisis remains primarily on a personal level. For those who are single by choice, however, the crisis exists on a broader level. That is, it signities the current inadequacies of the two predominant symbol-systems for "being single": "non-vocational" singleness of modern culture and "vocational" singleness of the Western Christian tradition. I will locate the indemnity crisis of American single adults in these two symbol systems.

Non-Vocational Singleness: The Model of Self-Fulfillment

"Non-vocational" singleness is rooted, most fundamentally, in the ideal of self-fulfillment. Singleness, divested of transcendent meaning, offers itself as the lifestyle best suited to meet this overriding ideal. With values of individual freedom, self-expression and self-awareness, "non-vocational" singleness is a particularly modern phenomenon. It has two dominant expressions: libertine and ascetic. In its libertine mode, the thrust is toward an experiential dimension of self-fulfillment. Singleness, here, symbolizes unlimited possibilities. Specific images might include a plurality of "non-binding" relationships or travel opportunities, the goal being able to live a less repressed, more open, and aware existence. In its ascetic mode, however, the thrust is less toward experience and more toward success as a means of self-fulfillment. Repression, in fact, could be a positive value as singleness here affords the opportunity for a much more single-minded devotion to self-fulfillment, usually in the form of a career. Whereas the libertine model spotlights multiple and varied personal involvements, the ascetic mode of "non-vocational" singleness tends to cut off relationships as distractions, or worse, as implying the possibility of failure. Unlike the libertine who can chalk up failure to "experience," the ascetic is interested in only one possibility, that of success.

The key problem and source of the contemporary identity crisis of "non-vocational" singleness is that the surrounding culture has co-opted its basic values within competing symbol-systems. The question in the late 1960s and early 1970s became: "Why be single when one can have an open marriage?" In contrast with stable family patterns, "non-vocational" singleness, while not abandoning its primary ideal of self-fulfillment, functions to offer the wider society fresh possibilities and enduring monuments of achievement. Submerged in a culture of narcissism, it has lost all cutting edge. The resulting identity crisis has given way to fragmentation and surprising new forms. Libertines, for example, have embraced "the new celibacy" or, moving in the opposite way, have decided that bearing (or having) a child is indispensable to one's self-fulfillment and thereby bolstered the proliferating ranks of single-parent families. More ascetic types have "gotten it" at est or picked up a mantra as a means of realizing inherent creative potential.

Vocational Singleness: The Model of Self-Sacrifice

"Vocational" singleness is tied to the ideal of self-sacrifice rather than self-fulfillment. Singleness, here, is a symbol for the lifestyle best suited for offering oneself to God. With its traditional values of poverty, chastity, and obedience, "vocational" singleness is rooted not in modern culture but in the Western Christian tradition. It, also, has experiential and ascetic dimensions. For the mystically oriented person the thrust is toward experience, though in this case, religious experience -- traditionally, the variety of ways the self might be crucified with Christ. For the "lay" single, on the other hand, the thrust is less toward religious or mystical experience per se than toward missionary labor, church planting, service in behalf of the needy or oppressed and so on. Singleness, here, is a means to success, not in the sense of self-fulfillment but in the furtherance of God's work. In a similar way, external attachments are cut off, not for the sake of personal advancement, but for the sake of the Kingdom.

If the identity crisis implicit in "non-vocational" singleness is that its values have become those of the larger culture, the crisis in "vocational" singleness is just the reverse. That is, its values have been tied to the perpetuation of particular religious institutions and run the risk of irrelevancy. Traditionally, though upholding the ideal of self-sacrifice, "vocational" singleness functioned to offer the wider society examples of humanity and personal heroism. In contemporary society, with the religious sphere whittled down and secular organizations encroaching in the area of social service, "nonvocational" singleness, too, has lost its cutting edge, giving way to a closed system characterized by enforced celibacy. The resultant identity crisis, as in the case of "non-vocational" singleness, has led to fragmentation and new forms. Religious mystics have married or become Marxist revolutionaries. "Lay" singles, rather than missionizing, have become, with single adult ministries, the object of missions.

Another of the movements that won a number of single adults in the late 1960s and 1970s were the proliferating new religions. Part of the religious appeal of these new groups was the creation of a viable single identity and lifestyle. In the following section I focus on one movement, the Unification Church, and show how it has not only created a distinctive single lifestyle but attempts to integrate both "being single" and "being married" within an overall mode of wholeness.

An Alternative Approach

The Unification Church presents an anomaly to one investigating the contemporary situation of the single adult. On the one hand, it articulates a theological system that posits as its centerpiece the ideal of the God-centered family. On the other hand, its appeal has been largely to single adults, and until recently single adults made up the bulk of its membership, especially in the United States. Thus, although the married state is perceived as normative, there exists a strong and significant tradition of single people in the life of the church. In this section, I examine that tradition; first, in terms of how the church has couched single life within an assemblage of symbols that integrate "non-vocational" and "vocational" singleness; and second, in terms of how the church has integrated this model of "being single" within a normative pattern of God-centered family life.

Integrating Non- Vocational and Vocational Singleness

One of the distinctive features of the Unification Church is the manner in which it has incorporated the single life within a symbol-system that integrates "non-vocational" and "vocational" singleness. On the one hand, it has evolved a communal basis of church life along with a mobile lifestyle and opportunities for educational and career development that model the ideal of self-fulfillment. On the other hand, by distinguishing "core" membership who dedicate themselves totally to God and "associates" who participate, often at some personal or professional cost, in broadly humanitarian projects, the church incorporates the ideal of self-sacrifice. Because these dual emphases are central to single identity in the church, it is worthwhile to consider them both at greater length.

Non-vocational singleness: Apart from an explicitly "religious" orientation, the church has couched singleness in a symbol-system that affirms the ideal of self-fulfillment. Singleness here, as in the broader societal model, symbolizes the lifestyle best suited to realize that ideal and has both experiential and ascetic dimensions. Of primary significance in the experiential mode of self-fulfillment is the communal basis of church life. Here is the opportunity to "experience" a wide variety of personality types and, in many church centers to experience a broad sampling of cultures (generally European or Asian) in an international community. In short, Unification Centers offer single adults opportunities for intimacy and self-enhancement within a supportive environment. Aside from communalism (which the church seeks to institutionalize in its "home church" program), another experientially-oriented appeal to single adults is that of travel. Mobility is as much a part of church lifestyle as communalism, and is a special province of the single adult. To have participated in forty-day evangelical crusades in New York City or Washington, DC; to have attended an International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences in Los Angeles, Miami Beach and Korea or the New ERA conferences in Kauai or Montego Bay; to have fundraised in Wilmington, Delaware or Gary, Indiana; or to have gone tuna fishing off Gloucester, Massachusetts are all well within the range of possibilities. Related to this cosmopolitan appeal are the opportunities to interact with a variety of notables: from media to Nobel laureates, theologians, lawyers and government officials. For more ascetic types, whose model of self-fulfillment hinges more on achievement or success, frequent in-church "competitions" in areas of fundraising, witnessing, lecturing, etc. offer stiff challenges and symbolic satisfactions. On the other hand, the proliferation of church and church-related organizations -- often in conventionally secular fields and, in the case of businesses, often undertaken "from scratch" -- offer ample career appeal and challenge.

Vocational singleness: In addition to the appeal to self-fulfillment, the church also has incorporated singleness in a symbol-system that affirms the ideal of self-sacrifice. Singleness here, as in the traditional model, symbolizes a lifestyle optimally suited for a single-minded devotion to God. Furthermore, as in the traditional bifurcation between religious and lay, the church has evolved two separate expressions of "vocational" singleness: that is, "core" and "associate" membership. For "core" members, primary thrust is toward religious experience, that is, the variety of ways one might "experience God's heart." In this setting, traditional vocational norms of poverty, chastity and obedience are integrated with what might otherwise be viewed as "non-vocational" aspects of single life within the church. For instance, though one be singularly successful in business or in the solicitation of funds, all monies are public. Similarly, though single adults experience the intimacies of communal life, the thrust is agape not eros, and one's sexual desires also are offered up. Finally, although one may have wide ranging travel opportunities, they are not always of one's choosing and may call for the sacrifice of a venture barely begun for the sake of a "higher purpose." For "associates," the thrust is less toward religious experience per se than toward identification with the church's broader religious, social, cultural and political initiatives. Here, the church affords the opportunity for a wide range of single adults to participate with some personal or professional cost, in larger humanitarian, and explicitly non-sectarian, issues and goals.

Integrating Singleness and God-Centered Family Values

If the Unification Church is able to couch the single life within an assemblage of symbols integrating "non-vocational" and "vocational" singleness, the question remains how the church integrates its model of "being single" within a normative pattern of God-centered family values. The answer to this question is two fold. On the one hand, "being single," as practiced in the church, is foundational for family life. On the other hand, family or married life is an extension of the single state. In order to treat these dual responses, it is best to deal with each in turn.

Singleness as foundational for family life: One of the reasons "vocational" singleness within the church is able to retain its cutting edge is because it is yoked not only to the ideal of self-sacrifice but also to the ideal of corporate and personal fulfillment. Notions of fulfillment within the Unification context, however, generally are based on a family model; that is, the development of "parental" heart, the establishment of an "ideal" family and the projection of parental consciousness and family values to ever widening social spheres. Both the single state and family life are thus integrated into a larger "model of wholeness." Moreover, within the Unification context, singleness is seen as foundational for family life, not only spiritually (that is, in the development of "parental" heart), but also structurally in that one's "spiritual" children are the foundation for one's physical children.

Marriage as an extension of the single state: If singleness, within the context of the church, is seen to be foundational for family life, family life is seen to be an extension of the single state. This is evident, quite literally, in the frequent separations of married couples. Although patterns vary, couples after marrying typically take up separate missions that may last up to three years although there are examples of separations for the purpose of mission work lasting ten years and more. In a more symbolic sense, family life within the church is an extension of the single state in that it, too, is "vocational," that is, consecrated to the service of God. Moreover, as singleness is foundational for family life, the family is foundational for the establishment of "home church" or what might be described as a God-centered community. By, thus, relativizing both single and married states in the name of more inclusive social spheres, the Unification Church posits a "model of wholeness" that avoids attributing a false sense of ultimacy to either "being single" or "being married." Hence, it diffuses the dichotomization of ideal types which have led to coercive models of enforced celibacy or coercive social pressures to "get married."


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