Over the next decade, count on the press, academics, and pop culture icons to take a more negative view of religion in American life. This opposition has been driven by a variety of factors, such as the rise of the “new atheism” and conservative Christian alliances with the Republican Party and with President Donald Trump. In particular, orthodox religious opposition to today’s new morality—on matters ranging from abortion to LGBTQ rights—has made religion a target of scorn, skepticism, or outright hostility on the part of many of the nation’s cultural elites. This negative view of religion extends to religion’s influence on family life.
Take, for instance, the media’s coverage of a recent University of Chicago study purporting to show that children raised by religious parents were less altruistic than children raised by secular parents. The study’s author, psychologist Jean Decety, claimed that his research showed “how religion negatively influences children’s altruism” and that it challenged “the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior,” calling into question “whether religion is vital for moral development—suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”1
The study had numerous methodological problems and limitations—it was based upon a non-random and non-representative sample of children watching cartoons and sharing stickers in a few cities around the globe—but received glowing, credulous coverage from numerous media outlets.2 As I noted in the Washington Post, a Daily Beast headline proclaimed “Religious Kids are Jerks,” and the Guardian reported “Religious Children Are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts,” while Slate weighed in to say that “religious children are more selfish.”3 This was clearly a story that some in the media were more than happy to run with.
There is only one problem with this new, negative view of religion and family life: it misses the mark. In the United States, at least, religion is generally a positive force in the family. My own research, which has focused extensively on the connection between faith and family life, indicates that religion generally fosters more happiness, greater stability, and a deeper sense of meaning in American family life, provided that family members—especially spouses—share a common faith. In simple terms, the old slogan—“the family that prays together, stays together”—still holds in 2017.
Consider Roberto, 37, and Marcia Flores, 35, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when they were children. This Catholic couple are representative of some of the unique challenges and opportunities facing Latino couples. These San Diego residents met in their early twenties, lived together for a number of years, and had their daughter prior to getting married. In 1997, they wed and had a son shortly thereafter. For most of the early years of their relationship, Roberto struggled with drugs and alcohol, and spent many a weekend focused on soccer and friends rather than his family. “Before, I used to be in the world (‘del mundo’); I used a lot of drugs, I drank a lot, I didn’t care for my family, not my wife, my brothers, mother and father, I didn’t care about them,” he said, also noting, “when the weekend came, I left my wife and I would go play soccer with friends . . . and then go drinking, and that was my whole weekend.”
He also says he took a “macho” approach to family life, leaving domestic responsibilities to Marcia. “You come home and you boss people around,” he said, describing his macho ethic. “You force your wife and your kids to do things for you. And the woman had to take care of all the house one way or another, the man did nothing.” If he had kept up this approach to family life, an approach characterized by intoxication and machismo, Roberto thinks his family would have fallen apart: “I’m sure my wife would have left me. I wouldn’t have my wife or kids anymore if I had stayed in that path.”
In 2000, Roberto took a detour. Some friends suggested that he and Marcia attend a retreat for couples at a local Catholic church, and, after some prodding from her, he decided to go. Much to his surprise, Roberto was overcome at the retreat, filled with remorse over his failings as a husband and father. What happened next was powerful: “That’s when I met God,” he said, adding, “I cried before God, which was something I never did. I never cry. But a lot of things I never did before I did on that day.” Besides crying at the retreat, Roberto felt “all the presence of God” and decided to give up drugs and alcohol and to stop treating his family so poorly.
In the wake of the retreat, Roberto and Marcia have seen a marked improvement in the quality of their marriage. “I started going to church and they taught me that the family is important and you have to care for it,” he said. “I never knew that before; I really didn’t think I had to put family first before.” At church, he has learned that God “has a plan for marriage,” that he must live “unity in all aspects” of his marriage. In practice, this meant temperance, and coming to embrace the notion that “you need a lot of love to raise a good family.”
This has translated into big changes in their marriage and family life. Roberto stopped abusing drugs and alcohol, curtailed his involvement with friends and soccer on the weekends, and took a more engaged approach to “helping in the house.” A religious perspective and religious rituals became more common for Marcia and Roberto. Now, Roberto says, “time with my family is something spiritual to me,” and he and Marcia pray with their kids on the weekends. The changes he has experienced in his marriage and family, in turn, have further deepened Roberto’s faith: “That’s why I know there’s a God.”
The Flores’ experience is suggestive of how a shared faith can help a couple dealing with male misbehavior or other challenges. Their Catholic faith enabled Roberto to experience powerful, life-changing religious rituals, and to become integrated into a religious community that embraces a positive, family-oriented ethos. Their faith—especially Roberto’s—has given the couple a sense of hope. It has helped them make the changes needed to strengthen their marriage and family life. As suggested in Elizabeth Brisco’s The Reformation of Machismo, men’s religious faith can counter some of the misogynistic attitudes associated with machismo in the Latino community; in this case, Roberto has jettisoned his expectation that he could devote all his free time to friends, soccer, and drinking, and leave Marcia with full responsibility for the caretaking and housework that are part and parcel of family life.
Although the Flores’ particular story of faith and family life is emblematic of many of the challenges and opportunities facing Latino couples, my research suggests that the benefits of shared church attendance extend to American couples across racial and ethnic lines. Specifically, my work with Nicholas Wolfinger in Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos indicates that couples are substantially more likely to report being happy in their relationship when both partners attend church regularly than when neither partner does. This result holds equally for whites, blacks, and Latinos, as the figure above indicates.
Clearly, white, black, and Latino spouses who attend church together are about 9 percentage points more likely to say they are “very happy” or “extremely happy” than husbands and wives who do not. This may not seem like a huge boost to marital happiness, but in practical terms it means that almost everyone in a jointly religious marriage is at least “very happy,” which is striking given the ups and downs of contemporary married life.4 In other words, religious couples are significantly more likely to enjoy wedded bliss than are their secular peers.
The Power of Prayer & Peers
Why does shared religious attendance lead to happiness? Part of the reason faith matters is that it fosters norms—such as a commitment to marital permanence and fidelity—that strengthen marriages. My research indicates that two other mechanisms, one social and one devotional, also help explain the power of joint church attendance. First, almost half of jointly attending couples form the majority of their friendships with fellow parishioners. Attending religious services with friends accounts for more than half of the association between church attendance and relationship quality, which means that couples who have many shared friends at their church are happier than other couples. Attending church with one’s friends appears to provide many role models of happy, healthy relationships. These friends can also offer support when an intimate relationship hits the inevitable speed bump, and such friends may encourage each other, by example or the threat of stigma, to resist the temptation of an affair. The figure to the right illustrates the link between shared religious friendships and relationship happiness.
Second, couples in which both members attend church are more likely to say that they often pray together, and shared prayer also helps to account for the link between church attendance and a happy relationship. Previous studies show that prayer helps couples deal with stress, enables them to focus on shared beliefs and hopes for the future, and allows them to deal constructively with challenges and problems in their relationship, and in their lives. In fact, we find that shared prayer is the most powerful religious predictor of relationship quality among black, Latino, and white couples, more powerful than denomination, religious attendance, or shared religious friendships. In simple terms, as the figure below also indicates, the couple that prays together, flourishes together.
Couples who attend religious services together are happier in their relationships than are their peers who don’t regularly attend church. This finding holds for whites, African Americans, and Latinos alike. It is true that most people are happy in their relationships irrespective of church attendance, but black, Latino, and white couples who attend together enjoy an added boost here. Part of the story here too may be due to selection (couples who are happier together may also be inclined to do many things together, including attending church). But selection probably isn’t the whole story. Our evidence for this contention is our identification of two of the mechanisms through which religious participation improves relationship quality: religious friends and shared prayer. Couples who attend church together enjoy significantly happier relationships, in large part because they socialize with friends who share their faith and especially because they pray with one another. In other words, those couples who pray together are happiest together.
But do higher-quality marriages founded on faith necessarily mean more stable marriages? Certainly, in the broader culture, many people think that Christians divorce just as much as their unaffiliated fellow Americans. Some would even argue that Christianity is actually bad for marital stability. Writing in The Nation, for instance, Michelle Goldberg asked: “Is Conservative Christianity Bad for Marriage?” Her affirmative answer was based on a study of red-state Protestant cultures where disapproval of premarital sex has led to earlier, less financially stable marriages.5 It is true that marital happiness is not perfectly correlated with freedom from divorce. Enjoying a happy marriage doesn’t eliminate your odds of divorce later on; it just reduces them. So does faith serve as a stabilizing force in American marriages?
New research from Harvard professor Tyler VanderWeele indicates the answer to that question is yes. In tracking a sample of thousands of middle-aged women across the United States, he found that women who regularly attended church were 47 percent less likely to divorce than women who did not regularly attend church. He also noted that other research has come to a similar conclusion, generally finding that regular church attendance is associated with a reduction in divorce of more than 30 percent.6
So what accounts for the stabilizing power of religion when it comes to American marriages? VanderWeele offered four theories to explain how faith is linked to less divorce:
- Religious teachings often indicate that marriage is something sacred—that an important bond is created in the exchange of marriage vows. Attending religious services reinforces that message.
- Religious teachings also discourage or censure divorce to varying degrees across religious traditions, which may lead to lower rates of divorce; moreover, religious traditions also often have strong teachings against adultery, which is one of the strongest predictors of divorce.
- Religious teachings often place a strong emphasis on love and on putting the needs of others above one’s own. This may also improve the quality of married life and lower the likelihood of divorce.
- Religious institutions often provide various types of family support, including a place for families to get to know one another and build relationships, programs for children, marital and pre-marital counseling, and retreats and workshops focused on building a good marriage. Religious communities can provide important resources for a healthy marriage. 7
Regardless of how precisely religion fosters more stable marriages, however, this new research from Harvard suggests that the couple that attends together, stays together.
So the next time you come across an academic study or media story contending that faith plays a pernicious role in family life, be skeptical. So long as family life, and marriage in particular, are based on a common commitment to religious faith, it looks like religious faith lifts the fortunes of American families. And that’s good news in a nation where the fortunes of the family too often seem to be flagging.
This essay is adapted, in part, from Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, co-authored with Nicholas Wolfinger. Follow Brad Wilcox on Twitter: @WilcoxNMP.
About the author
W. Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. His research has focused on marriage, fatherhood, and cohabitation, especially on the ways that family structure, civil society, and culture influence the quality and stability of family life in the United States and around the globe. Wilcox is the author of numerous books and articles. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Slate, National Review Online, NPR, NBC’s The Today Show, and many other media outlets.
- See Susie Allen, “Religious upbringing associated with less altruism, study finds,” UChicago News, November 5, 2015.
- For a critique of the study’s methods, see Robert D. Woodberry, “Are Non-Religious Children Really More Altruistic?,” Institute for Family Studies Blog, November 23, 2015.
- Bobby Azarian, “Study: Religious Kids Are Jerks,” The Daily Beast, November 6, 2015; Harriet Sherwood, “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds,” The Guardian, November 6, 2015; Rachel E. Gross, “Are Religious Children More Selfish?,” Slate, November 6, 2015.
- When only the wife attends, relationship quality is not higher for spouses than when neither attends. When only the husband attends, relationship quality is a bit higher than when neither attends but still not as high as when both attend.
- Michelle Goldberg, “Is Conservative Christianity Bad for Marriage?,” The Nation, January 22, 2014.
- Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Religious Service Attendance, Marriage, and Health,” Institute for Family Studies Blog, November 29, 2016.