Marriage and Religion: a Package Deal
New Studies Reveal Close Relationship
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, JUNE 19, 2007 (Zenit) - The fortunes of family life and religion may well be linked, say experts in recent studies. W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is the author of a research brief published in May by the Institute for American Values' Center for Marriage and Families.
"Churches are bulwarks of marriage in urban America," he affirmed in the brief "Religion, Race, and Relationships in Urban America." Wilcox started by observing that in spite of widespread concern over the breakdown of marriage and family life in contemporary society, so far little attention has been paid on religion's influence for the family.
His attempt to remedy this omission is based on a reading of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (FFCW), sponsored by Columbia and Princeton Universities.
The dramatic changes in family structures are graphically illustrated by Wilcox.
-- From 1960 to 2000, the percentage of children born out of wedlock rose from 5% to 33%.
-- The divorce rate more than doubled to almost 50%.
-- The percentage of children living in single-parent families rose
from 9% to 27%.
Poor and minority families have suffered even more. In 1996, for example, 35% of African American children and 64% of Latino children were living in married households, compared to 77% of white children.
Wilcox argued that religion can influence family life in four ways.
-- Religious institutions promote norms strengthening marriage, for example, the idea that sex and childbearing ought to be reserved for marriage, and broader moral norms that support happier, more stable marriages.
-- Religious faith endows the marital relationship with a sense of transcendence.
-- In many religious groups there are family-oriented social networks that offer emotional and social support, plus a measure of social control that reinforces commitment to the marital bond.
-- Religious belief and practice provides support to cope with stresses such as unemployment or the death of a loved one. A greater psychological resilience, in turn, is linked to higher quality marriages.
Wilcox does, however, admit that religious participation is by no means an automatic guarantee of a happy family life. In fact, what he termed "one of the paradoxes of American religious life," is the contradiction between the high level of religious practice among African Americans -- the highest of any racial group -- and the reality that they have the lowest rate of marriage of any racial or ethnic group.
Turning to an analysis of the data from the FFCW survey, Wilcox argued that it shows how religious attendance -- particularly by fathers -- is associated with higher rates of marriage among urban parents.
Moreover, churchgoing boosts the odds of marriage for African American parents in urban America in much the same way it boosts the odds of marriage for urban parents from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Paternal church attendance is particularly important for urban relationships, Wilcox maintains. If a father goes to church regularly, then he is more likely to enter into marriage and also to have a relationship of higher quality.
Benefits of belief
The arguments raised by Wilcox are similar to those put forward by Patrick Fagan in a paper published by the Heritage Foundation last December. In "Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability," Fagan argued that "religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families and the community."
"Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages and well-behaved children," he pointed out.
Numerous sociological studies, Fagan continued, show that valuing religion and regularly practicing it are associated with greater marital stability, higher levels of marital satisfaction and an increased likelihood that an individual will be inclined to marry.
Among other points, these studies reveal that:
-- Women who are more religious are less likely to experience divorce or separation than their less religious peers.
-- Marriages in which both spouses attend religious services frequently are 2.4 times less likely to end in divorce than marriages in which neither spouse worships.
-- Religious attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability, confirming studies conducted as far back as 50 years ago.
-- Couples who share the same faith are more likely to reunite if they separate than are couples who do not share the same religious affiliation.
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