Two sociologists from widely divergent backgrounds set out to examine the impact of religious practice on flourishing marriages. What they found illuminates how humans connect on the deepest level—and what social institutions can do to foster stable families and communities.
What happens when a conservative Christian and a progressive agnostic set out to study faith and family?
It may sound like the set-up to a joke, but it’s actually the premise of a new book from two leading sociologists from widely divergent backgrounds. Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, by W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger examines the ways in which churches “promote a code of decency encompassing hard work, temperance, and personal responsibility that benefits black and Latino families.” The more conservatively inclined of the two, Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, actually relocated his family to Harlem for a year. “As an academic, you are often looking at things as a complete outsider,” he explained in an interview with ORBITER. “I wanted to live in a community where issues of race and class were more salient.”
So what did they find? African Americans and Latinos are (on average) the two most religious racial and ethnic groups in America. Yet they also confront significant social challenges (including socioeconomic disparities, systemic discrimination, and diminished cultural capital around the institutions of marriage and family) that complicate the formation and persistence of marriages and intact families. Wilcox and Wolfinger were committed to putting aside political inclinations and following the data wherever it might lead.
So, would sound research and data-gathering show that, in the words of the old saying, “The couple that prays together stays together?”
The answer, in short, is a resounding yes. While Wilcox and Wolfinger did not focus on divorce rates specifically (we at ORBITER will turn to that research in a later article), their research shows persuasively that couples that share religious faith and activity are significantly more likely to report high levels of marital satisfaction.
For instance, Wilcox and Wolfinger’s research shows that couples are substantially more likely to report being happy in their relationship when both partners attend church regularly than when neither partner does. The results hold equally for whites, blacks, and Latinos. “In other words,” Wilcox notes, “religious couples are significantly more likely to enjoy wedded bliss than are their secular peers.”
Why does church attendance matter? “Part of the reason faith matters is that it fosters norms—such as a commitment to marital permanence and fidelity—that strengthen marriages,” Wilcox explains. “My research indicates that two other mechanisms, one social and one devotional, also help explain the power of joint church attendance.” The research in Soul Mates notes that almost half of jointly attending couples form the majority of their friendships with fellow church-goers. Attending church with friends builds a shared social network while providing examples of other happy relationships, support in difficult seasons, and encouragement “by example or the threat of stigma, to resist the temptation of an affair.”
One of the strongest links between religious activity and reported marital quality lies in shared prayer between the couple. Wilcox and Wolfinger cite previous studies that show prayer helps couples deal with stress, focus on shared beliefs and hopes, and constructively work through challenges. “We find that shared prayer is the most powerful religious predictor of relationship quality among black, Latino, and white couples, compared to denomination, religious attendance, or shared religious friendships,” Wilcox notes.
“It takes a married village to raise a child.”
If shared religious practice contributes to the formation and enduring of deep, healthy marital relationships, how do those relationships contribute to a healthy society? Aside from improved financial wellbeing, Wilcox also names benefits that extend to impoverished children in the community, the development of flourishing kids, and the intrinsic goods in religion, marriage, and family.
“Regions that have more two-parent families are more likely to offer mobility to poor kids. So kids that are born poor in Salt Lake City are more likely to realize the American dream, and reach mid- to upper-class as an adult, than kids born in Atlanta. And a big [reason] is that there are more two-parent families that are more active in religious communities in the Salt Lake area than the Atlanta area. The health of both the family and civil society give kids a leg up at the community level that they wouldn’t have [otherwise].”
Wilcox argues that one’s social environment is just as crucial as the biological environment to human development. “We don’t pay much attention to how our social environment matters for people flourishing,” he explains. “The strength of our families, and our communities, have a big impact on other domains of human flourishing.”
In her book, Hillary Clinton observed that “It takes a village to raise a child.” “She’s right,” says Wilcox. “It does.” But research also indicates “that communities with more married families are more likely to have kids that are flourishing.” So you could also say, Wilcox observes, that “it takes a married village to raise a child.”
Four Takeaways for the Church and Society
How can religion – and society – help form strong marital unions in an era of family change? Wilcox and Wolfinger end Soul Mates with a discussion of practical ways American churches can actively strengthen family life in lower income and minority communities.
1. Don’t neglect the working class and poor Americans.
Many ministries are geared towards the affluent, college-educated adult, and more should be done amongst churches, faith-based organizations, and para-church ministries for the working class and poor Americans, including minorities. “Ministries like InterVarsity, for instance, target college students as they transition from adolescence to adulthood,” notes Wilcox, “but there’s no equivalent ministry for the large share of American adults who will not go to college.”
2. Intentionally appeal to men.
Particularly in religious communities where men are less likely to be actively engaged in the church compared to women, intentionally targeting men is crucial to developing strong marriages and families. Wilcox cites the example of an African-American Baptist pastor in Seattle who has started a Monday Night Football gathering, complete with an encouraging message or theological reflection during halftime. The program is specifically designed to attract and appeal to men through a common male interest – NFL Football.
3. Don’t underestimate the impact of an employment ministry.
An employment ministry has wide-ranging benefits for church members on the margins. Extended unemployment can produce extraordinary pressures on marriages and families. Wilcox advises, “have an employment bank in your church to encourage people who are more successful in the church community to mentor and hire those who are less successful or who are unemployed. Recognize that people are not just spirits, but are also made of body [and need] some basic income to get by and support their family.”
4. Marriage and healthcare shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
In the realm of public policy, removing the marriage penalty that exists in many lower-income means-assisted programs, such as Medicaid, could spare people from the forced decision between marriage and healthcare. Wilcox and Wolfinger note that marriage is now considered “a relationship capstone of sorts that signifies that a couple is ‘set,’ both financially and emotionally at a certain level of middle-class comfort and security.” Removing the marriage penalty can eliminate financial barriers, and work to alter the perception that marriage is only achieved once financial security is met.
While the research of Wilcox and Wolfinger leads to clear takeaways on how marriage and religion benefit families and society, he also notes that the benefits alone are not the full picture. “I don’t view religion, marriage, or family as simply instruments for other goods… They are themselves intrinsic goods. Most human beings want to love and be loved, and to be known by and loved by the two people who brought them into this world.”