Marriage Trends and the Evangelical Faithful

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Over the past half century, there has been a “dramatic retreat from marriage,” and the declining role of marriage is affecting the “life course” of adults, as well as the “bearing and rearing of children.” Approximately two dozen of the nation’s leading journalists travelled to Miami for a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC). Michael Cromartie, Vice President of the EPPC and conference moderator, holds the twice-a-year event to expose journalists to contemporary social issues from a faith perspective. The most recent event in April featured Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist whose research focuses on marriage, gender, parenthood, and cohabitation with a particular interest in the ways that religion affects the quality and stability of marriages. Professor Wilcox, who is a personal friend, directs the National Marriage Project, which provides some of the nation’s most important research on marriage and family.

While those at the conference no doubt are aware of the retreat from marriage, few writers examine how this trend is affecting “children, adults and the larger commonwealth,” nor are they aware of the “religious implications of the nation’s retreat from marriage” and how the retreat from marriage affects “the nation’s largest religious tradition, Evangelical Protestantism.”

Wilcox’s remarks resonate with me, since they powerfully underscore an issue that I have been stressing for a number of years — including in my 2010 book, Children at Risk, and the forthcoming, Marriage Matters (both published by Transaction Publishers): “Over the last half century, the institution of marriage has lost authority, power, and social functions in the U.S.” Simply put, marriage has lost ground to cohabitation, and the decline in marriage is starkly stratified in society — the retreat from marriage has been primarily among the uneducated, the poor, and working class Americans. Here is a sampling of the important evidence presented by Wilcox:

Fewer adults are married — only 66 percent today compared to 88 percent in 1960. Divorce has doubled since the early 1960s, though there has been a slight decline since 1980. The more educated, affluent, and religious Americans still tend to marry, and they are less likely to get divorced. Cohabitation is replacing marriage as a place for co-residence, sex, and family formation; more and more couples who are choosing to live together without marriage also bear and rear their children without marriage. From a situation where five percent of children were born outside of marriage in 1960, we now have forty-one percent born outside of marriage today. Americans with college degrees have been much less affected by the retreat from marriage. There has been no increase in non-marital childbearing among college-educated women since 1980.

The core message in Brad Wilcox’s remarks is that while all Americans (regardless of class, race, or ethnicity) still embrace marriage and aspire to be married, they are, increasingly, “more tolerant and accepting of departures from this ideal and practice.” Highly educated homes are still very embarrassed by a teenage pregnancy in their midst, even though they are more accepting of the idea in the abstract. In reality, when it comes to their own, college-educated Americans are more marriage-minded than less educated Americans. Also, college-educated Americans are “more restrictive in their views toward divorce,” while less educated Americans are “more accepting of divorce.”

Further, the “bowling alone” pattern, where Americans retreat from civic society, is also stratified — less educated people are more likely to have “disengaged from civic institutions in this country over the last four years.” These shifts in cultural attitudes and practices among the poor and working class are accompanied by shifts in economic and employment changes; “the recession has hit working class and poor men much harder than it has hit college-educated men and college-educated women.”

In addition to the social, cultural, and economic changes, the public policy and family law changes have played a significant role in the weakening of the institution of marriage. No-fault divorce accounts for “about 17 percent of the divorce revolution between the late 60s and 1980s.” Many public policies penalized marriage with “loss of eligibility for Pell grants, food stamps, housing aid, whatever.”

All of this information precedes Wilcox’s main point that “the fortunes of American religion generally rise and fall with the fortunes of the intact married family.” Wilcox explains this as a matter of children giving parents “an entirely different perspective on life” and inspiring parents to pursue “spiritual or religious themes” in their lives. Further, houses of worship provide the religious and moral instruction that parents want for their children, as well as the “parent-centered social networks” that parents need for “support, advice, counsel, as they engage in the tasks, the challenges of parenting.”

Also, congregations offer marriage-centered social networks that help couples “through the joys and challenges of married life.” Wilcox also mentions the sacrificial role of parenting and the compromises that are inherent in forming a strong marriage. The same “sacrificial ethos” is a vital part of the worldview that is taught and celebrated in religious faith. Singles, he notes, are more inclined, on a given weekend, to “embrace a Starbucks Sabbath or an NFL Sabbath as opposed to a more religious Sabbath.” Further, mainline Protestants and white Catholics are more likely to “attend services on a weekly basis in the U.S., compared to adults who are not married and don’t have kids.” Surprisingly, unmarried adults with children are even less likely to attend weekly services than are unmarried adults without children. [Data from the General Social Survey, a large national survey sponsored by the University of Chicago.]

In his research, Wilcox finds that regular weekly church attendance is down among mainline Protestant and white Catholic families but that there has been no decline (in fact there has been an increase in attendance) among evangelical Protestants. Wilcox attributes the increase in evangelical church attendance to their “entrepreneurial culture” that “can be attractive to people in this day and age.” Further, he notes, evangelical churches tend to be family-friendly and family-focused. Perhaps the saddest and most tragic irony noted by Wilcox is that some mainline denominations have spent thousands of dollars promoting family “diversity” campaigns that actually “undercut their own religious base,” the mom-and-dad family.

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