In recent years, the American family has been falling apart. Divorce rates have skyrocketed, as have births outside of marriage; non-traditional families are on the way to becoming the norm in society. Brad Wilcox spoke of the “unprecedented family revolution” in America at a recent Heritage Foundation event, Religious Practice and the Family: What the Research Says.
This family revolution, Wilcox argued, has “undercut marriage as a fundamental institution” in American society, which matters because religion and familial stability typically go hand in hand. As Wilcox pointed out, “couples who share a common faith experience higher levels of religiosity and marital quality,” and churches tend to legitimize the virtues upon which strong marriages depend (such as fidelity, honesty, and forgiveness). “Marriage fosters higher religious practice: congregations lend social, religious, and moral support to married couples,” Wilcox explained.
He described the curious approaches many churches are now encouraged to take with regards to the family revolution. “A number of scholars have encouraged religious institutions” to “retool messages and ministries” to be more accommodating to non-traditional families, Wilcox said. These scholars seem to believe that “all religious institutes need to do is adjust their teachings to non-traditional households,” and watch people flock to the religious fold. In particular, these scholars encourage churches to “avoid stigmatizing divorce” and premarital sex. However, Wilcox went on, when churches have actually followed this advice, they have “fallen flat,” and typically been unsuccessful in gaining new members.
This is because, Wilcox said, the pressures of traditional family life and parenthood encourage church attendance. “Parenthood draws adults into religious congregations,” Wilcox said, because “parenthood can give adults kind of a new perspective on the world” that makes them appreciate spirituality and morality more. Both young and older adults “depend on marriage and parenthood to bring them to the pews,” Wilcox stated, citing known and clear evidence that married men, for instance, are far more likely to go to church than unmarried men.
Wilcox described these findings with a scale of hedonism and asceticism. To Wilcox, it is clear that those with more ascetic views tend to go to church more, while those who are more hedonistic tend to spend their Sundays at the coffeeshop. He illustrated this thusly:
Marriage & parenthood –> religious attendance
Unmarried and childless –> Starbucks Sabbath
“The welfare of American religion depends in no small part on the strength of marriage and families,” Wilcox said, adding that American moral strength “rise[s] and fall[s] with the strength of the intact married family.” Wilcox is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.