A new report from the Institute for American Values explores the complicated ways in which a child’s family structure, particularly the experience of parents’ divorce, can affect his or her religious practices as an adult. Coauthors Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow, and Charles E. Stokes emphasize the significance of their findings and recommendations on the  Washington Post ‘s ”Guest Voices” blog:

Numerous studies are now revealing that children of divorce overall are less religious when they grow up, with clear implications for the vitality of the churches. In one study, two-thirds of young adults who grew up in married parent families, compared to just over half who grew up in divorced families, say they are very or fairly religious. And, more than a third of people from married parent families currently attend religious services almost every week, compared to just a quarter of people from divorced families. Given that about one in four of today’s young adults are grown children of divorce, and that more than 40 percent of American children are now born outside of marriage, how these younger generations approach questions of spiritual meaning and religious involvement will influence broader trends in the churches for years to come.

The FamilyScholars blog is hosting a symposium  (including a contribution from Helen Alvaré , whose writing we’ve mentioned before) on the report, the entirety of which is available online (PDF)  but too long to summarize. Here are a few interesting excerpts, however, with page numbers referring to the PDF of the report. 

First, on whether the decline of religion caused the decline of marriage, or vice versa, the report notes (quoting the work of coauthor Charles Stokes):

Much of the early research linking religious decline with divorce suggested that the erosion of religion as a source of normative authority undermined the institutional support for marriage. More recent work, however . . . has pointed the causal arrow in the other direction, contending that the decline of marriage—-marked by widespread divorce, but also including increases in non-marital child-bearing, cohabitation, and later ages at first marriage—-has contributed to lower levels of religious affiliation and participation. (19)

Later, drawing on the work of Julie Rubio of St. Louis University, the coauthors describe children’s experience of their parents’ divorce from the perspective of Catholic theology:
The Catholic tradition holds the position that a validly contracted marriage between two baptized Christians is indissoluble. The claim is not that marriage  should not  end but rather than it  cannot  end. Once marriage begins with vows and is sealed with intimacy, the two persons become one flesh . . .

This theology recognizes in spiritual terms the biological reality of children and the lived experiences of parents who find that in having children they are ‘giving flesh’ to their own union. Even more so than in sexual intimacy, during which spouses become one flesh for a short time and then part (even as their feelings of unity may endure), when a child is conceived the child is a one-flesh union of his or her parents that cannot break in two.

Theologically, then, children whose parents divorce experience brokenness because the parental unity that they embody has been ruptured. Children can be distraught because they identify not just with each parent separately, but with their parents’ union. (30-31)


Finally, one cited study of adults’ religious practices suggests that “those from divorced families are no less interested in finding meaning, truth, or a connection with God or the transcendent than their counterparts from intact, happy marriages. However, those from divorced families do appear considerably more skeptical that established religious institutions or traditions can help them in that quest” (39).

Articles by Anna Sutherland

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