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60Religion and Family Around the Globehttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/10/religion-and-family-around-the-globe
Thu, 16 Oct 2014 09:31:00 -0400 All the
devoted to the first Roman Catholic Synod on the Family, which wraps up this week at the Vatican, is but one sign that the ties binding hearth and altar to one another can still be the subject of considerable concern. That’s in part because the fortunes of the family in the West have largely ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of religious faith over the centuries, as scholars like
How Churches Can Bridge the Marriage Dividehttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/06/how-churches-can-bridge-the-marriage-divide
Wed, 25 Jun 2014 00:00:00 -0400Earlier this month, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the increasingly “separate and unequal” character of marriage in the United States. The bishops asked him to speak to their Spring General Assembly, held in New Orleans June 10-13, as part of a broader effort to prepare for the upcoming Synod on the Family, which takes place this fall in Rome, and the World Meeting of Families, which will take place in Philadelphia in 2015. First Thingsasked him the following questions about his address to the bishops.
]]>Time to Accommodate the Divorce Revolution? https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/03/time-to-accommodate-the-divorce-revolution
Thu, 13 Mar 2014 00:04:00 -0400In the wake of the divorce revolution that swept Europe and the
Americas over the last half-century, Pope Franciswho celebrates his one-year
anniversary this weekis convening a major
world’s bishops this fall in Rome to retool the Catholic Church’s message and
ministry to families. One of the top items on their agenda is to reconsider the
Church’s approach to the divorced and remarried. Many voicesincluding a
of the Catholic
laity who have been polled on these issues around the worldare calling on Francis
and the Church to accommodate this revolution by, among other things,
dispensing with any rules that sanction divorce and remarriage in the Church.
]]>The Lukewarm Generationhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/03/the-lukewarm-generation
Mon, 08 Mar 2010 02:00:00 -0500 Sociologist Christian Smith began his ambitious, multivolume effort to plumb the religious lives of Americans across the life course in his 2005 with
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
. In that book”aimed at an audience that the author hoped would include general readers as well as clergy and scholars”Smith painted an incisive portrait of religion among Americas adolescents. Especially insightful was the way Smith explained why the more sectarian religious traditions in the United States, such as evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism, were achieving greater success than more churchly traditions such as mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in transmitting their faiths to the next generation. Also notable was the way Smith explained how the guiding religious ethos of American teenagers”what he aptly termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”seemed so suited for our culture.
Smith contended, in his 2005 book, that most religious teens in the U.S. had very little appreciation or regard for the theological and doctrinal particulars of their own religious traditions but did believe that God exists, loves them, wants them to follow the Golden Rule, and comforts them in the midst of the emotional ups and downs of adolescence. Moreover, Smith argued, most teens, including teens who were regular churchgoers, believed that all religious traditions are functionally equivalent, and that they provide spiritual succor, moral guidance, and emotional support in about equal measures. This, then, is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism; and, as Smith pointed out, it has proved enormously useful to American adolescents because it allows them to navigate the increasingly pluralistic milieu of the United States without stepping on the religious sensitivities of their peers or violating the tolerant conventions of the larger society.
In his latest book,
Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults
, Smith revisits the spiritual state of his respondents as young adults aged 18 to 23, at a life stage that is now called emerging adulthood in the social sciences. In a sense, not much has changed among the emerging adults Smith discusses in this new book. Young adults from more sectarian religious communities still do comparatively better when it comes to outcomes such as church attendance and orthodox religious belief, and most emerging adults still seem to subscribe to a form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Smith notes, however, that emerging adults are less religious than they were as adolescents. Only 15 percent attend church on a weekly basis, and 26 percent indicate they have no religion. Part of the story here is that young adults often drift away from formal religious practice after they move out of their family homes and return to regular churchgoing only when they marry and have children. For much of recent American history, young adulthood has been the religious nadir of the life course for most Americans.
But the religious disconnect”institutional, moral, and theological” among contemporary emerging adults that Smith describes in
Souls in Transition
seems more profound than the typical pattern of temporary religious disengagement that has marked the lives of young adults over the last century or so. A majority of todays emerging adults do not regularly darken the door of a church; are largely indifferent or, in some cases, hostile to religion; and are similarly indifferent or hostile to religious teachings about the good life”especially as they relate to sex, drinking, and drugs. Furthermore, a majority of the 30 percent of this cohort of emerging adults who are regular churchgoers are selective adherents who believe and perform certain aspects of their religious traditions but neglect and ignore others. By Smiths reckoning, only 15 percent of emerging adults count as committed traditionalists who are committed and consistent believers. When it comes to religion, this seems to be a generation of lukewarm believers.
This should come as little surprise, however, when we step back from the religious lives of todays emerging adults and look at the larger social milieu in which they find themselves. Their connections to education and work tend to be fragile and unstable. They live much of their lives in an isolated, electronically mediated world in which iPods, personal computers, and cell phones link them to their preferred music, movies, and friends and not much else. They are largely indifferent to the great causes of the right
the left. And, most importantly, for most of these emerging adults, marriage is not on the horizon. It is little wonder, therefore, that the members of this lukewarm generation are largely disconnected from American religion, given that they are also disconnected from stable long-term employment, civil society, and family life.
What is to be done? Smith does not provide any easy answers to this question in
Souls in Transition
. He does, however, offer some excellent advice to parents and religious leaders about how they can steer todays children away from the lukewarm lives being lived by contemporary emerging adults. According to Smiths analyses, children are more likely to end up as committed and consistent young-adult believers if their parents integrate religious faith into daily family life; if children are exposed to engaging adult believers in their churches; if they have good religious friends; if they live chaste lives; and, interestingly, if they have to suffer for their faith. Smith notes that adolescents who were made fun of by peers for [their] religious faith were more likely to end up as serious believers as young adults. In other words, family, friends, sex, and suffering will have a lot to do with how successful the next generation of young people will be in avoiding the lukewarm path being trod by many of todays emerging adults.
W. Bradford Wilcox is associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the author of
Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands.
]]>To Have and to Holdhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/12/003-to-have-and-to-hold
Sat, 01 Dec 2007 00:00:00 -0500 Marriage and Caste in America:
Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age
]]>As the Family Goeshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/05/as-the-family-goes
Tue, 01 May 2007 00:00:00 -0400 The family revolution of the last four decades has not been kind to American religion. Dramatic declines in marriage and fertility rates, not to mention increases in divorce, have left many congregations with dispirited, shrinking, and increasingly gray-haired flocks.
The growing secularization of American life”marked by drops in religious attendance, affiliation, and authority in the nation at large over the past forty years”is certainly due, in part, to changes in the larger culture. It owes something, as well, to the theological and moral lassitude of many churches in the face of those changes. But a large portion derives from the declining strength and integrity of the family. The recent history of American religion illuminates what amounts to a sociological law: The fortunes of American religion rise and fall with the fortunes of the intact, married family.
Not all religious traditions are equally affected by this law. A corollary might be that more-churchly religious traditions (such as the Episcopal Church) depend even more on a vibrant family culture than do more-sectarian religious traditions (such as the Assemblies of God) because so many of the churchly adherents make a habit of churchgoing only when they are married with children. This largely explains why the mainline Protestant churches have seen their fortunes fall since the 1950s, the most recent heyday of the American family, even while the more sectarian evangelical Protestant churches have seen their fortunes rise over the same period.
After almost half a century of decline, however, those in the churchly mainline”particularly those on the left, politically and theologically”still cannot see their dependence on strong families. Blinded by their desire to be both with it and welcoming, they continue to lend vocal support to the family revolution that is draining their congregations.
But if the arc of recent history is any indication, the religious voices now speaking out in favor of lifestyle liberalism will soon fall silent. The general law that the vitality of American religious life depends in large part on the health of American families can be illustrated by considering recent trends in religious attendance. From 1972 to 2002, the percentage of American adults in church or synagogue on any given weekend fell from 41 percent to 31 percent, according to my analyses of the General Social Survey (GSS). About 28 percent of that decline can be attributed to family change, especially the fact that fewer adults are now married with children.
These patterns are even more pronounced among young adults. Using the same data, sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that decreases in marriage and childbearing among adults aged twenty-one through forty-five were by far the strongest predictors of declines in religious attendance among young adults in this period. Indeed, Wuthnow estimates that American churches would have 6.3 million more regularly attending young adults than they currently do had today’s young Americans started families at the same rate that they did thirty years ago.
The link between religious attendance and family life is particularly strong for men. Currently, men are 57 percent less likely to attend church regularly if they are not married with children, compared to men who are married with children. Women are 41 percent less likely to attend church regularly if they are single and childless. Marriage does more than bind a man to one woman; it also ties a man to a local congregation.
The question, of course, is why churchgoing is so tightly bound to being married with children. One reason is that marriage is one of the few rites of passage guiding the transition into adulthood. Another reason married men and women are more active religiously is that churches and synagogues give symbolic and practical support to family life. In such rites as a baptism and a
, congregations erect a sacred canopy of meaning over the great chapters of family life: birth, childrearing, and marriage. Rabbis, pastors, and priests”particularly orthodox ones”offer concrete advice about marriage and parenthood. Congregations also have disproportionately high numbers of families who put family-centered living high on their list of priorities. These families offer moral and practical support to adults adjusting to the joys and challenges of married life and starting families. Not surprisingly, men and women who are married with children are more likely to gravitate toward church than are their single peers.
Children also drive parents to church. The arrival of a child can awaken untapped reserves of love, recognition of the transcendent, and concern for the good life in men and women”all of which make churchgoing more attractive. Parents looking to give their children a moral and spiritual compass seek out congregations, Sunday schools, and vacation Bible schools. All the data show that religious attendance peaks in the population among adults with school-age children.
Finally, marriage is more likely to drive men into church than women. Because women are more religious than men, on average, and because they usually take primary responsibility for the nurture of children regardless of their marital status, women’s religious attendance depends less on marriage than does men’s. Indeed, women with and without families are more likely to be regular churchgoers than similarly situated men.
For men, marriage, fatherhood, and churchgoing are a package deal. Men’s comparatively fragile faith often depends on wifely encouragement to flower. More important, fatherhood often awakens in men a sense of paternal responsibility that extends to their children’s religious and moral welfare. Men are much less likely to identify with and be able to fulfill the responsibilities of fatherhood”including the religious ones”if they are not married to the mother of their children. This is why divorce is much more likely to drive men away from church than it is women.
The dramatic demographic changes of the past forty years, coupled with the failure of most churches to capture the attention of adults who aren’t married with children, has led many mainline Protestant leaders to heighten their calls for aggressive outreach efforts to singles and adults in nontraditional families”together with the theological innovations required to match these efforts. Sociologist Penny Long Marler makes the case for this accommodationist strategy this way: Clearly, while bowing to the critical contributions of traditional families, past and present, congregations must cast their nets farther and more conscientiously. Otherwise, contemporary white Protestantism may be forever lost in the 1950s.’ Given the realities of an aging population and a shrinking traditional family base, it is clear that a future mired in the past is really no future at all.
Perhaps the most visible example of this strategy is the recent God Is Still Speaking advertising campaign from the United Church of Christ (UCC). The Ejector Pew commercial from this campaign has attracted attention. It depicts a WASP upper-middle-class nuclear family settling comfortably into a church pew as unconventional families”a black single mother, a gay couple, a single man, and so on”are ejected from their pews. The commercial closes with this tag: The United Church of Christ: No matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here.
This campaign”and the larger sentiment behind it”is doubly ironic. First, despite their inclusive rhetoric, mainline Protestant congregations are actually less likely to have single parents, single adults, and married couples without children than are evangelical Protestant churches. Mainline Protestant churches attract upper-middle-class people who live in conventional families but also aspire to the progressive cultural conventions of their class, which is to say, they walk right and talk left. Evangelical Protestant churches attract working- and middle-class people who hail from a range of different family situations but who now aspire to live in accord with God’s plan for their lives.
The UCC campaign is also ironic because it embraces the trends that have been the undoing of the UCC”indeed, of all the mainline. Because they are less likely to adopt a strict and strongly supernatural religious orientation, and to offer an intense experience of communal life centered on God, churchly traditions such as mainline Protestantism depend more on the rhythms and realities of family life to draw men and women into the life of the church. The average young man raised in a Congregationalist home isn’t likely to enter his local UCC church on any day except Christmas and Easter”unless he finds himself married with children.
By contrast, sectarian traditions such as Mormonism and evangelical Protestantism offer a stricter, more vividly supernatural religious orientation and a strong sense of community grounded in their faith, which tend to command the loyalty of young adults regardless of their family status. The intense community life of more sectarian traditions is also attractive to men, women, and children scarred by the family revolution of the past four decades: A child of divorce in the United States is more likely to join an evangelical Protestant church as a young woman than join a mainline Protestant church.
This is one reason the more churchly traditions in the United States have paid a bigger price for the family decline of the past forty years. Many of the more sectarian traditions have actually prospered amid the family revolution. For example, the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as members of mainline Protestant churches fell from 30 percent in 1972 to 18 percent in 2000; over the same period, the percentage of Americans who identified as evangelical Protestants rose from 19 to 24 percent.
The sectarian groups enjoy relatively strong barriers against a culture they see as degrading and degraded”barriers that help the children born and reared in their traditions keep the faith. They also have had greater success in attracting refugees from the familial discontents of modernity than have more churchly traditions. By contrast, groups such as the UCC have less to offer in spiritual or communal terms to the spiritual refugees of our age and”given recent demographic trends”can count on fewer adults finding their way to a church pew because they want their child to identify with the Golden Rule. Moreover, their recent efforts to reach out to adults living outside conventional families are unlikely to meet with success. Progressive-minded adults living apart from marriage and children tend to live a comfortably secular life that isn’t likely to lead them to the church door.
Perhaps it is no accident that the UCC recently decided not to fund two new commercials for its God Is Still Speaking campaign. The church, which lost more than thirty thousand members last year, does not have the money it had hoped to raise to expand its media campaign to attract adults in nontraditional households. God may still be speaking, but it would seem that many adults who are unmarried without children are not listening.
]]>Children at Riskhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/02/children-at-risk
Sun, 01 Feb 2004 00:00:00 -0500 At first glance,
Hardwired to Connect
, the recent report from the Commission on Children at Risk, a group of thirty-three childrens doctors, research scientists, and youth services professionals, might be viewed as yet another harbinger of social decay. The report, jointly sponsored by the Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA, and the Institute for American Values, documents dramatic declines in the welfare of adolescents over the last half century”to the point where approximately 20 percent of all adolescents suffer from serious emotional or behavioral problems, from depression to delinquency.
Take suicide. From 1955 to 1990, the suicide rate for adolescents aged fifteen to nineteen more than quadrupled from 2.7 per 100,000 to 11.1 per 100,000. Moreover, larger numbers of adolescents now report considering suicide”in fact, by 2001, almost 20 percent of high school students had entertained such thoughts.
As the report suggests, suicide trends are important for two reasons. First, suicide is a dramatic and obvious indicator of a lack of psychological well-being among teens. These suicide trends reflect the marked decline in psychological well-being adolescents have experienced over the last half century. Since the 1960s, depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and delinquency have all risen precipitously among teenagers.
Second, as Emile Durkheim observed over a century ago, suicide is an excellent barometer of the overall health of our social life. When adolescents are integrated into what this report describes as authoritative communities”religious institutions, intact families, and other civic institutions serving children (such as the YMCA)”they think life is worth living. These communities provide them with a sense of belonging and with moral and spiritual meaning that lends their lives purpose and hope. When adolescents have no ties, or only attenuated ties, to authoritative communities, they lose hope and become vulnerable to a range of social and psychological pathologies, including suicide.
So, how have authoritative communities fared in recent years in the United States? The sobering reality is that authoritative communities have not done so well over the last half-century. The family, which the report correctly notes is the first and most basic association of civil society, has been battered and buffeted in recent years. In particular, increases in divorce and unwed childbearing since the 1960s have left an indelible mark on the lives of millions of children. As a consequence of these changes, fewer and fewer children go to bed at night in a home that they share with mother and father. In the 1950s, almost 80 percent of children spent their entire lives in an intact family, whereas in the 1990s only about 50 percent of children spent their entire childhood with their biological mother and father. Children who grow up outside an intact family are more than twice as likely to experience serious psychological or social problems as their peers who grow up in intact families.
Taking a page from Robert Putnams
, the report notes that other authoritative communities in civil society”e.g., religious institutions, Parent Teacher Associations, and YMCAs”have lost ground over the last half century. For instance, the percentage of Americans attending religious services in any given week fell from 49 percent in 1958 to 43 percent in 1990. The decline was more precipitous among teenagers: weekly religious attendance among high school seniors fell from 40 percent in the late 1970s to 31 percent in 1991. Because religious institutions provide moral meaning, spiritual sustenance, and social support to parents and adolescents, and because religious participation is associated with the social and psychological health of adolescents, there is strong prima facie evidence that the secularization of American life has helped fuel the downward spiral in social and psychological well-being among adolescents. (Full disclosure: as a member of the Commission on Children at Risk, I helped to frame the reports treatment of religion.)
These trends are especially sobering because declines in familial and civic life have been concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where too many residents are afflicted by what Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution calls behavioral poverty. By that she means that many residents of these neighborhoods do not finish high school, do not work full-time, and do not marry before having children. Authoritative communities”especially family and nonreligious civic institutions”are weakest in these neighborhoods.
Consider family trends. Only five percent of college-educated women will have a child outside the bonds of wedlock. Nearly 20 percent of women with a high school education or less will have a child outside wedlock. Divorce is also much more prevalent among the poor. Thus, the rural and urban poor are much less likely to marry and stay married than their middle- and upper-class peers, therefore losing out on the social, economic, and moral benefits of marriage.
In many low-income urban communities, churches are often the only civic institutions with any real presence. Nonetheless, even churches located in poor neighborhoods are losing their ties to the poor in their communities, as they increasingly find their pews filled by working-class commuters who drive into the city from the suburbs for Sunday services. As R. Drew Smith of Morehouse College has observed, largely because of a growing moral and geographic divide between the church-going working class and the unchurched urban poor, there appears to be substantial social distance between the urban poor and faith institutions.
The sad irony is that the withering of familial, religious, and civic life is happening in precisely the communities that can least afford it. Research by Daniel Lichter at Ohio State University indicates that women from low-income communities who manage to marry and stay married have virtually the same risk of poverty as women who marry in more affluent communities. In other words, a good marriage virtually eliminates the material consequences of growing up poor for these women.
The work of Byron Johnson at Baylor University indicates that churches are especially valuable in promoting good outcomes among at-risk youth, precisely because these young people do not enjoy the material and social resources that youth in middle- and upper-class communities do. Johnson found, for instance, that children living in poor communities who attend church regularly are less likely to use drugs than unchurched youth living in middle- and upper-class communities.
The picture painted by
Hardwired to Connect
may seem dark. But the report ultimately gives reason for optimism. To begin with, adolescent well-being seems to have stabilized and, in some respects, improved, during the 1990s. In the last decade, for instance, child poverty, adolescent suicide, teen sex, and juvenile arrest rates have all fallen.
These improvements parallel stabilizing trends in family and religion over this same period. In the late 1990s, divorce rates continued a decline begun earlier, the percentage of children in two-parent families increased slightly, and, for the first time in years, opinion polls indicated that more married Americans are very happy in their marriages. According to Gallup data, weekly religious attendance among U.S. adults held steady at around 42 percent in the 1990s, and other survey data indicate that attendance among high school seniors also held steady at 31 percent. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the very institutions that address adolescents fundamental needs for belonging, moral purpose, and transcendent meaning have seen their fortunes improve at the same time that adolescent well-being has taken a turn for the better. But I doubt it. Taken together, these trends suggest that our social free fall is slowing down or even beginning to reverse itself.
The report also suggests a parallel development among elites. In 1992, Irving Kristol wrote that the left today completely dominates the education establishment, the entertainment establishment, the universities, the media. One of these days the tide will turn. Indeed, there are indications that just such a turn of the intellectual tide has finally begun at some of our nations top universities, not to the right but towards a refreshing willingness to grapple with our toughest social problems in a probing and open-minded manner. Virtually every member of the Commission on Children at Risk holds an academic position at a top private or public university”from Harvard to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Only a handful of conservatives were represented on the commission. Yet the commission concluded, rightly, that the intact, two-parent family and religion play a central role in promoting the social and psychological welfare of children, precisely because that is what the best social scientific evidence tells us.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the reports intellectual honesty is that it goes beyond classic sociological and political accounts of the positive role that authoritative communities play in the lives of adolescents (and adults) by arguing that the human person is hardwired to connect to other people and to moral and spiritual meaning. In other words, human connections to family and God are rooted not only in enduring social needs but also in the biological makeup of the human person. The report notes, for example, that adolescent girls who live with their biological fathers experience puberty later than girls who live with unrelated adult males”for instance, a stepfather or a mothers boyfriend. Not surprisingly, girls in the former group are more likely to postpone sex than girls in the latter group. The intact family, then, has both sociological and biological value to girls moving towards adulthood.
Similarly, the report stresses the social and biological functions that religion serves among adolescents. Adolescence is a time when the brain seems most primed to address fundamental questions about life and death, ultimate meaning, and the supernatural. During adolescence, for instance, the prefrontal cortex”a region that neuroscientists have linked to religious experiences”undergoes marked developmental changes. Not surprisingly, adolescents who manage to connect or remain connected to God during this time of change are significantly more likely to believe that life has meaning and purpose than their peers who do not report a direct personal relationship with the Divine. And adolescents who do not feel strongly connected to God, and who do not enjoy a community of fellow believers, are much more likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, and deviance to fill the hole in their lives.
The Commissions willingness to acknowledge the biological and social power of faith, family, and community on the well-being of the young gives reason for guarded optimism about academias future (at least in the social and hard sciences). Indeed, a small but growing number of left-leaning scholars at such institutions as Harvard (Robert Putnam), Princeton (Sara McLanahan), the University of Chicago (Linda Waite), and the University of Virginia (Steven Nock) are regularly entering the public square to talk about the important role that religion, marriage, and civic participation play in fostering the common good. Their willingness to speak up on behalf of the unvarnished truth suggests that hegemonic liberalism is on the wane.
W. Bradford Wilcox is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and a member of the Commission for Children at Risk. He is the author of
Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands
(University of Chicago Press, 2004).