The decades since World War II have seen ever greater cultural struggle, as the freedom and security fought for in that war, the Great Depression, and earlier crises resulted in conflict over what our way of life should be. The sexual revolution, racial integration, the general questioning of traditional authorities were consequences of cultural struggle. Since the collapse of communism, the last great challenge to freedom, the struggle has only intensified, with the secularization of the urban, educated part of the country, and the crucial struggle over liberty of conscience. But is the secular paradise the cultural left is struggling for really a better choice?
Recent research discussed at the Brookings Institution on May 20 reasonably spoke to this question. Two panels discussed “Ties that Bind: Is Faith a Global Force for Good or Ill in the Family,” issued by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute. It addressed some of the results of persistent traditional beliefs in the contemporary world, noting differences with those who have adopted secular outlooks. In the first, two researchers, Laurie DeRose of Georgetown University and Spencer James of Brigham Young University. discussed the research with Conrad Hackett of the Pew Research Center and Christine Emba of the Washington Post. They focused on the impact of religious faith on fertility and marital relationships.
DeRose said that while the United States continues to have a somewhat higher fertility than other developed nations, and continues to be more religious, American fertility “has reached an all-time low.” She said that the “key” to understanding higher fertility rates is reasonable “compatibility between work and motherhood.” Where sexual egalitarianism has become the social ideal, a commonly believed idea is that “gender equity is the new natalism.” Male participation in homemaking is thought important, she said, to higher fertility where egalitarianism has taken hold.
However, progressively greater attendance at weekly religious services was shown by the data to be associated with progressively higher fertility, and also “more traditional gender role attitudes.” The greater prevalence of marriage among those with traditional sexual attitudes was part of this, with married people having 0.76 more children per woman than the unmarried population. Additionally, DeRose observed, America has higher fertility despite the fact that public policy does not encourage simultaneous employment and motherhood. Indeed, data show that “fertility is becoming increasingly determined by religion” in this country. Thus, declining national fertility is entirely reasonable given that the country is becoming more secular. The gap between the marriage rate of the traditionally religious (which is higher) and the secular is also growing. These results, of religion being linked both to marriage and fertility holds “across the countries we looked at, [in] all low fertility countries … people of faith contribute toward sustainable fertility.”
Spencer James discussed the importance of “long-term, committed relationships.” The decline of family relationships “over the last fifty years … fuels poverty, insecurity, and inequality.” Marriage, he said, is strongly related to “cessation from criminality, health, and happiness.” Finally, much academic research shows that children resulting from “committed, married parents” do better in life than other children. The research found that highly religious couples had higher reported levels of relationship satisfaction, closeness, perceived stability, and sexual satisfaction (especially for highly religious women). Separating respective samples into sexual traditionalists (who believe in traditional sexual roles) from non-traditionalists, James said data showed a “J curve,” with couples who agreed on non-traditional roles reporting better relationship quality than mixed couples (where partners disagreed), but not as good as traditional couples (who agreed on traditional roles). Couples who both accepted traditional roles and were highly religious reported the highest quality relationships. Although these findings are only correlations, he said, the results are consistent across the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and Australia. Religious norms and the reinforcement of religious communities were offered as possible reasons for this correlation.
DeRose that asked if “religiously prescribed gender roles” in fact “put women at higher risk” of violence and marital infidelity. She said the research showed that marital fidelity was associated with agreement in religious commitment. Infidelity was more likely in couples with a secular partner and a religious partner. But the traditional religious belief in “male headship” was not associated with more violence, unless the couple was more secular.
Hackett said that decline in fertility is happening in all groups, but less so for religiously committed persons. Society then should be more religious over time, although the United States is becoming more secular, so that the future is not clear. But since greater religious fertility is a global phenomenon, the non-Western portion of the world, which is far more religious, should increase. For Western societies, however, he said we need more evidence to see if religion will be more influential in the future.
Christine Emba endeavored to provide “a generational perspective,” noting that she is a millennial. She said millennials “are putting off relationships, and wondering how we can afford, or even if we want, children.” Among women especially, millennials wonder about “fairness,” and the impact of children on their lives. Millennials are now entering adulthood, but look at traditional values with some cynicism, viewing marriage and the family in terms of power. Moral failures on the part of parents and institutional religion contribute to this. Noting the “J curve” phenomenon in the report (with secular and religious couples happier than mixed couples), she especially emphasized its assertion that the curve may exist because sexual and familial traditionalism in a religious context promotes family solidarity, whereas the same traditionalism among the non-religious simply promotes male domination. Millennials seem not to understand this difference, she said.
The second panel concerning the relationship of faith and feminism included researchers Jason Carroll of Brigham Young University and Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia, who discussed the research with Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution and Hanna Rosin of National Public Radio.
Sawhill said the report seemed to offer the hypothesis that more “gender equality” would improve fertility. But “I don’t agree with that” she said. Instead, she believes that the greater life choices feminism offers women will lead to fewer women deciding to marry, and also to women deciding to have fewer or no children. She believes that “religion is slowing down” the fertility decline, but that feminism is not “pro-natalist.” She said that “maybe we do need traditional institutions to slow the process down a bit and provide safe harbors for people caught up in all the disruptive change.” But Rosin said that she is surprised at “how little effect religion has had” on the overall American trend of family breakdown and lower fertility.
Wilcox said it is important to distinguish between the “nominally religious” from the “seriously religious.” He said that the report found that the nominally religious “are more likely to be doing worse off” by a number of measures than those which have important strong shared religious commitments. While it is true that there is more divorce in more conservative states where there is more marriage, data also show that strongly religious counties in such states have both more marriage and more family stability. But he pointed to an area of agreement between the strongly religious and the secular egalitarians in their belief that men should be more engaged in the raising of children.
Wilcox also noted that even in socially liberal societies like the Netherlands, there is significant interest on the part of women in part-time employment along with the raising of young children. He said that public policy should acknowledge that this is what many women want. The New York Times studied the question parental time allocation some years ago, he said, and found that both men and women want to “spend more time with their kids,” but women favor part time work to do this. Sawhill added that we need to ascertain how much of the differences in life preferences between men and women are biologically based and to what extent they are culturally based. Wilcox maintained that there is research that shows that at least part of the preference difference between men and women is biological.
Carroll noted that social liberals assume that family problems mean that social reality ought to be changed, whereas the traditionally religious bring to the question “a different set of meaning,” (apparently the belief that problems in families may be due to the failings of individuals). He agreed that parental participation in the raising of children is one point at which traditional religion and feminism agree, but said that important to the influence of religion is its “dosage effect.” Nominal adherence to a faith makes little difference. Regular attendance at worship has a greater effect. Incorporation of religious observance into daily life through prayer, family religious observance, and in other daily activities greatly increases the dosage effect. Sawhill said that the excessive individualism favored by social liberals may provide too little of what the report called “scaffolding” for personal life. Particularly important in this regard is that “in the K through 12 years, you can’t teach values.” More than mere technical knowledge is needed, she said “to navigate today’s world,” and “religion can play a role there.” Wilcox added that religious belief is more important than cultural attitudes in determining the actual nature of marriages.
Carroll said that marital patterns observed, such as the effect of the degree of religious commitment and the importance of uniform belief in a couple were “remarkably common across faith groups.” He also said that even though the report’s assumption that replacement level fertility is desirable may be questioned, it remains a fact that more women report having fewer children than they want than report having more children than they want.
Wilcox said that in assessing the impact of religion on marriage and family life, it should be borne in mind that 1) religion is not a panacea for marriage and fertility problems, 2) religious hypocrisy is real, and 3) there is a significant difference between “extrinsic religiosity” (regular outward worship) and “intrinsic religiosity,” in which religious belief and practice is woven into life.
The report’s findings should encourage us in the conviction that traditional religious belief and strong commitment are beneficial both to quality of life and the long term survival of society. It may be possible to live life without it, but decades after the 1960s, the data collected in this report show that society is not better off in the areas examined.