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What the Facts Show About Religion, Marriage & Society
by William L. Saunders
It is odd that the Democratic Party has become the party of secularism. It is odd because it is unwise. After all, the practice of religion is critical to a flourishing society. Hostility to religion—shown by Bolce and De Maio to be common among Democratic Party elites—is hostility to a healthy society.
Religion, simply put, is a human good. It is good for individuals, and it is good for society. Beyond the question of whether a particular religion is true, social science research has shown that religious practice has many measurable benefits.
The practice of religion (1) increases one’s sense of personal well-being, (2) contributes significantly to physical health, (3) is a significant predictor of future earnings potential, and (4) decreases drug and alcohol use.1
The practice of religion plays a significant part in increased life expectancy,2 and significantly decreases the rate of suicide.3 It also plays a significant role in binding local communities together.4 Youth who practice religion are less likely to cohabit and are more likely to marry.5
Marriage is itself, of course, an important social good. Married people (1) are happier, (2) experience better emotional as well as physical health, and (3) have higher incomes and greater assets than unmarried people. Married women suffer the lowest rates of physical abuse.6 Children are safer when living in a married household. Such children are less likely to engage in premarital sexual activity, and they have greater educational success.7
Correspondingly, (1) single mothers are more likely to live in poverty and to have emotional problems; (2) single fathers are likely to have less education and income; and (3) children living in single-parent families are likely to suffer economically.8
However, the institution of marriage has been greatly weakened in our society over the past 30 years. In 1996, the marriage rate was the lowest it has ever been. Based on current rates, 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce. Between 1970 and 1996, the percentage of children living with a single parent increased from 11.9 percent to 25.4 percent.9
Divorced women and their children are more likely to suffer from serious depression. These children are themselves more likely to divorce when they marry.10
Religion is a significant factor in decreasing the chances of divorce. “Regular church attendance is the critical factor in marital stability across denominations and overrides effects of doctrinal teaching on divorce.”11 Furthermore, youth who practice religion are less likely to engage in premarital sex.12 This, in turn, significantly decreases the chance of divorce when they subsequently marry.13
Religion clearly is a social good, contributing significantly to the health of individuals, strengthening marriages (as well as the institution of marriage), and decreasing the risk that individuals will engage in antisocial behavior. In these and in many other ways religion strengthens society.
Religion also does one other important thing—it leads to the continuity of society through the transmission of life. No society can endure whose fertility rate sinks below replacement level. The United States is barely at replacement level now. However, many parts of the world, particularly Europe, are below replacement level. The unavoidable consequence will be that such societies disappear.
What is the most important factor in the decline of fertility? Secularization, according to demographers Ron Lesthaeghe and Christopher Wilson. Secularization (“the decrease of adherence to organized forms of religion”) is “the most powerful variable at the outset of fertility decline” and “the one with the longest lasting effect.”14
Given all the evidence of the positive effects of religious practice throughout society and across demographic groups, in the preservation and transmission of society itself, it is odd, to say the least, that any political party would be the party of secularism, as the Democratic Party has apparently become.
Of course, to note, as Bolce and De Maio do, that most religious Americans now identify with the Republican Party is not the same thing as saying the Republican Party identifies with them. The only proof of that would be if the Republican Party were to advocate policies supporting religious practice, marriage, and the family, as well as the moral principles that religious Americans hold dear. •
1. Studies cited in “Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice
on Social Stability,” Patrick F. Fagan, Backgrounder
No. 1064, The Heritage Foundation, January 25, 1996; www.heritage.org.
2. “Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality,” Hummer et al., Demography, vol. 36, No. 2 (May 1999).
3. “Suicide in America: A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Religious and Family Integration, 1933–1980,” K. D. Breault, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 92, No. 3 (November 1986).
4. “The Influence of Local Church Participation on Rural Community Attachment,” Liu et al., Rural Sociology, vol. 63, No. 3 (1998).
5. “Reciprocal Effects of Religiosity, Cohabitation and Marriage,” Thornton et al., American Journal of Sociology 98 (1992).
6. The Family Portrait: A Compilation of Data, Research & Public Opinion on the Family, Bridget Maher, ed., Family Research Council, 2002; www.frc.org.
11. Fagan, “Why Religion Matters,” op. cit.
12. “Religious Participation and Adolescent Sexual Behavior and Attitudes,” Arland Thornton and Donald Cambum, Journal of Marriage and the Family 51 (1989).
13. “Premarital Sex and the Risk to Divorce,” Joan R. Kahn and Kathryn A. London, Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991).
14. “Modes of Production, Secularization, and the Pace of Fertility Decline in Western Europe, 1870–1930,” in The Decline of Fertility in Europe: The Revised Proceedings of a Conference on the Princeton European Fertility Project, Princeton University Press, 1986.
William L. Saunders serves as senior fellow and director of the Center for Human Life & Bioethics at the Family Research Council. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he was recently profiled in that law school's inaugural Guide to Conservative/Libertarian Law.