You might not think a Christmastime column could be inspired by a gathering of social scientists, but this one was. Here is how it happened.
Last week, I attended a conference exploring what we know - and what we need to learn - about issues related to marriage and the family. Early in the proceedings, Byron R. Johnson, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at Vanderbilt University, presented research indicating that black males reared in low-income neighborhoods by single mothers are significantly less likely to commit crimes if they are involved in religious activities.
There's nothing too surprising there. We have known for a long time that involvement in religious activities helps reduce the risk of engaging in a variety of maladaptive behaviors, including crime. The finding that religious involvement reduces the risk for criminal behavior in children growing up in single-parent families is perfectly consistent with the conclusions of past studies.
Mr. Johnson didn't stop there, however. He went on to report that religiously involved fatherless children were indistinguishable in terms of future criminal behavior from black males reared in the same low-income neighborhoods by two married parents.
Now that is interesting. Why should it be that being involved in religious activities overcomes the extraordinary risks associated with growing up in a fatherless household?
All sorts of explanations started to fly. Perhaps it's because religious activities expose the fatherless child to more adult male mentors and positive role models than might otherwise be the case, some said. Others asserted that it might be because churchgoing single moms, through their own religious involvement, are exposed to broader and more effective social support networks than those not involved in religious activities. Others simply tried to dismiss the findings by citing this or that flaw in methodology.
Certainly each of these explanations has merit. Involvement with adult male mentors has been found to be helpful in reducing the risk of poor outcomes for fatherless children. Social support networks are important contributors to a child's well-being in both two-parent and single-parent families. No study is methodologically perfect.
But what struck me about the discussion was this. Each explanation was essentially a secular one. No one offered a religious explanation for the power of religion. Well, allow me to suggest one.
We have known for a long time that children living in fatherless households do better when their father has died than when their father is absent because of divorce or unwed fathering. …