Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

As the Family Goes

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

As the Family Goes

Article excerpt

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 grayhaired 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 die 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 fortyfive 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 bris, congregations erect a sacred canopy of meaning over the great chapters of family life: birth, childrearing, and marriage. …

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