CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec via Catholic Sun

The problems facing African American families are familiar: poverty, high rates of male incarceration, children born outside of marriage, absence of dads from the home… But a new book suggests that these problems would be a lot worse without black communities’ attachment to religion.

Religion, so often ignored or dismissed by those tasked with research or forming public policy, has a largely positive influence on both black and Latino family life, according to sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger. Overall, it gives a boost to marriage of about 30 percent.

And the good effects would be even greater if pastors were more forthright in telling their flocks about the benefits of marriage, Wilcox says. “The Church needs to find its voice,” he said in a radio interview. “It can do a lot better job of reaching out to men, who are, across all denominations, less engaged and active.”

Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was not talking rashly. He transplanted his interracial family to Harlem for a year so he could attend black churches there and in the Bronx, and “get a sense of what was happening on the ground for blacks and Latinos in New York City.”

Wilcox is a conservative and a Catholic. Wolfinger, Professor of Family and Consumer Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah, is an unmarried, childless liberal, and a nonbeliever. It’s an unlikely pairing but one that promises a balanced account of their subject.

Their book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, reports that both married and unmarried minority couples who attend church together are significantly more likely to enjoy happy relationships than black and Latino couples who do not regularly attend.

Participation in church life is the key, they emphasise, not mere affiliation.

Churches serving these minorities, the authors argue, promote a code of decency, encompassing hard work, temperance, and personal responsibility, that benefits black and Latino families.

“When it comes to ‘family values,’ a clear majority of blacks and Latinos value marriage above single living, and they are also more likely than whites to oppose premarital sex. Moreover, the vast majority abides by a “code of decency” (a term coined by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson) that encompasses employment, steering clear of drug use, and avoiding incarceration; this code furnishes a social and economic context that fosters a strong family life. Taken together, these findings suggest that black and Latino family life is in better shape than some critics have suggested.”

At the same time there are important differences between the two communities – differences not always easy to explain.

The Hispanic paradox

Latinos, who have about the same levels of education and income as do African Americans, are more like white Americans when it comes to marriage. Latinas marry for the first time, on average, at 25, compared with 31 for black women. Only 35 percent of Latinos divorce within the first 10 years of marriage, compared to 39 percent of whites and 52 percent of African Americans.

Scholars refer to this mismatch between Latino education and income on the one hand, and their marital experience on the other as the Hispanic paradox. Wilcox and Wolfinger were not able to explain this from their data, but they say:

“But it is worth noting that foreign-born Latinos are especially likely to get married and stay married, which suggests that either they bring a strong family orientation from the land of their birth, or they enjoy distinctive personal qualities as immigrants that somehow strengthen their family lives (or some combination of both).”

Black family fragility – another paradox

Today 52 percent of African American children live with a single parent, compared to 27 percent of Latino children and 19 percent of white children. This is surprising given that African Americans attend church more often than anyone, and seems to contradict the general finding that religion supports family life. Once again, the authors could not fully account for this from their data, but they point to four key factors:

First, the nation’s poisonous legacy of slavery, segregation, and discrimination continues to play an important role in accounting for the racial fissures in family life. Second, the unraveling of America’s strong industrial economy, which used to furnish stable, decent-paying jobs to blue-collar men, has resulted in fewer employment opportunities for low-skilled workers. This has undercut the economic foundations of black family life. Third, cultural factors, such as greater acceptance of single motherhood, play a role. Finally, ill-conceived public policies—such as drug laws that have had a disparate impact upon blacks, or means-tested programs that penalize marriage among lower-income couples—have tragically injured black family life.

Despite academic debate about the relative importance of these factors, say Wilcox and Wolfinger,

“no one can dispute the fact that single parenthood and family instability coupled with lower relationship quality pose challenges to African American men, women, and children. Given the strong relationship between marriage and overall well-being, African Americans’ retreat from marriage has tragically undermined equality in the United States.”

Latinos also have their cultural vulnerabilities.

Today more than 50 percent of Latino children are born out of wedlock, well above the 29 percent figure for whites. Socioeconomic factors partly account for this but cultural factors, such as the Latin American tradition of “consensual unions” openness to children (pro-natalism) and beliefs involving contraception and abortion also come into play. “Latinos are more likely to welcome children both inside and outside of marriage.”

The role of religion

Ultimately, the authors note, most African Americans and Latinos marry, enjoy happy relationships, and abide by a code of decency that increases the odds of enjoying a good family life. These triumphs are often facilitated by religious faith, which serves as an important source of personal, familial, and communal strength for many Latinos and, especially, many African Americans.

In fact, their research shows:

* 70 percent of African Americans consider themselves moderately or very religious (Latinos 61 percent, whites 55 percent)

* 36 percent of African Americans aged 18 to 55 go regularly to church (Latinos 29 percent, whites 24 percent

* church attendance produces an 8-percentage point reduction in being out of work and school for black men (Latino men 9 points and white men 6 points).

“Statistics like these underscore our contention that religion is a force for decent behavior, and thus happier and more stable families, among all kinds of Americans.”

As Wilcox says, the Church needs to be much braver in getting this message to the people who most need to hear it.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet  An introduction to Soul Mates is here. Link to Amazon

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet