In 2000, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. Moynihan, a man of unusual wisdom, experience, and perspective, responded this way: “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This change has occurred in “an historical instant,” Moynihan said. “Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”
In order to help us better understand what has happened and why, two authors with different life experiences and worldviews — W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia (conservative, Catholic, and a married father) and Nicholas Wolfinger of the University of Utah (an unmarried, childless liberal, and a nonbeliever) — have written Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos. As the subtitle implies, Professors Wilcox and Wolfinger discuss the influence exercised by churches on relationships and marriage among blacks and Latinos.
The authors begin the book by discussing the family revolution that has swept across the United States over the last half century, a revolution characterized by unprecedented levels of nonmarital childbearing, divorce, single parenthood, and multiple-partner fertility. “Marriage,” Wilcox and Wolfinger write, “has been deinstitutionalized as the anchor of the adult life course and of family life itself.” This has disproportionately affected Latinos and especially African Americans, the nation’s two largest minority groups, who today make up a quarter of the American population and are projected to constitute more than 40 percent of the population in 2050.
In 1970, 57 percent of blacks were married; today, the figure is 25 percent. For Latinos, the corresponding figures are 72 percent and 47 percent. From 1980 to 2011, the percentage of children born outside wedlock rose for blacks from 56 to 72 percent and for Latinos from 24 to 53 percent. (For whites, the figure rose from 9 to 29 percent over the same period.) In 2011, 67 percent of black children, 40 percent of Latino children, and 25 percent of white children lived outside a two-parent, married family.
Wilcox and Wolfinger point out that most African Americans and Latinos will marry at some point in their lives, most of them are married or in a live-in relationship when they have children, and most black and Latino couples are happy and monogamous. Family life for these two groups, they argue, is more positive than some contemporary accounts convey. Yet there’s no denying that the retreat from marriage in modern life has disproportionately affected them — and as a result, tremendous hardships have been inflicted on their children in particular. (Children raised in single-parent homes are much more likely to suffer from psychological problems such as depression, get in trouble with the law, live in poverty, and drop out of high school. Their chances of succeeding in life are a lot lower, the challenges they face a lot greater.)
Soul Mates argues that a “confluence of economic, policy, and cultural currents came together with sufficient force in the late 1960s and 1970s to generate a tidal wave of family change” — and African Americans and Latinos were most susceptible to its effects. The explanations, the authors argue, have to do with history, most especially the poisonous effects of slavery, segregation, and other forms of discrimination; with culture, since Latinos and African Americans are more likely to be consumers of popular culture and therefore its messages of hedonism and radical individualism; and with structural issues such as deindustrialization, poverty, incarceration, and poor education. William J. Bennett once pointed out that an earthquake that struck Mexico City in the mid 1980s was less powerful than the one that would hit San Francisco only a few years later. But in Mexico City, the casualties were many times higher and the overall damage much worse. The reason? The amount of devastation often depends less on the magnitude of a quake than on the stability of the structures it affects. This is essentially what Wilcox and Wolfinger argue as to why African-American and Latino families have suffered disproportionately from the aftershocks of the family and sexual revolutions.
Analyzing the crack-up of the American family, including families among minority groups, is not a ground-breaking effort; scholars have been doing it for decades, and Wilcox and Wolfinger rely on many of them in their book. But what is a genuinely new contribution is the book’s examination of the role faith plays in shaping relationships, marriage, and family life.
According to Soul Mates, religion is an important bulwark against marital and family decomposition. The data and findings the authors amass are impressive: Religious participation decreases infidelity and out-of-wedlock births and profoundly increases the likelihood that people will marry. Churchgoing Latinos and African Americans are significantly more likely to be gainfully employed, to steer clear of criminal activity or substance abuse, and to be happy compared with their peers who don’t attend church or attend only infrequently. According to Wilcox and Wolfinger, religious faith “serves as an important source of personal, familial, and communal strength for many Latinos and especially many African Americans.”
Addressing those who claim that what is going on here is self-selection — that family-oriented people seek out religious institutions to reinforce their preexisting orientation toward marriage and family life — the authors argue that the evidence indicates that “the effects of religion are largely causal, and not representative of selection.” (The basis for this finding is, in part, controlling for numerous social, demographic, and psychological differences between survey respondents.)
Professors Wilcox and Wolfinger repeatedly remind us that religion is no silver bullet. For instance, religion does not seem to have any impact on marital stability for blacks and Latinos (religious attendance does not reduce the divorce rate for either group, even as it substantially reduces divorce among whites). But overall there’s no denying that religion is a force for good in African-American and Latino family life. Religion, for example, “helps sustain Latinos and Blacks in their efforts to be hardworking, temperate, law-abiding members of their communities who steer clear of the temptations of the street.”
“Churches foster an ethic of care and reinforce a code of decency among their members,” according to Soul Mates. (All of this explodes the silly claim by the late Christopher Hitchens that religion “poisons everything.”)
One of the many virtues of this textured, balanced, and sober book is that it interjects compelling human stories to illustrate the authors’ empirical findings. For example, we’re introduced to Eduardo and Graciela Valdez, a Mexican-American couple from Spanish Harlem who were children of divorce and had experienced fractious family lives. But their faith led them toward marriage.
“This commitment came from that faith in God,” Eduardo told the authors. He had faith in marriage “despite all my brokenness, despite all my flaws,” he added. Graciela was “the only person that I believe, that I know, that loves . . . not just the good Eduardo, but also the broken Eduardo. And I felt called also to do the same thing for her.”
Loving another person in his or her brokenness is a beautiful description of what it means to be committed to another person for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do them part. This has never been easy, and in our age — in which relational commitments are increasingly attenuated, contingent, and impermanent; in which what the sociologist Daniel Bell called an ethic of self-expression and self-gratification now dominates — it might be harder than ever. There is a reason scholars refer to our “post-marriage” society.
To restore marriage in 21st-century America will require many things, including public policies that can help on the margins. Soul Mates briefly makes some recommendations, including eliminating marriage penalties and disincentives for the poor and for unwed mothers, expanding the earned-income tax credit, and increasing the child tax credit and funding for proven vocational-education and apprentice programs.
But what is most required to revivify marriage is what is most beyond the power of government to do: reconfigure the order of our loves. A marriage culture will be rebuilt one person at a time, through finding greater fulfillment in self-giving, elevating our affections and desires, and loving others as we love ourselves. None of us does this very well, and all of us could do it much better than we do. Yet for all the moral failures that can be laid at the feet of religion and those acting on its behalf, there is nothing in human history that has helped people improve their character and refine their loves more than faith.
Faith, it has been said, is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. We need it now more than ever, as the hammer of modernity has fractured our most precious human institutions, marriage and family, leaving much human wreckage behind.
Fortunately for those of us who are believers — in my case, a follower of Jesus — there is some comfort in knowing that our faith teaches us that what has been wrecked can also be redeemed.
— Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. This article originally appeared in the February 29, 2016, issue of