God is in the details

views on marriageThe Washington Post summarized a new Pew Research Center survey that shows there are significant foundational shifts in Americans’ understanding of what constitutes marital happiness and success. In a front-page story on Sunday, reporter Donna St. George looked at the most substantial attitudinal change over previous years:

Children rank as the highest source of personal fulfillment for their parents but have dropped to one of the least-cited factors in a successful marriage, according to a national survey to be released today.

In a study that shows how separately marriage and children are viewed, Americans expressed great passion for their sons and daughters but clearly did not see them as the glue of their adult relationships.

On a list of nine contributors to success in marriage, children were trumped by faithfulness, a happy sexual relationship, household chore-sharing, economic factors such as adequate income and good housing, common religious beliefs, and shared tastes and interests, the nonprofit Pew Research Center found.

“Marriage today, like the rest of our lives, is about personal satisfaction,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociology and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, noting that there are mixed consequences for the changing views of marriage.

“It allows us to grow and change throughout our lives, and most Americans value that,” Cherlin said. “On the other hand, our relationships are much more fragile, because we think we should leave them if they become unsatisfying.”

The article is very interesting and shows just how rapidly Americans are separating sex, marriage and children. As you might expect — along with a reader who passed along the story — there are some dramatic religious ghosts lurking inbetween the paragraphs of this story.

You’re probably not as nerdy as I am, by which I mean I like to read every survey, Supreme Court opinion and piece of legislation I can get my hands on. So you may not want to read the 91-page report [PDF] on which St. George wrote her story. But if you did, you would find that religious differences correlate with major differences of opinion recorded in the survey.

[O]ur survey finds substantial differences in attitudes that fall along the fault lines of religion and ideology rather than age.

White evangelical Protestants and people of all faiths who attend religious services at least weekly hold more conservative viewpoints on pretty much the whole gamut of questions asked on the Pew survey. This is true across all age groups. For example, white evangelical Protestants are more likely than other religious groups to consider premarital sex morally wrong.

They are more likely to consider the rise in unmarried childbearing and cohabitation bad for society and more likely to agree that a child needs both a mother and father to be happy. They also are more likely to say legal marriage is very important when a couple plans to have children together or plans to spend the rest of their lives together. Further, white evangelical Protestants are more likely than white mainline Protestants to say that divorce should be avoided except in extreme circumstances and to consider it better for the children when parents remain married, though very unhappy with each other. In sum, white evangelical Protestants have a strong belief in the importance of marriage and strong moral prescriptions against premarital sex and childbearing outside of marriage.

The pattern is the same among those of any faith who attend religious services more frequently, compared with less frequent attendees.

Babies Sleeping Baby  redAnother interesting division in the survey was between white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants. Seventy-three percent of evangelicals consider it important for couples to legally marry compared with only 35 percent of white mainline Protestants, 43 percent of Roman Catholics and 20 percent of seculars. Of those who attend church more regularly, 69 percent say marriage is very important compared with 36 percent of the less religious and 27 percent of those who never or almost never attend church services.

The Pew report tried to paint a picture of people with traditional marriage views and, again not surprisingly, the religious angle appears:

Compared with other parents, they’re more likely to be white, well-educated and well-off economically. They also have a distinctive religious profile. They are more likely to be Catholic (32% vs. 21%) than other parents. They also are more observant; some 47% attend church weekly or more often compared with 38% of other parents. Politically, they’re more inclined to be Republican than other parents, and, ideologically, they’re more inclined to be conservative.

A majority are happy with their lives — some 55% report being “very satisfied” with their lives overall, compared with just 40% of the rest of the population.

That last sentence is interesting. The headline for the Washington Post story is “To Be Happy In Marriage, Baby Carriage Not Required.” That headline may be eyecatching for the aging baby boomers who make up the paper’s audience, but I’m not sure it’s quite right.

Stories about surveys tend to have a very short shelf life, but perhaps other reports will look into some of the religious ghosts.

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  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I suppose it would be too much give “attainment of salvation” as a possible answer to main purpose of marriage question? Or how about companionshiip, preservation of civilization, or avoidance of temptation, or economic support, or…

    I hate polls and usually do not think they are newsworthy. One reason is that they often ask the wrong question or do not give the participants enough choices for answers.

  • http://shaun.pbin.org Shaun G

    I am always skeptical of polls in which people are asked to identify their religion, without other qualifiers like “Do you actually believe most of what your religion teaches?”

    There are far too many people out there who think that their religion is like their ethnicity — something they were born with, not necessarily something they practice.

    One reason why it might seems like evangelicals are most likely to have more traditional views on marriage is because there are likely fewer people who identify themselves as evangelicals even though they have fallen away from the faith. (In contrast, in Catholicism, once baptized, you’re a Catholic unless you formally defect.)

  • http://shaun.pbin.org Shaun G

    Just an addendum to my previous post:

    Assuming that most Christian denominations agree, at least on the books, about the sorts of things the survey covers (e.g. premarital sex is bad), the only thing you can really glean from a survey like this is the orthodoxy rate of each denomination.

    Taking that into consideration, I would love to see pollsters and reporters, when they try analyze this sort of data, also pay some mind to what the different denominations actually teach — that way, readers get an idea of the issues about which there is a gulf between what the denominations teach and what their flocks actually believe.

  • MikeL

    It would be interesting to explore how the near universal acceptance of contraception ties in with the decoupling of children from ideas of marital happiness and sucess.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    All excellent points. The thing that leaves me wondering when I read Pew surveys is how confessional Protestants who are neither mainline nor evangelical are classified.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I wonder if we should classify as “religious ghosts” the deliberate omission of religious attributes of a survey or a story. There are so many mentions of religious influences in the Pew report that St. George could not have omitted them without doing so intentionally.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I’m guessing that you folks who are throwing stones at the Pew survey probably haven’t read the report and certainly haven’t been involved in constructing and executing a real survey. It’s a very difficult job, and Pew has a strong track record of constructing valid surveys, executing them well, and delivering thorough reports on the results. The problem with the Post story is not the survey, the results, or the report but the reporter’s decision to cherry-pick portions of the report that fit with her own biases and made for good copy for her target audience.

  • MJBubba

    Mollie, I believe Pew uses a couple of key questions to screen evangelicals into a group, and, depending on the survey, they may ask for self-identification. Regarding confessional protestants (LCMS, etc), this will split them up according to the way the key questions are phrased. As a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, I have followed some of their questionnaires, and found myself categorized both ways in different polls.
    Over at Barna, the same thing applies; I sometimes come up as “born-again,” and sometimes not. The ways of the pollsters are mysterious to me, too.

  • Jerry

    If the story I read this morning concerning the classification question (and for other reasons):

    Experts say the loss in membership is one more sign faith is entering “the post-denominational era,” in which worshippers pick a church based on location, the average age of the parishioners or a pastor’s charisma…

    The ebb in membership in all mainstream Protestant faiths has led to a new phenomenon: Churches are re-forming across denominational lines, merging with compatible congregations of other faiths.


    From this, it seems reasonable to classify people not by denomination but by their underlying beliefs.

  • Chris Bolinger

    One of the interesting aspects of the Pew survey is the correlation of responses to how often the respondents attend worship services. It’s not perfect, but it adds another dimension to the religious classification(s) of respondents.

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