Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos
Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos
Nicholas H. Wolfinger; W. Bradford Wilcox
Oxford University Press, 2016
248 pp., 36.99

Buy Now

Anna Sutherland

Marriage and the Church

A new study focuses on African Americans and Latinos.

"I used a lot of drugs, I drank a lot, I didn't care for my family … . When the weekend came I left my wife and I would go play soccer with friends … and then go drinking and that was my whole weekend." That's how Roberto Flores, a 37-year-old Mexican American living in San Diego, describes his former life. When his wife, Marcia, convinced him to attend a couples' retreat at a nearby Catholic church, everything changed.

"That's when I met God," Roberto explains. "I cried before God, which was something I never did. I never cry. But a lot of things I never did before I did on that day." After that retreat, Roberto left behind his destructive habits and re-engaged with his wife and kids. He also started going to church, where he has been taught that God "has a plan for marriage," and that "you need a lot of love to raise a good family."

Roberto and Marcia's story, one of many recounted in Soul Mates, vividly illustrates how churches can transform marriages and support families—not just among middle-class white evangelicals, but also among racial minorities facing complicated problems like addiction and economic instability. And these days, resources for struggling families are perhaps more crucial than ever. For a combination of cultural, political, and economic reasons, Americans of all racial/ethnic backgrounds are more likely to delay or forego marriage, more likely to divorce, and more likely to have kids outside of marriage than they were fifty years ago. As previous researchers have documented, Christians who attend church regularly have happier and more stable marriages than non-churchgoers, and they are less likely to have children out of wedlock, for reasons I'll get to below. They have been protected to some degree from the post-1960s revolution in family life that is still unfolding today. Yet African Americans and Latinos, who are more religious on average than other racial/ethnic groups, have been particularly vulnerable to that revolution, and religious practice has less of a positive effect on their relationships than it does for whites.

Sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger teamed up to investigate the questions that these patterns raise. Wilcox is a professor at the University of Virginia, director of the National Marriage Project, and a colleague of mine at the Institute for Family Studies; Wolfinger is a professor at the University of Utah. The modest length of Soul Mates belies the extensive research behind the book: it incorporates the results of six national surveys as well as insights gleaned from interviews with 25 members of the clergy and 60 other adults, visits to black and Latino churches, and focus groups in four cities. The volume is accessible, engaging, and at times even moving, despite occasionally getting bogged down by statistics.

At least a few of those statistics are relevant here for the sake of background. In the 1970s, 57 percent of black prime-age adults (20-54 years old) and 70-some percent of whites and Latinos were married. In the current decade, by contrast, the figures stand at 25 percent for African Americans, 47 percent for Latinos, and 49 percent for whites. Contra the common perception, divorce rates are not at an all-time high, but roughly one in five blacks, one in seven whites, and one in eight Latinos who have ever been married are divorced. Most couples in every racial group report being happy in their relationships, yet by this measure as well, black couples are disadvantaged. Americans of all backgrounds have become far more likely to have children outside marriage since the 1970s; as of 2011, 29 percent of white children, 53 percent of Latino children, and 72 percent of black children were born to unmarried parents.

Wilcox and Wolfinger show convincingly that the roots of these racial and ethnic differences are both economic and cultural. First, both African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to live in poverty and suffer unemployment, and these factors strain relationships among Americans of all races. It's easy to object to this claim: plenty of couples endured the Great Depression with their marriages intact, after all. But financial stressors are more destructive today, several scholars have argued, because the dominant understanding of marriage has changed. In Wilcox and Wolfinger's words, marriage is now considered "a relationship capstone of sorts that signifies that a couple is 'set,' both financially and emotionally, at a certain level of middle-class comfort and security." Poor and working-class Americans generally still desire marriage, but for many, it's a dream as remote as financial security.

Socioeconomic disparities do not wholly explain divergent patterns in marriage and childbearing, however. Other factors behind black and Latino Americans' fracturing families include the ongoing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, the stress of experiencing contemporary racism and discrimination, greater exposure to TV and media, and the pull of "street culture." It is worth underlining that the last item—"a lifestyle marked by violent self-assertion, criminal activity, off-the-books work … and infidelity"—is relevant only to a minority of African Americans and Latinos. But because it affects more black and Latino people than whites, it contributes to racial/ethnic gaps in family formation and stability. (Substance abuse is also tied to street culture, yet it does not seem to be more of a problem for racial minorities than for whites.)

Churches that serve black and Latino communities offer relief from and push back against these relationship-damaging forces. In opposition to the "code of the street," churches preach a "code of decency" entailing "hard work, temperance, responsibility, sexual fidelity, and the Golden Rule," and provide activities and social networks that make it easier to adhere to that ethic. Many churches also address congregants' financial and career struggles by, for instance, pointing them to job opportunities or offering financial management classes. Further, "black and Latino churches often provide a message of hope, acceptance, and comfort as well as opportunities for enthusiastic worship that can be therapeutic for attendees." (This being a work of sociology rather than theology, Soul Mates does not mention the role of divine grace or other supernatural interventions in believers' lives.)

Presumably for reasons such as these, churchgoing African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be employed, happy, and faithful to their partners, and less likely to commit crimes and abuse drugs and alcohol, than their non-churchgoing peers. Similarly, when couples attend church with their friends (who may support their relationship and serve as role models), they report happier relationships. Praying together likewise boosts relationship quality.

What about family values? Do Americans of different racial backgrounds have different views of right and wrong when it comes to relationships and families, and do churches influence their behaviors? The answer is complicated. According to opinion polls, whites are more liberal than their black and Latino counterparts about premarital sex. Yet "pro-child attitudes and accommodating social norms" toward nonmarital childbearing among these two groups "trump attitudes about sex."

Attending church does make a difference in people's moral convictions and behavior: it is linked to reduced odds of nonmarital sex and childbearing, and a greater likelihood of marrying, among whites and minorities alike. Perhaps surprisingly, that doesn't appear to be attributable to hearing sermons on these subjects. Wilcox and Wolfinger report that religious leaders serving black and Latino congregants "only occasionally mention sex, childbearing, or marriage" in services, perhaps for fear of alienating people. If such churches encourage people to marry, it is usually indirectly—through emphasis on the Golden Rule, forgiveness, and other Christian principles that foster happy relationships—rather than directly. (In my experience, the same could be said of plenty of Catholic parishes serving mostly white, upper-middle-class congregations.) In short, churches may be able to do more to address family breakdown than they currently are, but as Roberto and Marcia's experience and other real-life accounts attest, they already play a vital role in regenerating and sustaining Americans' marriages.

The one issue I wish Wilcox and Wolfinger had examined in greater depth is that of sex ratios, particularly among African Americans. I explained the basic dynamics in my review of Marriage Markets last summer: When a community contains more women than men, the desires of single men tend to win out. That means more hookups and less marriage; more infidelity and less trust.[1]

The theory that a shortage of marriageable men explains much of the decline in marriage rates among all races may be overblown, but among African Americans the thesis is more plausible. Due to black men's higher risk of incarceration and early death and their poor employment prospects, there are just 77 employed, never-married 25- to 34-year-old black men for every 100 employed, single black women in that age range, according to scholars at the Brookings Institution. Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks argues in his 2011 book Is Marriage for White People? that this shortage of black men, particularly in the middle class, goes a long way toward explaining why marriage rates have fallen so far in that community.

In fact, Banks believes that the lopsided sex ratio among middle-class African Americans gave rise not just to African Americans' low marriage rates but also to the somewhat mysterious black-white gap in divorce and marital quality. Because middle-class black women are reluctant to pair up with non-black men, and because they face a shortage of black men with education and careers to rival their own, they are willing to marry (black) men with less education and less income than they have. Or as Banks states it more succinctly, "Black women marry down because they don't marry out." An income gap favoring the woman frustrates both husband and wife (a tendency Wilcox and Wolfinger also note), and a gap in education levels often spells differences in values and priorities. The resulting tensions may contribute to elevated levels of divorce, and lower levels of marital happiness, among African Americans, Banks proposes.

But perhaps it's unfair to criticize a book that breaks new ground for failing to describe every inch of well-tilled soil. In explaining how religion influences (and fails to influence) black and Latino couples, Soul Mates can equip church leaders to better serve couples of all races.

Anna Sutherland is editor of Family-Studies.org.

1. "Inequality and the American Family," Books & Culture, May/June 2015, pp. 19, 21.

Most ReadMost Shared