Despite being born and raised Jewish, I am agnostic and therefore don’t spend too much time thinking about religion. Even in my research on marriage and divorce, when I come upon studies on how religion and prayer may influence marriages, I tend to ignore them. So do a lot of other liberal media — and perhaps that’s a problem when it comes to understanding the realities of people for whom religion matters.
It is, says sociologist Nick Wolfinger, whose latest book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, was just published. It was co-written with fellow sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, a conservative and director of the National Marriage Project, whose “marriage is the answer to poverty” stance always makes me leery (because it isn’t the answer and can just as often be the problem). But I was pleasantly surprised by how balanced the book is overall (perhaps because Wolfinger, whom I’ve come to know, is a liberal and a nonbeliever) and how the authors acknowledge that religion is not a “magic bullet” when it comes to the real challenges facing minorities in the U.S. today, and there are many.
As they write:
“Sometimes the benefits of religion are modest, and in some categories, most notably marital stability — religion has no impact at all for blacks and Latinos. It is also the case that religious couples who experience disharmony — especially where she is religious and he is not — face worse on some outcomes, such as relationship quality. This is one of the reasons why we are convinced that religion is not the answer to all the challenges facing black and Latino families, or American families as a whole.” tweet
Which could make you think, hmm, well, OK — why even talk about religion if it doesn’t offer all that much? But it offers something, and that’s what stood out the most for me as I was reading the book — religion offers people community.
Church as community
So rather than focus on the many issues — sex, marriage, infidelity, drugs and alcohol, unemployment, nonmarital childbirth etc. — the book addresses, I want to explore the idea of community as a force of good (and sometimes bad).
Community comes in many forms. As the authors note:
“Although organized religion is the primary civic institution in America that promotes good behavior for its members, it is not the only one. Quasi-religious or secular organizations may provide similar benefits. One example is Alcoholics Anonymous, which in addition to sobriety seeks to instill decent behavior in its membership.” tweet
I have a problem with calling anyone’s behavior “decent” (by whose standards?) — people can drink and be decent people and people can get sober and yet continue the same bad behaviors, aka dry drunks. I also have a problem with their statement that “Frequent church attendance also brings congregants into contact with happily monogamous couples.” Since there is the occasional story in the media that begs to differ, such as pastors who engage in infidelity or other “indecent behavior” such as porn addictions, this is a bothersome assumption.
Nevertheless, a healthy, happy community can offer friendship, support and a sense of purpose. It can also offer more depending on the needs of its community.
So what do minorities need that religion can offer? One thing the book identifies is the need to support minority men. While I don’t agree that the church’s “message should be one of … finding a partner, getting married and sticking together” — given the many ways to live well today, that’s an extremely narrow and heteronormative view — the book does speak to the ways the church is a place of support, friendship and guidance for men, whether by offering engaging activities (at the risk of sounding cliche, group sporting events for example) or teaching classes to build marketable skills or acting as an employment center to help them find meaningful careers with decent wages or offering essential mental health counseling. Men, minority or not, are often lacking the deep friendships women seem to have, and it is hurting them.
In that respect, the services and ministries churches offer are greatly helping their congregants. But, as Wolfinger tells me, “This is not necessarily about religion.” Right, because other groups can offer that, too. But, he adds, “Now, that having been said, we do see big effects for individual devotion, namely prayer. What is prayer? It’s an affirmation.” Plus, he says, couples that pray together do better.
This makes sense. Even nonbelievers often say affirmations. I do, and it’s less about expecting anyone or anything to help me or fix things, but more a desire to express my pain or need out loud. I can see how encouraging and supporting someone, whether a friend or a loved one, in that can be positive.
Still, community matters. As a nonbeliever, there was a bit of a struggle over including covenant marriages — a type of marriage born out of the conservative evangelical movement that makes marriage harder to get into and out of — into The New I Do. Why would we want to include a marital model that was more restrictive than even traditional marriage? But it made sense to include it; not only is it the only other legal marriage license in the U.S., albeit in just three states (Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona), but research indicates couples who enter into it are happy. Why? Because the somewhat onerous requirements of having a covenant marriage, including premarital counseling, means that the couple knows exactly what they are getting into and when couples have matched expectations, they tend to have happier marriages. Thus, couples in covenant marriages have a 50 percent lower divorce rate than couples who don’t.
Community holds us accountable
I don’t want to discount the impact of premarital education that a covenant marriage requires, because it most likely helps a lot. But perhaps the best thing a covenant marriage offers is community. It doesn’t have to be a religious community — what matters is that you have some sort of community because, as Phil Waugh, who with his wife runs the Covenant Marriage Movement, told us, your community will hold you accountable.
Which sounds great … until it doesn’t. Groups can pressure, judge, shame and blame people into things that are unhealthy — like staying in a bad marriage out of fear of being shamed (not to mention communities that are dangerous cults, but that’s a different conversation). It’s challenging to be an outlier if everyone in your community is staying married, happily or not.
But the best community is supportive, accepting, loving, compassionate and nonjudgmental, it offers hope and solace, and if a religious community can do that and be helpful to those who seek it, so be it.
Anne Lamott, who has long written about her struggles with addiction, expresses what church does for her:
“I live for Sundays. It’s like going to the spiritual gas station to fill up on fuel and clean the dirty windshield and mirrors. I usually show up nuts, self-obsessed, vaguely agitated, and I am at once reminded not of who I am, but Whose I am. … Then everything falls into place, and I smile again at how crazy I (and most of us) are, but how at church, in fellowship … I remember the truth of my spiritual identity.” tweet
But I’m a believer in the importance of connection and community. That’s what seems to be missing for a lot of us nowadays especially as we increasing rely on technology for social interactions. If we’re truly seeking solutions to the increasing inequality in our society, then community, religious or not, is an essential part of the conversation.
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