For his latest research, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox stepped out of the ivory tower and relocated to New York City. He and his family spent a year living in Harlem, interviewing pastors and members Of black and Latino churches in their neighborhood, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
Wilcox and co-author Nicholas H. Wolfinger’s analysis appears in the new book Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos(Oxford University Press). The academics reached across ideological aisles to explore the ways Christian faith has bolstered two of the country’s most vulnerable ethnic groups.
A Roman Catholic, Wilcox is perhaps best known to CT readers for his research on marriage. He recently spoke with assistant editor Morgan Lee about the crucial role of Latino and African American pastors, why they hesitate to preach about sex, and what everyone might learn from his findings.
You’re married, religious, conservative, and have children. Your co-author, Wolfinger, is single, an agnostic, progressive, and childless. What compelled you to write a book together?
The academy is pretty divided, ideologically speaking. Most scholars, particularly in sociology, have a more progressive and often more secular perspective on the world than do ordinary Americans. There are few opportunities for scholars who don’t share the same ideological commitment to engage in a meaningful way. Despite our differences, Wolfinger and I share a commitment to the truth and to trying to understand what’s happening in the data. For people who are skeptical of our empirical claims about marriage and church, it’s important to underline the fact that a progressive was also doing the statistics.
What’s the main takeaway of your research?
For the nation’s two largest minority groups, Latinos and African Americans, Christianity plays an unheralded role in fostering stronger marriages and families. Faith does this in part by fostering what sociologist Elijah Anderson terms a “code of decency.” It’s a code associated with hard work, the Golden Rule, and steering clear of substance abuse and illegal behavior. This code is particularly helpful to churchgoing black and Latino men, redounding to not only their benefit but also spouses, partners, and families.
We find, for instance, that churchgoing minority men are much more likely to get married than peers who don’t attend church. More generally, faith fosters solidarity among families and couples in particular . . . This may be why, for instance, church attendance is associated with higher-quality relationships among both blacks and Latinos.
You found that religious affiliation (e.g., “Baptist”) is mildly predictive, church attendance is more predictive, and personal religiosity is the most predictive when it comes to positive family outcomes.
This is true for relationship quality in couples. The best religious predictor of being happy in a relationship is praying together as a couple. Taking your faith directly into the domestic sphere seems to reap real benefits for black and Latino couples. And evidence says that’s true for basically everyone in the United States.
We also find that attending church is a better predictor of family outcomes than is particular religious affiliation, whether you’re a black Protestant, Catholic, or Latino Protestant. Being integrated into a community where you get social support, are held accountable, are part of corporate worship—all these things matter. But we also find that personal and family prayer is an even more powerful predictor of family outcomes than is church attendance.
Many discussions about education, mass incarceration, and poverty lump black and Latino communities together. What makes these groups distinct?
Black and Latino families are more likely to confront poverty or lower incomes than other Americans. They are both more likely to report issues related to racism or some kind of xenophobia.
Hispanics, however, have a higher marriage rate and are more closely connected to the institution of marriage than African Americans. We also found that Hispanics had more of a “pro-natalist” view of the world. They are much more likely to welcome babies and children than either blacks or whites.
In the African American community, fathers are less likely to be integrated into families. So single mothers have had to bear a bigger burden when it comes to rearing kids. Marriage is more fragile in the black community. Black pastors and lay leaders are less likely to talk about marriage and fatherhood because so many of the people sitting in the pews are single mothers.
You’ve found that many black and Latino communities hold traditional views on extramarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce, yet many times still engage in extramarital sex and cohabitation. What explains this discrepancy in belief and action?
In some cases, minority couples are cohabiting rather than marrying because they are worried about the economic prospects of one of the partners, usually the guy. That’s certainly part of the dynamic. But many Catholic and black Protestant churches steer clear of issues related to sex and cohabitation for fear of angering or upsetting unmarried adults and parents in their pews on any given Sunday. It’s a real pastoral challenge. This is less the case for Latino Protestants, who are more likely to tackle sex and cohabitation head on.
Political scientist Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart describes the rapidly growing disparity between affluent and poor whites. Why isn’t this as true right now for poor African Americans and Latinos?
White churches—particularly mainline Protestant and Catholic churches—have become much more middle- and upper-middle-class places. Your average working-class person who might dress a little bit differently, smoke, struggle with steady employment, and be divorced or a single parent may walk into these churches and feel out of place. In contrast, many black and Latino churches don’t have that kind of class hurdle to jump over.
What can pastors of such churches take away from your book?
First, a sense of accomplishment. Our work suggests that churchgoing is linked to significantly better outcomes for both black and Latino men. They are less likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be gainfully employed, and otherwise more likely to steer clear of illegal activity and substance abuse, marry, and enjoy higher-quality relationships. We think the church plays an important role in helping black and Latino men navigate the challenges of contemporary society.
Second, we’d tell pastors they can be more intentional about designing their ministry to attract and keep men engaged. Black and Latino men are less likely to attend church than black and Latino women. That’s true for Anglos as well. But that’s a particularly salient issue in the black community, where men are less likely to be connected to their mates and children.
How can public policy come alongside churches in helping families thrive?
[Creating] jobs. Particularly with young adult males not on the college track, providing men with opportunities would give them a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Real job options, such as IT, manufacturing, or a trade would serve them well as a person and also a potential family man. There is evidence that vocational training has helped serve lower-income boys as they navigate the path toward adulthood.
Public policy can also minimize or eliminate marriage penalties. Medicaid and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] can end up penalizing couples with a child or two who want to get married. That’s a perverse incentive embedded in many policies. We can also strengthen the economic foundation of working class and poor families by extending the income tax credit for childless men, expanding the child tax credit for families, or more generally subsidizing lower income work.
If religiosity leads to better and happier marriages and lives, shouldn’t policymakers create policy that encourages religiosity?
Policy really cannot directly encourage religion. So the government should grant churches and religious organizations the latitude they need to do their work: teaching, preaching, and serving congregations and the broader society.
Many policies are designed with the noblest intentions, yet when you look at results, they are unimpressive or even counterproductive. Some people have an unrealistic faith in public policy to reach goals in serving the least of these. When people are struggling with patterns of depression or long-term unemployment or issues that have a more psychological or cultural component, those people are often in need of the caring community and uplifting message that local churches and religious nonprofits provide.
What can white communities learn from your findings?
We found that white couples who attend church together enjoy markedly higher levels of relationship quality, in part because they are more likely to have friends at church who are there for them and because they are more likely to pray together. Shared prayer is a very powerful predictor of marital quality—for all Americans.
Our research also suggests that faith is no panacea when it comes to challenges facing Latino and black families, from poverty to racism, from xenophobia to family instability. To reduce the ethnic divides in American life, white Christians need to do their part to seek public justice. In the book, we touch on the importance of criminal justice reform and reforming welfare to reduce the marriage penalty as two public policy steps that would strengthen minority families.
You write, “One thing that we are also seeking to stress is the idea that on many outcomes, black and Latino men are doing just fine.” Given racial bias still at work in many parts of society, as well as the disproportionate ways mass incarceration and poverty affect such communities, what do you mean by “fine”?
Many African American and Latino men and families are flourishing, and one reason that those men and those families are flourishing, in our view, is that they’re more likely to be integrated into the life of a local church than are their Anglo peers. By “flourishing,” I mean that they are doing well enough—being productive members of society, steering clear of illegal activity and substance abuse, marrying, and enjoying higher quality relationships.
Of course, minority youth, especially those who grow up in neighborhoods marked by concentrated poverty, are more likely to be vulnerable. But the point here is simply this: most Latino and black men are not poor, will not be incarcerated, and are gainfully employed. These men, however, are often obscured or ignored in the nation’s public conversation about minority men.
I spoke about the book at a recent event in Oklahoma City. One black father was surprised to learn that most black men aren’t poor, won’t be incarcerated, and aren’t unemployed. He asked, “Why haven’t I heard this before?” He then said he was so glad his teenage son was there to hear me underline this truth.
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