As a sociologist who studies family and marriage trends, I predict that in the coming years, we’ll see a growing wave of mainstream media and academic stories contending that religion, especially evangelical Christianity, hurts women, children, and families. These stories will be framed around one key question: Is faith a force for ill in family life—from marriage in general to domestic violence in particular?
In recent years, the question has focused especially on spousal abuse against women.
For example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) recently published a report titled, “Submit to your husbands: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” The subtitle, too, issued a similar claim: “Advocates say the church is not just failing to sufficiently address domestic violence, it is both enabling and concealing it.”
The series, which set off a firestorm between defenders and critics, exposed numerous cases of battered Christian wives who had been neglected or let down by their pastor or Christian counselor. Spotlighted by both ABC’s online and television coverage, the story left the impression that some evangelicals’ support for gender traditionalism and male headship set the stage for abusive behavior. Although it ran in a major outlet half a world away, the story is suggestive of the kind of coverage that is likely to become more common here in the United States.
This story and others like it, however, underscore common misperceptions about how religion impacts male behavior in marriage.
So, what does the science tell us? Are some forms of evangelical Protestantism bad for marriage and “good” at fostering domestic violence?
The answer is complicated, since some research suggests that gender traditionalism fuels domestic violence. For example, a study in the Lancet found that domestic abuse was higher in regions across the globe where “norms related to male authority over female behavior” are more common.
In general, however, the answer to these questions is “no.” In my previous book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, I found that women married to churchgoing evangelical men—compared to women married to men in other major religious traditions or women married to unaffiliated men—report the highest levels of happiness. Their self-reports were based on two markers: “love and affection you get from your spouse” and “understanding you receive from your spouse.” This same demographic of women also report the highest levels of quality couple time.
My newer book Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos, co-written with sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger, reveals similar findings. Men and women who attend church together are almost 10 percentage points more likely to report that they are “happy” or “very happy” in their relationships, compared to their peers who attend separately or simply don’t attend religious services at all. On average, then, evangelicals (as well other religious believers in the United States) who attend church regularly enjoy higher quality marriages compared to their less religious or secular peers.
But are their marriages safer?
My research suggests that wives married to churchgoing evangelical men are comparatively safe. In the National Survey of Families and Households, husbands and wives were both asked if their arguments had gotten physical in the last year, and, if so, if they or their partner had “become physically violent.” By these measures, churchgoing evangelical Protestant husbands were the least likely to be engaged in abusive behavior.
Research that looks solely at the impact of church attendance comes to similar conclusions. Sociologist Christopher Ellison and his colleagues found that women who were married or cohabiting were significantly less likely to report abuse if they regularly attended religious services. According to their study, “compared with a woman who never attends religious services, a woman who shares similar demographic characteristics but attends several times a week is roughly 40% less likely to be a victim of domestic violence.” Not surprisingly, they also found that “men who attend religious services several times a week are 72% less likely to abuse their female partners than men from comparable backgrounds who do not attend services.”
What about nominal Christian men? Are they more or less prone to spousal abuse?
Although the empirical story of religion and domestic violence looks good for practicing believers, it’s much less rosy for others. My research suggests that the most violent husbands in America are nominal evangelical Protestants who attend church infrequently or not at all. The reasons are not entirely clear. It’s possible they believe Christian teaching about male headship gives them a hitting license. Or perhaps their class or culture—many of these men hail from parts of the South and Appalachia populated by working-class Scots-Irish descendants with a greater propensity for violent behavior —explains these results. Religiously mixed couples may also have a greater risk for domestic violence, especially theologically conservative men married to women who do not share their religious views. In these cases, religion is not protective against abuse.
Are there other cases in which religion is bad for marriage?
Some research indicates that “extrinsic religion” can be problematic. Someone who practices extrinsic religion attends church or participates in other religious practices as a way to placate a spouse, impress community members, or alleviate a guilty conscience. One study found that men motivated by extrinsic religious concerns were more likely to be abusive towards their partners. Because this study was not based on a nationally representative sample of men, the findings are only suggestive. Nonetheless, it is certainly plausible that men motivated to engage in religious activities for largely or solely extrinsic reasons are worse husbands and fathers.
Taken as a whole, what does the evidence suggest?
In general, setting aside nominal Christians, the research indicates that evangelical Protestantism does not pose the kind of risks that are often alleged. Indeed, at least judging from studies here in the US, it looks like churchgoing may well help men steer clear of violence.
How, exactly, does religion have a positive impact on marriage?
In general, religion tends to impact married people quite positively. The family-friendly social networks, the higher propensity of religious couples to pray for their spouse, and the psychological comfort of faith all generally help to strengthen marriages. Two of these factors—the social support and personal comfort derived from faith—also appear to protect spouses from the debilitating stress associated with difficult children, unemployment, the death of a loved one, and other circumstances.
Moreover, religious Americans—including evangelicals—are more likely to embrace family-centered values that foster marital permanence and a shared commitment to sacrificing for one’s spouse and family. In the United States, in fact, it looks like men’s commitment to family-centered beliefs is a more important predictor of their wife’s happiness than their beliefs about gender roles—at least for Christian men. My research indicates that men’s attitudes about marital permanence predicted greater marital happiness for their wives while men’s attitudes about gender roles were unrelated to wives’ reports of happiness.
Given the contemporary cultural and political environment, we ought to be skeptical of stories reporting that faith is a force for ill and that the church is “enabling” bad behavior when it comes to women, children, and families. That’s because, in the main, faith appears to play a positive role in the lives of American families—especially for husbands and wives who can be found sitting together on Sunday morning at church.
In some cases, does the church make domestic abuse worse, not in incidence, but in response?
Domestic violence is still present in church-going homes, and Christian clergy, counselors, and lay leaders need to do a much better job of articulating clear, powerful messages about abuse and, more generally, married life. Although, as noted before, the church is not necessarily enabling abuse, some local churches, clergy, and counselors fail to address abuse head-on for fear of breaking up a marriage. Others steer clear of addressing the topic from the pulpit or in adult education for fear of broaching an uncomfortable subject. This silence around domestic violence has to end.
W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, is the coauthor of Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos (Oxford).