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Do Children of the 'Unequally Yoked' Do Worse?

Plus: Ultimate questions about colleges' core curriculum and other news from the higher education world.
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The September 2007 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion includes a study by Ph.D. student Richard J. Petts and assistant professor Chris Knoester of The Ohio State University on the question of religious heterogamy between parents, or the effects of parents being "unequally yoked" on their children. How do children fare when one parent is a believer of some kind and the other is not?

The authors noted studies confirming positive effects of religious participation on the lives of children in the form of higher self-esteem, overall satisfaction, higher grades, and reduced usage of drugs and alcohol. Given the likelihood that mixed-faith marriages would tend to reduce religious participation and cause marital conflict, the authors hypothesized that children would be negatively impacted by these marriages.

The study produced surprising results. Children of religiously unmatched parents did not manifest lower grades, lower self-esteem, or lower satisfaction. But they were far more likely to use marijuana and engage in underage drinking.

I interviewed Richard Petts about his findings.

Are religiously heterogamous unions on the rise? If so, why do you think that is?

All signs point to a sizeable increase in religiously heterogamous marriages, although detailed numbers are hard to come by.

There are a number of reasons for this increase. First, increased individualism among Americans starting in the 1960s led to a greater focus on spirituality and personalized religious practices. This led many people to turn away from traditional churches, and also helped to increase acceptance of religious diversity.

Moreover, religious affiliation as an identifying characteristic seems to have declined in importance. For example, people may identify more closely with labels such as "religious" or "Christian" instead of "Methodist."

Religions have also become more accepting of interfaith marriages than in the past.

Finally, higher education and mobility in the U.S. (as well as new waves of immigration from both Christian and non-Christian countries) mean that people are more likely to meet individuals from diverse religious backgrounds. Increased acceptance and a greater likelihood of interacting with people of different religions increase the likelihood of marrying outside of one's religious denomination.

The study is limited to families with parents in their first marriage. Wouldn't such families they have more stability and therefore greater social capital? How did that affect the study?

To some extent, you are correct. There is likely some bias here towards children raised in more stable family situations. However, this bias is consistent for both the same-faith and interfaith families in the study.

Our study may be limited in that these results may only hold true for families with greater social capital, but the fact that we find differences between children raised in religiously heterogamous families suggests that there is something unique about the religious dynamics in these families that affects youths' outcomes.

I suspect that parents in the interfaith marriages included in our study may have been better equipped to handle the stresses associated with these differences, which may help to explain the lack of significant differences in outcomes such as self-esteem and life satisfaction. If this is the case, then our study provides a very conservative estimate on the effect of parents' religious heterogamy on children's well-being, because interfaith marriages with lower social capital may have already dissolved (which is detrimental to children's well-being).

When you ran the numbers, some of the negative anticipated effects of having parents with different religions didn't seem to be present. Do you have an opinion as to why?

This finding was especially surprising to us, because we figured that internalized well-being (such as self-esteem) would be more affected by religious heterogamy because youth would be less sure about beliefs and [would likely have] a weaker sense of identity.

I suspect that part of the reason that we did not find negative effects [in those areas] is that being raised in a religiously heterogamous family may actually be beneficial to youth in some ways. If interfaith parents teach their children that it is important to find a religion that best suits them [as individuals] and accept religious differences in others, then youth may actually develop a strong sense of identity and have an opportunity to find out which religious beliefs are important to them.

In addition, being raised in a diverse family is likely to increase one's tolerance and acceptance of others. These benefits likely have a greater effect on outcomes like self-esteem, life satisfaction, and school performance than delinquency, which may explain the results of our study.

Negative effects that are present include a substantially higher rate of underage drinking and marijuana use. What do you think accounts for those results? One thing that seems confusing is that one might expect a population with much higher rates of those behaviors to manifest problems like lower grades.

Results from our study suggest that higher rates of substance use are due to lower religious participation in these families. Thus, youth raised in religiously heterogamous marriages may be less exposed to the social control that religion provides, increasing the likelihood that they become involved with drugs and alcohol. Most religions encourage youth to lead good and meaningful lives, which includes living a healthy lifestyle free from these types of substances. Youth who are highly involved in religious communities may be more likely to adhere to these teachings and have fewer opportunities to engage in substance use. Without this social support network, youth in religiously heterogamous families may be more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Although educational performance may also be part of living a "good and meaningful life," the pressure from religious institutions to get good grades may be less than the pressure to avoid behavior like drug use.

Instead, factors like parents' education level and age (which are unrelated to these kinds of delinquency) may be more closely linked to youths' grades. Interfaith parents have a higher average level of education than same-faith parents, so grades may be highly emphasized in religiously heterogamous families, reducing differences between children raised by same-faith and interfaith parents.

The Kronman Complaint

Two weeks ago, I discussed an op-ed by Yale's Anthony Kronman in which he called for taking the humanities more seriously in undergraduate curriculum. In making his case for America's universities to give strong consideration to courses that ask ultimate questions about life, Kronman urged his readers not to concede the field to "religious fundamentalists" who are paying a great deal of attention to classical learning on the relevant subjects.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kronman's essay brought responses from Christians who disagreed with his characterization of the situation as "dangerous." John Seel of Walden Media was particularly eloquent when he wrote:

The older humanities professors did not always agree with each other, but they believed in the significance of their disagreements because they were thought to be statements about reality. Not so today. The only agreement is that there is no final truth, no ultimate affirmation, no final cause, and no value in religious affirmations that suppose that there are. The search is the end; the questions are all one has. Kronman's animus against religious conviction is his animus against any fixed and final absolute. When "truth" is person-specific, the Great Conversation is reduced to the Great Monologue.

Kronman's broader point about the value of the humanities is utterly valid: The state of the core curriculum at America's colleges and universities is poor.

More News

Homeschoolers are a big group … and in big demand by colleges! (Chronicle of Higher Education, subscription required)

Oral Roberts University has been severely besieged by a variety of scandals (ABC News)

The Cardinal Newman Society has issued a new guide to faithful Catholic colleges (Cardinal Newman Society)

Hunter Baker is special assistant to the president and director of strategic planning at Houston Baptist University. Got a tip regarding academic research or higher education? E-mail him at hunterbaker@gmail.com.



Related Elsewhere:

Previous Evangelical Minds columns include:

Church, State, and the Founding of America | Plus: Studying pagans, humanities vs. religion, and more. (September 27, 2007)
Christian Smith on Why Christianity 'Works' | Plus: Baylor publishing woes, and other news from the higher education world. (September 13, 2007)
David Dockery on Christian Higher Ed's Key Challenges | Plus: Fearing secularization and "fundamentalization" and whether "Christian economics" exist. (August 30, 2007)
Why College Doesn't Turn Kids Secular | Also: Richard Land on the footbath controversy, Falwell's big Liberty gift, and other stories about higher education and research. (August 16, 2007)
Christian Higher Education Goes to Russia | Plus: One more argument against U.S. News rankings, and Silver Ring Thing goes to Harvard. (August 2, 2007)

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