Expert Commentary

Religion, race and perceived barriers to marriage

2011 study published in Sociology of Religion using national survey data of adults ages 18 to 59 to examine how religion can factor into people’s reluctance to marry.

The average age for marriage in the U.S. has gotten considerably greater over time; moreover, only 51% of American adults are now married, according to a 2011 analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center. Prior scholarship on this decline in marriage has focused on changing attitudes toward the institution and various perceived social and economic barriers — factors that individuals cite when they explain their reluctance to marry. Many lower income people, for example, often say they cannot afford to support a marriage; and others worry about it impeding their schooling or career, or requiring commitments they do not believe they can fulfill.

A 2011 study from Florida State University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Texas, San Antonio, published in Sociology of Religion, “Religion, Race/Ethnicity, and Perceived Barriers to Marriage among Working-Age Adults,” uses national survey data of adults ages 18-59 to examine how religion factors into people’s reluctance to marry. The study’s authors note that not only has there been a “lack of research examining how religious individuals may prioritize marriage over other goals,” but additionally “few scholars have explored racial/ethnic variations in the association between religion and self-reported barriers to marriage.”

The study’s findings include:

  • On average, an increased “frequency of church attendance is associated with a decrease in self-reported barriers to marriage.” In other words, those who attend religious institutions generally report fewer reasons why they would not marry. The study’s authors hypothesize that “embeddedness within religious communities may prioritize marriage over other life goals (i.e., financial success), as well as reducing concerns about the opposite sex, through formal and informal social interactions.”
  • However, “although church attendance is associated with the marital attitudes of single non-Hispanic Whites, this is not the case for African American or Latino respondents.” Church attendance for racial minorities does not diminish, in particular, concerns about economic barriers to marriage.
  • For African Americans, this may relate to the Black church’s traditional emphasis on carrying out a broader social mission, the authors write, and “marriage-centered messages may take a backseat to issues of social justice, community enfranchisement, and civil rights.” For Latinos, the reasons are “less apparent. It may be that religious involvement does little to enhance the already strong promarriage sentiment among this ethnic group.”
  • Moreover, other forms of religious involvement such as frequency of prayer did not prove statistically significant in predicting attitudes about marriage: “This finding suggests that organized religious involvement plays a more influential role in shaping marital attitudes than private religious beliefs and practices.”
  • Prayer and church attendance did, though, generally reduce “concerns about sexual fidelity across racial and ethnic groups.”
  • The authors also found that levels of belief in biblical literalism — or displaying any particular theological orientation — did not strongly correlate with fewer perceived barriers to marriage. The researchers speculate that this may be because the most traditional theologies may idealize marriage to such a degree, and create such high expectations, that worshipers “may come to wonder … if they can make a marriage last forever.”

Tags: religion, African-American, Latino, Hispanic, race