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 reporttitled, “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.”
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Source: Christianity Today