Does FRC index underline weak link between faith and family?

December 15, 2010

The conservative Christian, Washington-based Family Research Council (FRC) has just released its first “Annual Index of Family Belonging and Rejection.” You can click here to see its full details.

The “Index of Belonging” is 45 percent and that of “Rejection” is 55 percent. The report’s author, Patrick Fagan, who heads FRC’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute, says the following:

“Only 45 percent of U.S. teenagers have spent their childhood with an intact family, with both their birth mother and their biological father legally married to one another since before or around the time of the teenager’s birth … 55 percent  of teenagers live in families where their biological parents have rejected each other. The families with a history of rejection include single-parent families, stepfamilies, and children who no longer live with either birth parent but with adoptive or foster parents.”

An intact family is one defined as one in which “a child’s birth mother and biological father (were) legally married to one another since before or around the time of the child’s birth.”

One thing that really strikes me about the index, which draws on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, is that while it gives charts and breakdowns in a detailed appendix based on ethnicity, state, region, by region and ethnic group, by the country’s 26 largest cities, and other geographical criteria, there is no chart that gives a breakdown on faith lines.

USA-RELIGION/ORGANIC

(PHOTO: Does the family that prays together, stay together? The consertavive Christian Hale family in rural Texas pray before a meal. Picture taken September 4, 2007.REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES)

This is interesting, not least because of FRC’s overtly conservative, evangelical outlook on the world. Indeed, the report says that the task of repairing the country’s families — which it says lies in the “restoration of the husband-wife relationship” — must be “led primarily by the institution of religion (church, synagogue, mosque and temple) and aided by the institution of education (schools, universities and media). These three—family, church and school—are the prime shapers of relationships.”

Does this assertion stand up to scrutiny? Based on some comparisons, perhaps not. For example, if you were to take the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which was conducted in 2007, and compare it to FRC’s new index (based on 2008 data), you might draw some conclusions that would shake up a few evangelicals. (I admit the Pew findings are drawn from a different data set so there is an element of apples and oranges in my exercise here …)

The Pew findings certainly jive with most people’s geographical conception of the U.S. “Bible Belt” — the South is much more strongly evangelical than other regions, and in three states — Oklahoma (viewed by many as part of the South), Arkansas and Tennessee, over 50 percent of the adults surveyed counted themselves as evangelical Protestant. In the (liberal)  North East and California, only 11 to 20 percent of adults considered themselves evangelical. And in Utah, which is the Mormon heartland, only seven percent were evangelical.

How do these findings stack up with FRC’s on families and belonging and rejection? Well, on the “Index of Belonging,” the North East comes out on top and 50.4 percent, the South rock-bottom at 41 percent. As the FRC report acknowledges: “The South—mistakenly thought of as the most tradition-bound region of the country—has the least family-friendly environment for children.

Does this mean that evangelicals are failing to live up to the family values they promote? Liberal and secular critics would no doubt be quick to point this out though I’m guessing FRC researchers would respond by saying that other research shows that families that attend church together and pray together (as many evangelical families do) are usually more “intact”, even within these regions. This is just a guess but it would be interesting to see researchers explore these angles. (And there are other studies for example that suggest that white evangelical Protestants have high rates of teenage pregnancy – which helps explain why many took Bristol Palin’s pregnancy in stride. But critics would say it is further evidence that evangelical ideals and reality are far apart …)

The FRC findings also provide further bad news about the state of African-American families. In the Index of Belonging, Asian-Americans (at least some of whom I would guess are South Asian Muslims) come out on top at 62 percent, while blacks are at the bottom at 17.4 percent. Again, as one Pew report noted last year: “African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life.”

When you compare all of these findings, do they in fact suggest an inverse relationship between religiosity and “intact” families?

Another look at my apples and oranges here suggests perhaps not, though not in a way I think that would please come conservative evangelicals. On a state-by-state comparison, Utah tops the “Index of Belonging” list at 59 percent. Not only is Utah the least evangelical state in the union at seven percent, according to Pew, it is also of course the center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more popularly known as the Mormons. And they comprise 58 percent of the state’s population (which is almost identical to the state’s “Index of Belonging” score).

So, is the Mormon faith (which many evangelicals regard as an oddball cult) the best at promoting those good “old fashioned family values?” Based on at least Pew’s regional and ethnic comparisons, is the link between evangelicalism and Christian religiosity in general and strong families weak? Or, is my apple and oranges exercise here (which I admit is just that, so it is not meant to be taken THAT seriously) flawed on a number of counts?

What do you think?

4 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The 2005 National Study of Youth and Religion published by UNC-Chapel Hill found that Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) youth (ages 13 to 17) were more likely to exhibit these Christian characteristics than Evangelicals (the next most observant group):

1. Attend Religious Services weekly
2. Importance of Religious Faith in shaping daily life – extremely important
3. Believes in life after death
4. Does NOT believe in psychics or fortune-tellers
5. Has taught religious education classes
6. Has fasted or denied something as spiritual discipline
7. Sabbath Observance
8. Shared religious faith with someone not of their faith
9. Family talks about God, scriptures, prayer daily
10. Supportiveness of church for parent in trying to raise teen (very supportive)
11. Church congregation has done an excellent job in helping teens better understand their own sexuality and sexual morality

. LDS . Evangelical
1. 71% . . 55%
2. 52 . . . 28
3. 76 . . . 62
4. 100 . . 95
5. 42 . . . 28
6. 68 . . . 22
7. 67 . . . 40
8. 72 . . . 56
9. 50 . . . 19
10 65 . . . 26
11 84 . . . 35

You would think Evangelical preachers would be emulating Mormon practices (a creed to believe, a place to belong, a calling to live out, and a hope to hold onto) which were noted by Methodist Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean of the Princeton Theological Seminary, as causing Mormon teenagers to “top the charts” in Christian characteristics.

Posted by BotBot | Report as abusive

Pat Fagan here (the author of the study).
Overall I agree with the direction of FaithWorld’s questions but first a few clarifications (followed by almost-disagreements):
1: I am Catholic, not Evangelical (though FRC is).
2: I would have gladly put in the religious attendance data but Census NEVER collects such data though I wish they would (other federal surveys do and the American Community Survey would be so much better if it did). I hope you will push for that.
3: We have covered this anomaly (high worship and low marriage) and brought lots of attention to it. See our study based on the National Child Health Survey ( http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF10D60.pdf  )
4: Bill O’Hare, former editor of the Kids Count from the Annie E Casey Foundation was the first I know of to point out this anomaly. (Mississippi is the highest weekly church attending state but the lowest family intact state). This clearly points to a family / marriage crisis within the church. Probably most within the Black church — but not solely there. One cannot call oneself a serious Christian (unless one also calls oneself an unreformed one and a sinner) while simultaneously breaking universal Christian doctrine on sex and marriage. This bears further digging into.
5: All the deep digging into the relationship between religious practice and marital stability points to a very clear and very strong relationship between both. (We have a review of that literature coming up on our website (MARRI.FRC.ORG) in the next few months. This will only heighten the anomaly, not diminish it.
5 (a) Our Mapping America Project ( http://marri.frc.org/get.cfm?it=MA) does show — repeatedly — that the intact family that worships weekly is the strongest social unit and the most productive by far. So religious practice and marriage are very important for the strength of the country. Let’s not pit one against the other.
6: The Mormon states do very well and overall most exemplify (at the state level) this strength of relationship (which holds across all denominations). There is clearly grist for the church-leadership mill here.
7: As I hope this will make clear (and I hope FaitWorld will notice) we are interested in the truth, not ideological point-scoring. There is much to unravel in the tension between the macro data (state level marriage vs worship data) and micro data (the greater the religious attendance/ prayer the stronger and more stable the marriage). But it is precisely these “contrary” data that are the source of intellectual breakthrough.
8: To add to this dilemma: The social sciences (to date and probably always) cannot measure the heart (the inner workings, desires, cover-ups, prayers — or lack thereof). It is confined to measuring externalities — measurable behaviors and words. Getting to the hidden interiorities is beyond its competence. Christ excoriated the religious leaders of his time for what was not in their heart even as the externals looked rather devout. We may be in the same situation. I know I often am.
9: Our data point towards a need for reform within the church. History teaches two lessons about Christianity: practiced it yields enormous benefits, talked about but not practiced it yields untold suffering and it a great cause for scandal and shame.
10: The history of Christianity is a history of reform upon reform upon reform. Seems like we need it again.. at least that is what I take from the data.

Posted by pff | Report as abusive

Pat Fagan happens to be a Catholic. He is evaluating data not promoting Evangelical presuppositions.

Posted by rushhour3600 | Report as abusive

The FRC report does not show a weak link between faith and family, it shows a weak link between evangelicalism and faith. Asians, probably in part because of the South Asian Muslims (as the author notes) have high “belonging” percentages as do Mormons. That fact of the matter is that the findings are a critical commentary on the lack of conservatism in the evangelical world. They are very worldly people who are quite immersed in the secular culture and accept many of its values with a Christian veneer. I could say the same for many of my fellow religionists in America (Eastern Orthodox). The more socially conservative (not “evangelical” or “Catholic”) a group is, the greater the index of belonging. The trouble is that most Christian denominations do not use cultural pressure, including excommunication, in order to enforce standards. The utter hypocrisy will continue until they decide to do so.

Posted by alexander2 | Report as abusive