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ANALYSIS: Religion and Race

The African American and Latino Experience

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Analysis Written by Father John Flynn:
Couples from minority groups are more likely to enjoy stronger and happier married lives if they are religiously committed. This is the conclusion of a recent book, “Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos” (Oxford University Press).
In their extensively researched book, which is also the seventh work they have co-written, W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger make a simple and strong affirmation.
“The result of this inquiry is a finding that can variously be described as simple, powerful, and provocative: religion is a force for good in the lives of many blacks and Latinos.”
This positive force is expressed in a multitude of ways and is reciprocal. The authors explained that not only does religious faith foster a strong family orientation but also that family commitments lead people to deepen their dependence on their faith and religious communities.
They do, however, point out that religion is “not a silver bullet when it comes to addressing the challenges facing African Americans and Latinos.” Faith and religious participation can be found alongside infidelity, domestic violence and divorce, just as it is for all Americans.
The study of how religion affects minority couples has to be understood in the context of what Wilcox and Wolfinger called the “family revolution” in recent years. This has involved the weakening of the institution of marriage coupled with the impact of a stress on personal fulfilment and individualistic preferences.
As a result people spend less of their lives involved in family life, they are having fewer children and are less committed to their spouses, and family ties are more fragile.
Importance of faith
While there has been extensive research into many aspects of the lives of blacks and Latinos the authors noted that the role of religion in shaping marriage and family life has been largely overlooked.
In terms of the importance of religion for these two groups Wilcox and Wolfinger stated that 36% of African Americans and 29% of Latinos attend church several times a month or more. Moreover, 70& of African Americans and 61% of Latinos consider themselves moderately or very religious.
The topic is particularly important given the increasing numbers of these groups. African Americans and Latinos currently make up more than a quarter of the American population and by 2050 this will rise to 42%.
The authors identified a number of negative factors affecting family life among the two communities studied. Both African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to be involved in behaviors or situations that put relationships at risk. Thus, they have more male infidelity and conflict over infidelity, higher rates of criminality and incarceration, lower educational levels and a greater incidence of unemployment or underemployment.
Racial and ethnic discrimination, along with negative portrayals in popular culture are also likely to lead to less trust in society and conventional morality. African Americans and Latinos often come from poor, unstable families, which places them at a disadvantage to start with.
In the face of these negative forces “religion plays a crucial role in creating a personal and social context where individuals and their relationships can thrive,” the authors argued.
Religion does this by supplying religious, moral and social resources that help men and women live decent lives, thus making it easier for them to “steer clear of the temptations of the street.”
Even if churches do not focus explicitly on marriage and relationships they shape the context of personal behavior in a way that helps people lead a good way of life. For example, the authors commented that Catholic churches with predominantly Latino communities often posted the Ten Commandments in English and Spanish inside or outside the church.
Religious education and youth programs also often stress the importance of the Ten Commandments and good moral behavior. Black and Latino Protestant churches carry out numerous activities, including Bible study and social encounters.
In addition the faith-based messages of hope, redemption and acceptance are often comforting and inspiring to church members.
Decent behavior
Overall Wilcox and Wolfinger maintained that a crucial part of the impact of religion is to foster a greater degree of decent behavior among those who regularly attend church, pray more and socialize more with religious friends and family.
Thus, such people are less likely to be idle and more likely to be working or studying, less likely to commit a serious crime or be imprisoned, less likely to engage in drug or alcohol abuse, and less likely to cohabit, have children outside of marriage, or be unfaithful once married. They are also more likely to be happier and to enjoy better mental health.
Regarding happiness in marriage the positive effect of religion applies above all to situations where both the husband and wife attend church. If only one partner attends it is usually the woman and among Latinos when just the woman attends these are the least happy relationships.
In conclusion Wilcox and Wolfinger said that religious faith is an important source of personal, family, and community strengths for many Latinos, and is especially so for African Americans.
They argued, supported by extensive evidence, that the effects of religion are largely causal and that while sometimes the benefits of religion can be modest they are real.
As a result the authors argued that the contribution of religion should have greater recognition and encouragement when solutions for minority communities are examined. They also urged churches to speak out honestly to children and adults about the good parts and the challenges of married life.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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