Christian Patriarchy Clouds Social Science Findings On Happy Marriages

The problem of patriarchy in African American religion is not a new one for scholars. In The Negro Church in America, Professor Franklin Frazier wrote at length about the patriarchal norms of African American religion, and three decades later in The Black Church in the African American Experience, Professors Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya begin a full chapter on the problem of patriarchy and gender with a quote from Sojourner Truth.

In Jonathan Walton’s missive against Anthea Butler, he fails to understand the importance of gender and sexuality, hanging his support for the status quo on the conclusions of Professor W. Bradford Wilcox—-the dandy darling of the Christian patriarchy movement. Bad theology is readily supported by bad social scientific research, and Wilcox is a classic example of conservative theology using activist research to justify itself.

Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, is part of a growing movement of conservative Christians in the social sciences seeking to reimagine social relations through the lens of their distinctive faith. The lens of Christian patriarchy provides not only different shading to social scientific findings, but also kaleidoscopic distortion—creating patterns and shapes which simply aren’t there. The research cited by Professor Walton is being trumpeted in press releases and is promoted by conservative Christian foundations—-Christian piety makes you have a better marriage, and that’s especially true for African Americans, we are told. But that isn’t what the research in the published paper shows.

What Wilcox and his co-authors Professors Christopher Ellison and Amy Burdette demonstrate is that having the same religious behaviors and activities as your spouse is associated with higher levels of self-reported marital satisfaction. Notably, the study didn’t measure other sources of value solidarity such as political solidarity, sexual satisfaction, or sharing other secular voluntary activities or hobbies. As far as race and ethnicity are concerned, the authors state that ethnic-specific effects were ”inconclusive” and they are not reported. Race is simply used as a control variable in the equations. But, that doesn’t stop Professor Wilcox from making claims in a press release which fit his vision of Christian patriarchy providing a solution to the problems of the modern family.

I used data from the 2008 General Social Surveys to examine whether or not religious factors help marital satisfaction among African Americans. I found that among whites religious participation has a positive effect on self-reported marital happiness controlling for other things like education, gender, and income. However, among African Americans there is no significant relationship between going to church and having a happy marriage. So, even if religion does promote marital happiness for whites, it doesn’t work for African Americans—-advantage Professor Butler. Worse yet, there is considerable reason to suspect that churchgoers are more subject to social desirability bias regarding marital happiness. To claim that you are not happy with your marriage is to covet a different relationship, and churchgoing Christians may be prone to overstating their marital happiness. The divorce rate is a better indicator of marital solidarity, and social scientific research consistently finds that patriarchal conservative religious groups have higher rates of divorce.  Patriarchy is the problem, not the solution. Further, if Professor Walton thinks that African American women should go to church to meet their Boaz, he hasn’t been looking at the pews. Ruth, maybe. . .