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Soul mates: What's important for Latinos, African-Americans when it comes to family life and love?
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America's minority populations are growing at a rate that will make them the majority by mid-century, according to demographers. But they note that most of what's known about American family life is based on studying whites and say little research has looked closely at the factors that impact the relationships and family life of African-Americans and Latinos.

One of the most important is how those two cultures live out their religious faiths.

That's according to two scholars who decided to try to fill that research gap. The result is the book Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, by W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, just published by Oxford University Press. Wilcox is a University of Virginia sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project there; Wolfinger is a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies and an adjunct sociology professor at the University of Utah.

Politically, the two men are as far apart as the geographic gulf that separates their respective institutions in Utah and Virginia. Wolfinger describes their collaboration: "One of the things we say in promotional materials and at the beginning of the book is that Brad and I are very different. Im a liberal, hes a conservative. He is a Catholic, married father of multiracial children. Hes a conservative. I am none of these things. I am liberal, unmarried, childless; Im a nonbeliever. So certainly he would have a certain wish list and I would have a different wish list. We are trying to make a centrist case."

They write in the book's introduction that, "Contrary to expectations, we have found that such an unlikely pairing is ideal for conducting research on religion and the family."

The collaboration comes at a time when both liberals and conservatives are beginning to agree that they may both be right about what's challenging the American families. Republicans have traditionally pointed to eroding cultural points (think more out of wedlock births, declining morals, fewer marriages), while Democrats believe economic factors like unemployment and poverty underlie familial woes.

Looking at different large national data sets, conducting interviews in several cities and using data Wilcox collected in the field in parts of New York City in 2005-2006, the co-authors found that religious belief and subsequent practice offer what Wilcox calls a "sturdy path" for the two minority groups, who in general in America face some pretty big challenges on economic and sociological fronts.

They write that regular church attendance helps the two minority populations thrive, increasing family stability. Thirty-six percent of African-Americans and 29 percent of Latinos attend church at least several times a month.

Among couples who regularly go to church, 80 percent of Latino couples say they are happy with relationships, compared to 71 percent of those who don't go to church. Numbers are nearly identical for whites at 79 and 70 percent, respectively. Nearly as many black couples who regularly attend church note their relationship satisfaction (78 percent), a figure that drops to 69 percent among those who don't go to church.

The "wish list" to which Wolfinger referred to that bolsters American families includes family-friendly policy, from tax credits to more employment opportunities for the poor, especially for men of color who are often underemployed. "By our reckoning, it will take a range of economic, cultural, and religious developments to bridge the racial and ethnic divides in American family life," they wrote in the book's conclusion.

The intersection of faith and family life and policies that could alleviate some of their disadvantages are also the topic Tuesday of a book forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute at 9 a.m. EST, featuring the book's co-authors and others, including Slate's Jamelle Bouie; Jacqueline Rivers of Harvard University; Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post; Helen Alvare of George Mason University Law School; Ross Douthat of The New York Times; and Tony Suarez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

We talked to Wolfinger about faith, family and racial differences in America. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to study blacks and Latinos?

Because the family-revolution changes in structure of the family have been more pronounced in those two populations groups than for whites. They are also more at a disadvantage than are whites. Each is also the subject of a curious and well-known but hard to explain but different paradox. African-Americans marry and stay married at lower rates than whites, yet African-Americans go to church more and going to church is associated with staying married.

For Latinos, the paradox concerns immigration. Often this has been noted in the medical literature, that Latinos basically have better health outcomes and better family outcomes, despite being poorer than whites, before they acculturate.

Once they acculturate, they start to look more like whites. So, for example, first-generation Latinos have lower divorce rates than whites, but they look pretty similar to whites in the second generation. These are a couple of things that were at the back of our minds. Basically, because these groups are historically disadvantaged in America.

Tell me about blacks and Latinos in America today.

They experience poverty and just lower scores on pretty much every social and most economic variables. Less education also. But then when it comes to the family, there are also some gaps. In particular, these are greatest for African-Americans. They marry at lower rates than whites. They have vastly higher rates of out-of-wedlock births. About 70 percent I dont have the exact figures in front of me of African-American children are now born out of wedlock. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his dire proclamation about the black family in the 1960s, that was only about 25 percent. African-Americans marry at lower rates than whites, have much less happy relationships, on average, and divorce more.

The news is a little better for Latinos. They marry and divorce at roughly the same rate as whites. And they have comparably happy relationships. They do, however, have much higher rates of nonmarital fertility children outside of marriage. In education, again, whites are in the lead across the board.

In the book you call religion a family-friendly force. What does that mean?

What the book shows over and over and over again is that people who go to church regularly several times a month or more have better outcomes on a wide range of family and other measures. They are less likely to give birth out of wedlock and more likely to get married. They have better relationships whether or not theyre married and are more likely to stay married although that last one, strangely, only holds true for whites. Everything else is true across racial-ethnic boundaries. Its important to note that it doesnt matter what church you go to. As long as you go regularly, you do better. And contrary to what many people have said, the majority of people in America are doing just fine in their families and its in part explained by their religious participation.

How do these two groups compare to whites when it comes to faith?

This is part of the paradox. Their faith tends to be stronger. We see higher rates of church attendance among African-Americans and Latinos. And for both groups, faith has been a larger part of their lives traditionally. The black church has long been very strong and vibrant in America. And Latinos too have a great emphasis in their family lives upon their faith. Its not just their faith per se, but their religious practice that is producing many happy Latino and African-American families.

Why does religion benefit them?

That's two questions, a how question and a why question. The how, to recapitulate briefly: Lower rates out of wedlock, higher rates of marriage, more satisfaction with relationships, whether or not theyre married. Thats an important point. Those are all big things. Theres also less adultery among people active in their faith. What faith it is doesnt matter at all. All faiths produce comparable benefits.

Then theres the why question. Youre regularly participating in a ritual with a bunch of like-minded people. When you go to church, youre getting a pastoral message about behaving well, about treating your partner with dignity and respect, about not stepping out on them. You find that in every faith.

Is there a difference between religious practice and spirituality?

Most spirituality within America, but by no means all, occurs within the framework of organized religion. How do we measure? Throughout the book, we usually measure church attendance. But we also look at other things in an attempt to understand the relationship. One thing that has a lot of predictive power is whether you go to church with a lot of your friends. That makes a big difference. Another thing we looked at is prayer. People who pray have much happier relationships. Going to church with friends its possible that doesnt strictly have to be a church, but we found few examples in America that occur outside of religion.

We scratched our heads about other places where you have organized, ritualized devotion, outside of religion, but we did find a couple. The largest is the various 12-step programs. You are going with friends who hear messages about behaving well. Thats one place. Those programs are spiritual, but not religious.

Theres an anthropologist at Stanford whos written about people who want "spiritual" but not "religious." Theres something called the "Sunday gathering" that meets in many cities. I think thats sort of a blue state, coastal thing probably. Certainly the number of studies from the Pew Charitable Trust, etc., finds the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation is growing. So maybe there will be these nontraditional forms of assembly and spiritual practice. Who knows, though? Its a small number of people.

What can we all learn from the experience of blacks and Latinos?

We talk a lot in the conclusion about how we can make things better for the American family. There our discussions are more free; we dont just talk about religion. The left is always claiming everything thats wrong with the family can be explained by money and, in the case of nonwhites, discrimination. Whereas the right is generally looking at values and to a lesser extent social and public policy.

One of the points we want to make is the answer is in the middle. What affects the family is a question of both money and values. You need both if you want to talk about racial and ethnic differences in family outcomes. We talk a lot about general ways the family can be supported more. We talk about the usual laundry list for people seeking bipartisan solutions, like criminal justice reform. We talk about greater tax credits. The conservatives like that more than things like raising the minimum wage. So theres bipartisan debate in Congress.

Its not the full extent of my wish list. But these are things that would help. We talk about ways that religions can better support families. We talk about how some churches have very effective ministries related to employment. They have job boards, they have seminars on how to find and keep a job. This could be expanded. We talk about how clergy can better reach their constituents. And we talk about this in fairly specific ways. One that we like is a minister in Seattle who has a ministry that delivers a message during the halftime of Monday Night Football. The point is you can reach a ton of men during Monday Night Football. Think of ways of approaching people that are sensitive to their needs and their lives.

We talk in the book about what the sociologist Eli Anderson called the Code of the Street: criminality and infidelity. Its only a minority of American men and a minority of minority men, but minority men are particularly vulnerable. So we offer a variety of suggestions, and theyre very centrist suggestions.
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