Marriage Works

Filling the information news gap on marriage and religion.

Patrick Fagan
Patrick Fagan (photo: Courtesy of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute.)

Patrick Fagan is the director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI). A clinical psychologist by training, he decided to create the institute because research showing the positive impact of religion and marriage was being underreported or ignored by the popular media, policymakers and public figures.

A growing body of research shows marriage and religious practice improve the lives of parents and children — and society as a whole. The enormous impact of religious attendance on the school success of poor black children is just one example.

MARRI conducts its own research, but its biggest project is to synthesize the research of others and produce, over the next 10 years, 150 such syntheses of all the research on marriage’s and religion’s impact on the economy and the culture. Already completed are reports on how pornography destroys families and school grades go up with church attendance.

Fagan spoke about MARRI’s latest report, “Marriage and Economic Well-Being” and the institute’s work.

Can you sum up MARRI’s latest report?

The conventional married family outperforms other relationships, such as common-law marriage, step-parenting and single-parenting, according to basic economic measures such as employment, income, net worth, poverty, receipt of welfare and child economic well-being. More than that, the economic well-being of the United States depends on the health of its families.

With all these positive findings for marriage, are you dealing with a direct cause and effect, or are there independent factors, such as personal stability, which lead people both to get married and to be more productive in the workplace?

No, it is clear that it is marriage that has the stabilizing effect, because we can track in men how their productivity increases after they get married. And when you control for all other factors, such as age and background, this link between productivity and marriage is clear. Social scientists call it the “marriage premium.” On average, married men earn 27% more than single men.

Is this report consistent with your other findings?

Yes, social science tells us that everyone involved in marriage — the husband, the wife and the children — are better off in terms of health, wealth, safety, longevity, mental health. There is not a single area where you don’t see benefits. I always say the social sciences properly done cannot but illustrate the way God made man.

Explain that.

Going back to Revelation, to the Bible and to what the Church has said for 2,000 years, we find a clear delineation of how we ought to act in our best interests and in God’s best interests. We thrive if we go the way God wants us to. When we don’t, we are less likely to thrive, and we are less likely to be happy. The findings of social science confirm that when we act to show our love of spouse [by marrying] or love of God [by attending church regularly] we do well; we are happier. And when we are doing something different, we don’t.

Of course, the social sciences can’t measure love of God, so we look at frequency of church attendance. But we find the same positive effects with marriage stability as with church attendance — and the most positive effects when both are present. This is especially true of poor blacks and how well they do in school. Marriage is absolutely critical in reducing crime and poverty. 

What, then, do we make of the arguments of atheists, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens? They argue that religion is harmful and stupid.

I don’t pay them much attention. … They are not scientists. What the social sciences show is that in every single area of research, with one minor exception, the more frequently people worship, the better they do in every respect of life, including school.

What’s the exception?

An exception to this rule can be found in a subset of Pentecostalism that is extremely poor and a little bit wacky: It is hostile to education. Otherwise, research shows that the big-government programs, such as “No Child Left Behind,” don’t come close to matching religion’s impact on math and English grades. And this is especially true of the poor, possibly because the poor have limited sources of institutional support.

I can see how such information about the benefits of marriage can be put to use by public policymakers, but can they do the same with religion, given the separation of church and state?

The Constitution prevents the establishment of religion. It doesn’t prevent the encouragement of religion. Thomas Jefferson said the practice of religion was necessary for civic virtue and civic virtue was necessary for democracy. Public figures, politicians, can have a lot of influence by setting the public discourse. Unfortunately, we now have a president whose values all run in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, the two countries that banned religion, China and Russia, are now positively encouraging it. In China, they are building seminaries.

Are you aiming your reports at policymakers?

Not at politicians. Politicians don’t lead. In matters of culture, they follow. They act when a powerful cohort of the population holds their feet to the fire, as it has with life issues and with same-sex “marriage.” Black [Protestant] pastors are the most effective group to have on your side on these issues because they are used to political action. The Catholic Church should learn from them. We [the Catholic Church] rolled over and let Massachusetts push us right out of adoption [for refusing to place children with same-sex couples].

We are targeting three influential groups who ought to work together: pastors, parents and teachers. They influence the youth, and so they form the future of America.
We see members of these groups falling broadly into three categories: those who agree with us about the importance of religion and the family (for them, we are providing support, confidence and tools readily available); those who disagree (we might give a few of them pause); and the majority in the middle, whom we hope we can bring over to our side.

What might be an issue that could unify these groups?

Chastity. Our studies show chastity is a fundamental virtue. It has a huge effect. If you don’t have chastity before marriage, then you have a huge marriage breakdown when you are in your 30s or 40s. If you look at women who have had only one sexual partner — their spouse — 80% are in intact marriages. But women who have had one other sexual partner — only 54% are still in their first marriages. And women who have had two or more sexual partners other than their husband — only 44% are still married.

We don’t see this kind of research reported. Are social scientists ignoring these areas of research, or downplaying their findings out of political correctness?

Top-notch social scientists are reporting their findings, even when they go against their own biases. For example, Linda Waite of the University of Chicago is a liberal feminist who reported honestly [her longitudinal study showed women unhappy in marriage who divorced ended up no happier than women who stayed in their marriage]. But when you get down to the second and third tier, you get research results with an ideological bias.

Are evangelicals better than Catholics at bringing up their children to stay in the faith? I’ve seen studies indicating this.

Usually those studies provide apples-and-oranges comparisons. Evangelicals usually only self-identify as such if they are still going to church; Catholics, on the other hand, still think of themselves as Catholics long after they stop attending. When you compare weekly attenders from both religious groups, you get much closer results. But Protestants have always made much more of the married life as a path to sanctity. Catholics came later to that with Vatican II and Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.

Highlights from MARRI’s “Marriage and Economic Well-Being” and earlier studies:
From “Marriage and Economic Well-Being” (2011):
• Married men work longer hours, more productively, and earn a “marriage premium” of 27% more than single men, after other factors such as age and education are controlled.
• Married intact families save more, earn $20,000 more — $86,000 annually — than the average single male and female earnings combined.
The biggest difference is net worth. Married intact families have an average net worth of $228,000. Only widows have more, but they too are enjoying the benefits of intact marriages, says MARRI’s executive director Patrick Fagan. Meanwhile, married stepfamilies come next at a distant $95,000; divorced singles have an average net worth of $32,000; cohabiting couples and never marrieds trail significantly, with $3,001 and $400 respectively.

From “Religious Practice and Educational Attainment” (2010):
• The more often a child attends church, the higher his GPA scores in math and English: 2.9 for weekly attenders; 2.6 for never attenders. Religious practice influences educational performance by encouraging strong work habits, high personal expectations and less risky behaviors.
• Dropout rates double for students who rarely attend church over those who frequently attend. The poorer the neighborhood, the more marked are the positive effects of frequent church attendance.

From “Adoption Works Well” (2010):
• Adopted children are healthier than non-adopted children, are more likely to have health insurance, to receive dental care and to be wearing seat belts in cars.
• They scored higher than their middle-class counterparts on school performance, social competency, optimism and volunteerism. They were less depressed than children of single parents and less involved in alcohol abuse, vandalism, group fighting, police trouble, weapon use and theft.
• Teens adopted at birth also scored higher than children of single parents on self-esteem, confidence in their own judgment, self-directedness, positive view of others and feelings of security within their families.