In 1831, 26-year-old Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States to “examine, in detail the American society which everyone talks of and no one knows.” His careful observations, later published in the well-known "Democracy in America," describe with admiration “the image of democracy” he identified in the “American character.”
But his observations also include a warning. As renowned sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues discuss in "Habits of the Heart," Tocqueville feared that “some aspects of our character — what he was one of the first to call ‘individualism’ — might eventually undermine the conditions of freedom.”
For Tocqueville, the key to restraining the destructive side of individualism, thereby protecting liberty, was religious belief and participation. His observations of American life led him to conclude, “Liberty regards religion as its companion as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” Without the influence of religion, he warned, Americans would undermine the conditions of their own freedom.
At a time when religion is often dismissed in the larger culture as either a relic of the past or simply a source of irrational, bigoted thought, it is worth taking a look at how religious involvement influences life and well-being in America. What becomes immediately apparent is that Tocqueville was not far off. Religious belief and involvement has a powerful positive influence on society.
Consider the influence of religious involvement on marriage. Decades of research indicate that religious attendance is linked to marital satisfaction, less likelihood of divorce and a stronger inclination toward marrying. Marriages in which both spouses attend church regularly are “2.4 times less likely” to divorce than those in which neither spouse attends church. Other research found that “religious attendance” was the most important predictor of marital stability. Studies of women’s marital satisfaction specifically found that the happiest marriages were those in which both spouses shared a strong commitment to marriage and attended church together.
This finding makes even more sense when looking at how religious involvement seems to impact men. W. Bradford Wilcox’s research on fathers found that conservative religious fathers who attended church weekly were the most active and emotionally engaged fathers and husbands of all. They were more likely to express affection and praise to their children and spend one-on-one time with them. Their wives, in return, reported feeling more appreciated and more satisfied with the affection, love and understanding they felt from their husbands. These dads also had the lowest rates of domestic violence.
More recently, Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the University of Utah found that black and Latino men who attended church regularly were more likely to be employed, to steer clear of substance abuse and to avoid incarceration. As they concluded, “Religious faith makes for better men .” This “men’s effect” has profound implications for society.
But it isn’t just married couples and men who benefit from religious faith. Christian Smith’s extensive research on youths and religion led him to conclude that highly religious teenagers fare better than less religious teenagers on a host of measures. Regular church attendance is associated with high self-esteem, positive outlook, stronger family and adult relationships, moral reasoning and behavior, community participation, better school behavior and outcomes, less risky or dangerous behaviors, lower levels of substance abuse and alcohol use, and less crime and violence. The strength of the effect of religious involvement remained even after controlling for numerous demographic and socioeconomic factors.
Teens and young adults who attend church weekly are also much less likely to have premarital sexual relations and, for those who do, to restrict those relations to their future spouse. Those who attended church weekly were eight times more likely to be abstinent compared with those who did not. This has important implications for nonmarital childbearing and marital stability. Premarital sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse have consistently been linked to divorce later in life. And young women who viewed themselves as “very religious” were also much less likely to have a child outside of marriage compared with those who saw themselves as “not at all religious.”
The benefits associated with religious involvement go on — in measures of educational aspiration and attainment, work habits, longevity and physical health, charitable donations and volunteering, and community cohesion and social support.
At a time when religious participation is declining, Tocqueville’s observations are as timely as ever. As George Washington reminded us in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University.