Reciprocal Influences of Family and Religion in a Changing World

Arland Thornton

Arland Thornton, “Reciprocal Influences of Family and Religion in a Changing World,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 27–50.

Arland Thornton was a research scientist for the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, where he was an associate professor of sociology when this was published. His research interests focus on family and demographic issues, with particular interest in the causes and consequences of marriage, divorce, fertility, gender roles, intergenerational relations, and adolescent sexuality and pregnancy. He has written numerous articles on these topics in the United States and Taiwan and is initiating similar research in Nepal. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan.


During the last two centuries changes in family structure and relationships have been dramatic and pervasive in Western societies, with the trends of the past two decades being particularly significant, well publicized, and controversial. Religious institutions and values have influenced the course of family change and are involved in many of the current controversies. At the same time many family changes have evoked debate and controversy within and between churches and have been the catalyst for changes in the doctrines and programs of religious groups.

This paper considers family change during the last two centuries and examines several interrelationships between family and religion. The paper investigates both the influence of religious institutions and values on changing family structure and the impact of family trends on religious teachings and programs. The discussion of these issues has been organized around three basic themes:

1. In all Western societies and within virtually every subgroup within these societies, the structure and dynamics of families and households have been modified substantially over the past two centuries. Many of these family trends are intricately interwoven with several fundamental transformations of Western societies, including long-term economic growth, industrialization, urbanization, increased school attendance, lower mortality, and the growth of scientific knowledge and technology.

2. Religious institutions and values had significant effects on family life in societies of the past and are important factors in family structure and relationships today. Religion and its changing role in the lives of individuals also has influenced the course of family change over the last century.

3. Changes in family life have had substantial effects on the religious doctrines, teachings, and programs of religious institutions; and the varying responses of the churches to these family changes have modified the influence of religion in the lives of individuals and their families.

The Changing Western Family

In Western societies before 1800, there were few economic enterprises outside the home; and the family was the basic organizational unit for many important activities, including production and consumption. In this family economy the household organized and managed its resources, including the labor of its members, to produce its means of existence. Individual family roles—such as husband, wife and child—implied and overlapped economic roles, such as master, helper, and servant. (Demos, 1970; Laslett, 1965; Lesthaeghe and Wilson, 1986; Greven, 1970; Shorter, 1975; Tilly and Scott, 1978.)

There was an important division of labor in Western families of the past. The husband generally directed the economic activity of the family which was often, but not always, an agricultural enterprise. While the wife maintained a primary role in caring for the home and children, she often made an important contribution to the family economic enterprise. Children also were involved in the productive activities of the family. (Demos, 1970; Greven, 1970; MacFarlane, 1979; Tilly and Scott, 1978; Gillis, 1974; Kett, 1977; Vanek, 1980.)

Traditionally, the older generations maintained control over the family economy as long as they were able to organize and direct its operation (Berkner, 1972). The younger generations could not become economically independent until the fathers passed the family economic organization on to them or they obtained the financial ability to acquire another economic unit. This type of family structure and a scarcity of economic alternatives outside the family limited the independence of young people. (Katz and Davey, 1978; Kett, 1977; Modell et al., 1976; Tilly and Scott, 1978.)

Educational institutions were not an important part of societies of the past. School attendance was not widespread and was subservient to the needs of the family’s economic endeavors. Consequently, the educational attainments of children were limited—certainly by the standards of today (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1980).

Disease and death were omnipresent in the past and had crucial implications for family life. Many children died in infancy, many mothers died in childbirth, and families were often disrupted by the death of one of the parents. (Uhlenberg, 1980; Sullivan, 1983.) High mortality required high fertility to ensure the replacement of the population. In addition, although relatively effective techniques of contraception have been known for thousands of years (Himes, 1970), there was no extensive practice of family limitation in the past because birth control was not known or not acceptable to the majority of people. Consequently, the number of children born averaged around seven in many European countries and in the United States. (Knodel, 1977; van de Walle and Knodel, 1980; Coale and Zelnik, 1963.)

School enrollment and educational achievement have expanded over the last two centuries with dramatic implications for the lives of individuals and their families (Caldwell, 1982; Schultz, 1973; Thornton, 1980). The amount of time parents and young children spend together is likely to decline when children enter school careers at a young age. The availability of children to work in the family economy decreases, and the direct costs of rearing children increases. School attendance also represents a shift in the locus of control from parents to a public institution, and peer relationships are modified. In those instances in which educational systems are coeducational, the pattern of interactions between the sexes is modified, with implications for mate selection.

When there are rapid increases in educational attainment, an educational generation gap develops. Since educational systems transmit technological and cultural innovations, children often have more access than their parents to the latest ideas and skills (Ogburn and Nimkoff, 1976). The superior levels of education and knowledge provide children with resources for interacting with their parents at home and superior opportunities in the developing labor market. This may allow them more autonomy in relationships with parents, greater independence in living arrangements, and more freedom in mate selection.

Over the last two centuries the household production economy has been slowly replaced by the family wage economy in which people work outside the boundaries of the households where they reside (Tilly and Scott, 1978; Anderson, 1971). Families and individuals responded to the shifting structure of employment in terms of the patterns of behavior and role allocations already familiar to them (Hareven, 1982). Fathers, who had always specialized primarily in economic production, followed the economic opportunities outside the home; and young adult sons and daughters also became active in the new wage economy. The shift of the primary locus of employment from the household to the market place, however, substantially reduced the opportunity for mothers to combine economic production with the care of the home and children. Consequently, as recently as 1940 only 14 percent of married women were in the paid labor force in the United States. (Oppenheimer, 1970; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1982.) The result of these differential responses of individual family members to market employment was a separation of the locus of activities of family members—with a large majority of mothers emphasizing their domestic roles in the home and fathers and young adult sons and daughters working outside the household.

In recent years many mothers have entered the labor force and are again combining economic production with the care of the home and children. For example, in the United States between 1948 and 1982 the fraction of married mothers with children under six who were working increased from 1 in 10 to 1 in 2 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1982). This increase in female labor-force participation, however, is not simply a return to earlier patterns, because their economic production now occurs outside the household, with implications for child-care arrangements and decisions about family size (Oppenheimer, 1970; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1982; Smith, 1979).

During the early stages of industrialization, both parents and children continued to view the economic activities of family members as contributions to the family economy. Although individual family members increasingly participated in the labor market, it was common for them to pool their money into a family budget. (Early, 1982; Dublin, 1979; Tilly and Scott, 1978; Hareven, 1982.) However, children’s control of their earnings has expanded during recent years, and now there is little expectation of children contributing substantially to their parental households even when they are living with their parents (Tilly and Scott, 1978; Bachman, 1983). This gives young people a source of independence and autonomy that was uncommon in the past. Similarly, paid employment of married women provides them with an independent source of income, which can be particularly important when considering alternatives to unsatisfactory marriages.

Since many jobs outside the family involve large-scale activities and the concentration of workers, industrialization often is accompanied by urbanization and rural-to-urban migration. A number of families moved as entire units from agricultural to urban areas; but often it was young people who took jobs outside the family as wage laborers and migrated to urban areas while their parents maintained the existing rural economic unit. (Hareven, 1982; Hareven and Tilly, 1979; Tilly and Scott, 1978; Modell and Hareven, 1973.) In cities these migrant young people often lived with other relatives or with nonrela-tives as boarders and lodgers. The importance of this phenomenon for industrializing America is illustrated by the fact that 15 to 20 percent of all urban homes contained lodgers in the nineteenth century. (Modell and Hareven, 1973.) In addition, in the early period of industrialization many companies developed dormitories to house single workers (Dublin, 1979; Hanlan, 1981; Tilly and Scott, 1978; Hareven, 1982). Although extensive efforts were made by the older generation to provide structure and supervision for lodgers and boarders, it was probably impossible to provide supervision and control comparable to that received at home (Dublin, 1979; Hanlan, 1981; Thornton, 1984).

During the twentieth century, as the urbanization process was generally completed and as living standards increased, boarding and lodging in the United States nearly disappeared (Modell and Hareven, 1973). In recent years, however, single persons have used their independence and rising incomes to take an additional step toward residential separation and are increasingly maintaining their own households (Kobrin, 1976; Michael et al., 1980; Thornton and Freedman, 1983). Just between 1950 and 1982 the percentage of never-married men and women age twenty-five to thirty-four maintaining their own households in the United States more than quadrupled (Thornton and Freedman, 1983).

Working and living outside of family households provide young people with opportunities for independence and autonomy, since it is more difficult for parents to observe, supervise, and socialize them. Urban living also brings access to many ideas and opportunities that are unavailable in rural areas.

Improvements in mortality during the last two centuries made it possible for families to replace themselves with a lower birthrate. At the same time contraceptive usage became nearly universal; and during recent decades there have been important advances in the effectiveness of contraception, including sterilization, the oral contraceptive pill, and the intrauterine device (Mosher, 1982; Mosher and Westoff, 1982). Abortion also has become an important form of fertility control in the United States since its nationwide legalization by the Supreme Court in 1973 (Henshaw and O’Reilly, 1983).

Modern birth control not only has helped to reduce the incidence of unplanned fertility but probably has altered orientations toward childbearing. While traditional contraceptive methods were effective in reducing overall fertility, their substantial failure rates made it difficult for couples to plan confidently the timing and number of their children. Motherhood now has become a matter of choice for most women, so that couples can rationally integrate their childbearing decisions with education and career plans. (Bumpass, 1973.)

There was a sustained decline in the fertility rate in the United States from 1800 to 1930, when the average number of children born per woman dropped from about seven to just over two (Heuser, 1976; Coale and Zelnik, 1963). Then came the postwar baby boom, bringing a sharp rise in fertility, followed by an equally sharp drop during the 1960s and 1970s. The birthrates of the early 1980s imply that women will have, on average, fewer than two children each. (Heuser, 1976; U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 1984.)

Marriage patterns in the United States have gone through a wave of change since World War II. Except for relatively minor fluctuations, first marriage rates were quite steady during the first four decades of this century, but after World War II there was a substantial increase. The rates remained high through the 1950s and 1960s and then fell sharply again during the 1970s and now may be similar to levels of the first few decades of the century. (Rodgers and Thornton, 1985.)

Although marital incompatibility and divorce are old phenomena, the divorce rate increased gradually and steadily in the United States, with some fluctuations, from I860 to the early 1960s. Then came two decades of sustained and rapid increase, with the rate more than doubling by the end of the 1970s. (U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 1983.) If the current divorce rates were to continue, approximately one-half of all recent marriages will end in divorce, as compared with about 5 percent of the marriages of the 1860s (Preston and McDonald, 1979; Weed, 1980).

Accompanying the decline in marriage and the increase in divorce during the 1970s was an expansion of the number of unmarried American adults sharing households with unrelated persons of the opposite sex. The number of unmarried people living together more than tripled from 1970 to 1982, and the increase may have been as much as sixfold. By 1983 nearly two million American couples—4 percent of all couples maintaining separate households—were living together without marriage. (Sweet, 1979; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1983.)

Premarital sexual activity in the United States already was widespread by 1970 and increased steadily during the 1970s. By 1979 just less than half of all never-married women between the ages of fifteen and nineteen living in metropolitan areas reported that they had had sexual intercourse, and the figure for nineteen-year-old single women was just over two-thirds. (Zelnik and Kantner, 1980.)

Although the usage of contraceptives among sexually active young people increased during the 1970s, the premarital pregnancy rate doubled beween 1971 and 1979 (Zelnik and Kantner, 1980). Moreover, even though the abortion rate increased during the 1970s, the birthrate among unmarried teenagers continued its long-term increase (Zelnik and Kantner, 1980; Henshaw and O’Reilly, 1983). In fact, the increased fertility among unmarried women, the decline in the marriage rate, and the decline in childbearing among married couples combined to increase the percentage of all children born out of wedlock from about 5 percent in I960 to 19 percent in 1982 (U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 1984).

Families maintained by single mothers also have increased because of increased divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing, lower marriage rates, and an increased tendency of single mothers to live on their own. In 1982 nearly one-fifth of all households containing minor children were maintained by single mothers (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1983).

Attitudinal and value shifts have been generally consistent with these behavioral trends. Americans increasingly have accepted the legitimacy of remaining single, the appropriateness of divorce, the expansion of the roles of women, the use of contraception, the legitimacy of childlessness, and premarital sexual relations (Thornton and Freedman, 1983). A general theme in most of these attitudinal trends is a greater willingness among Americans to allow others to choose their own behavior and family relationships without imposing personal standards or preferences. The acceptance of alternative family styles and arrangements is now quite widespread in America.

Although these trends have been interpreted by some as signaling disintegration of the family, predictions about the demise of the family are premature. Having a happy marriage and a good family life are consistently singled out by Americans as the two most important domains of their lives, and most Americans continue to be embedded in a significant network of kin, where they receive substantial physical and emotional support. About four-fifths of all married Americans report their marriages as being very happy or above average, while only about 2 percent say their marriages are not happy. Ninety percent of young people say they plan to marry and have children, and most are optimistic about the success of their marriages. These data suggest that despite, or perhaps because of, changes in family life, families continue to play a vital role in today’s world. (Bane, 1976; Cherlin and Furstenberg, 1983; Caplow et al., 1982; Veroff et al., 1981; Thornton and Freedman, 1982, 1983.)

While this discussion of family trends has focused on the American experience, the same basic outline of trends could be repeated in virtually every country of western and central Europe as well as in overseas European populations. When the broad sweep of family trends in European populations is examined, the pervasiveness of the changes and fluctuations in marriage, divorce, childbearing, women’s work, premarital sexuality, and household composition are very impressive, although there are important differences both in family structure and behavior and in the timing and tempo of changes, (van de Walle and Knodel, 1980; Roussel and Festy, 1979; Chester, 1977; Hajnal, 1953; Kiernan, 1983; Lesthaeghe, 1983; McDonald, 1981.) [1]

The trends observed for the United States as a whole also generally apply to specific subgroups within the society. Particularly important for the topic of religion and family is that virtually every religious group in the United States has experienced the same basic trends in marriage, divorce, childbearing, and women’s employment. Although there have been and continue to be important differences among religious groups, the available evidence suggests that virtually every religious group in the United States today—whether they be Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or Mormon—has experienced the same general trends in family behavior, structure, and attitudes. (Goldscheider, 1971; Jones and Westoff, 1979; Thornton, 1979, 1985; Thornton et al., 1983; Greeley, 1977; Bahr, 1981. [2] The uniformity of these trends attests to the strength of the factors modifying family life. [3]

The Influence of Religion on Family Change

It is useful to consider the role of religion in family change in the Western world within the context of the teachings and authority of the Christian church. The Roman Catholic church developed the view that, while marriage was inferior to celibacy, it was a sacrament that could be dissolved only by death. Within marriage, procreation was seen as the primary purpose of sexual relations; and intentional interference with this purpose, by either contraception or abortion, was prohibited. The Protestant reformers adopted a somewhat different view of marriage but continued to hold the ideal of a lifetime marriage, although they allowed divorce for a limited set of serious causes. Celibacy was de-emphasized during the Reformation, but the prohibitions against contraception remained strong. In fact, the proscriptions against divorce and birth control remained fairly monolithic in the Christian churches well into the twentieth century. (Noonan, 1966; Fagley, I960; Chester, 1977; O’Neill, 1967; Kennedy, 1970; Hoyt, 1968; McGregor, 1957; Bush, 1976.)

Of course, the Protestant Reformation only marked the beginning of religious pluralism in the western European world. Over the centuries the number of religious organizations and viewpoints has proliferated, resulting in many different centers of religious authority. Many of these religious groups had different opinions concerning family forms. Consequently, the ability of the churches to speak in a unified voice on family issues diminished, and there was more latitude for diverse opinions and behavior.

Although religion continues to be an important element in the lives of many men and women today, there have been important changes in relationships between the churches and individuals, and the moral authority of the churches has been modified. New institutions exist independently of the churches; science has expanded its domain; the autonomy of the individual has been emphasized; rationalization and abstract thought have expanded; technology has progressed; and human relationships have become more complex. (Greeley, 1972.)

In recent years individuals increasingly have interpreted their religious commitments and beliefs in individualistic terms and less in terms of institutional loyalty and obligation. They are now looking to religion more for its personal meaning and less for its moral rules and are feeling more confidence in their own ability to define standards of conduct independently of the doctrines and teachings of church hierarchies. [4] This trend in the definition of religious commitment and meaning gives individuals more opportunity to choose new family structures. As a result of these many trends in religious beliefs and definitions, the power of the churches over individual thought and behavior probably has declined, giving individuals more opportunity and freedom for making decisions. (Greeley, 1972.) The increased autonomy of individuals in making family decisions has become especially important during the last few decades as diversity of life-style, family structure, and individual behavior has become morp accepted. (Thornton and Freedman, 1982, 1983; Veroff et al., 1981; Caplowetal, 1982.)

It is likely that the weakening of church influence was instrumental in permitting individuals to adopt new family strategies, including the use of contraception. The fertility decline in several western European countries—including Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, and Italy—occurred earliest and most rapidly in areas where the influence of the churches was weakest and secularization strongest. (Lockridge, 1983; Lesthaeghe, 1977,1980; Lesthaeghe and Wilson, 1986.) Multivariate statistical analyses also suggest that these relationships are not merely the result of both secularization and fertility decline being joint products of economic and social change. The weakening of Catholic authority in France also may help to explain why the fertility decline began in France about the time of the Revolution—significantly earlier than in other countries of Europe. (Noonan, 1966; Lesthaeghe, 1980.)

The declining ability of churches to influence public opinion, governmental policy, and the actions of individuals probably has been a factor in other areas of family change as well. Lesthaeghe (1983) has shown that, in the areas of Belgium where there was historically widespread support for secularized political parties, the incidence of divorce was also high. Similarly, in Switzerland both the support for abortion and the incidence of divorce in the 1970s were related to support for secularized parties early in the century. Apparently, political secularization and the weakening of the authority of the churches are related to the adoption of family values and behaviors that have been historically opposed by the churches.

Although the authority of churches over the decisions and behavior of individuals may have declined, religion still influences family behavior, as witnessed by the continuing differentials in family structure and behavior associated with different religious groups. Although a full review of religious differentials in family structure is beyond the scope of this paper, a few examples will illustrate this point. The fertility of Jewish populations is an important example of a long-standing and continuing religious effect. The fertility decline in several European countries occurred earlier among Jews than among Catholics and Protestants. (Knodel, 1974; Livi-Bacci, 1977.) In addition, relatively low fertility for Jewish populations has been documented throughout the twentieth century in several countries (Goldscheider, 1971; DellaPergola, 1980).

Although family behavior among Catholics is hard to characterize simply—as illustrated by the fact that the European fertility decline began earlier in Catholic France than elsewhere in Europe—in many countries, including the United States, Catholic fertility has been substantially higher than average. In addition, Catholics consistently have used more traditional or less modern contraceptives than others in the United States. Comparisons between Catholics and other Americans also have shown behavioral and attitudinal differences in other areas of family life. (Westoff, 1979; Lenski, 1963; McCarthy, 1979; Greeley, 1977.)

Because of the traditional differences between Catholics and Protestants, one of the most interesting developments of the last two decades has been the convergence of Catholic and Protestant attitudes and behavior in a number of important areas. Just a few years ago an article entitled “The End of ‘Catholic’ Fertility” was published (Jones and Westoff, 1979). While the announcement that the uniqueness of Catholic fertility had disappeared may have been somewhat premature, there is substantial evidence that Catholic fertility is not substantially different from the United States average (Mosher and Hendershot, 1983; Blake, 1984). Catholic couples have also increasingly adopted modern contraceptives in recent years, so that their usage patterns now maintain little uniqueness (Westoff and Jones, 1977; Westoff, 1979). In the early 1960s Catholics, as compared with others, held substantially higher family size preferences, were more insistent that everyone should have children, and were slightly more negative about divorce; but by 1980 the only difference between Catholics and nonfundamentalist Protestants on these dimensions was in the area of fertility, and this difference was much smaller than earlier.[5] The uniqueness of Catholics in other areas of family life, including child rearing values, also has diminished during recent years (Alwin, 1984).

At the same time that Catholics have become less unique, fundamentalist Protestants have become more distinct. During the last two decades—when there were important trends toward more egalitarian sex-role attitudes, more acceptance of divorce, more acceptance of childlessness, and a desire for smaller families—fundamentalist Protestants changed along with the rest of the American population, but the extent of their change was smaller. The result is that they are now generally more traditional than other Americans on many aspects of family life. (Thornton et al., 1983; Thornton and Camburn, 1983; Thornton, 1985.) This group of Protestants also continues to have somewhat higher fertility than others (Marcum, 1981).

Another example of the influence of religion on family structure and behavior is Mormonism. Utah is the home of one of the most significant and well-publicized familial innovations in American history: “plural marriage” or polygyny. For half a century many Mormon women and men accepted the teachings and exhortations of their leaders to form polygynous unions—all the while enduring the moral condemnation of the country and, during the later years, risking the possibility of prison sentences.

Although polygyny was abandoned by the Mormon church nearly a century ago, Utah family patterns continue to depart from national averages in at least two important ways. First, the marriage imperative appears to be somewhat stronger in Utah, with mean age at marriage now being nearly a year younger than in the nation as a whole. (Mason and Brockert, 1981.) Second, although Mormon fertility declined substantially over the last century, it continues to be higher than the national averages in Canada and the United States (Thornton, 1979). In 1981 the Utah birthrate was approximately 70 percent higher than the national rate (Mason et al., 1983).

Although the continuing relevance of religion for family structure and values has been emphasized here, this point should not obscure two equally important considerations. First, although many of the differences in family behavior currently existing among religious groups in the Western world are important, they are generally substantially smaller than the differences existing between behavior today and that observed two centuries ago. That is, time differences in family behavior are larger than religious differences. Second, there are areas of family life where one might expect differences among religious groups but where the data indicate that family structure is fairly unresponsive to religious affiliation. Two examples of important family areas where religious differences are relatively minor today are divorce and the labor-force participation of women. (Bumpass and Sweet, 1972; Bahr and Goodman, 1981; Bahr, 1979.)

The Influence of Family Change on Religion

Given the historically strong interests and doctrines of the Christian churches concerning family matters, it is difficult to imagine how far-reaching family changes of the last two centuries could have occurred without provoking fundamental reexamination of theology, doctrine, and programs. Heated and extensive debates concerning family changes and appropriate responses to them are not new phenomena but have been endemic for a century in the Western world. These debates have occurred both within and between churches and have spilled over into the political arena. Changes in family structure and behavior also have been the source of numerous shifts in the doctrines and policies of the Christian churches, although both the pace and the extent of modifications among the religious groups have varied. It now appears that the responses of the churches to these familial changes have had important ramifications for the ability of those churches to maintain moral authority and credibility among their constituencies.

Given the traditional positions of Western religions concerning family issues, church leaders throughout the Western world responded to the emerging evidence of family change with concern and opposition. From all sides—be it Rome, London, or Salt Lake City—the churches responded to the issue of birth control with opposition. (Noonan, 1966; Fagley, I960; Bush, 1976.) Although we now think of Catholicism as being rather strict and Protestantism as permissive on the issue of birth control, “in the 19th century, official Protestant opposition was only less severe than that of Roman Catholicism” (Fagley, 1960: 193), and the Mormon reaction mirrored that of the larger society (Bush, 1976). Laws were passed prohibiting the advertising and distribution of contraceptives in many countries, including the United States, as well as in several individual American states (Himes, 1970; Kennedy, 1970; Noonan, 1966; Fagley, I960; Lesthaeghe, 1977). Many of these laws stayed on the books until well past World War II, and although prosecutions were not numerous, there were several important and well-publicized trials in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that probably served primarily to expand knowledge concerning contraception (Himes, 1970; Kennedy, 1970).

Although there were important declines in fertility, extensive increases in the use of contraception, and the development of organizations devoted to making birth control more widely accessible at the end of the nineteenth century, the overwhelming opposition to birth control among the churches remained very solid until the late 1920s. Finally, however, the changes in family behavior caused all the churches to examine their traditional positions. During the last half century, one by one the churches have reexamined their positions on the birth control issue, and one by one they have modified those positions. The first major modification among the Christian churches occurred in 1930 when a conference of Anglican bishops gave their reluctant approval to birth control. This was followed across the next several decades by the approval of birth control among numerous other Protestant groups. (Noonan, 1966; Fagley, I960; Kennedy, 1970.) The opposition enunciated most clearly by the Mormon church during World War I was modified in 1968, and Jewish groups also have accepted birth control (Bush, 1976; Fagley, I960). In most cases the process of change can best be described as evolutionary; the individual changes were generally small, but the cumulation of several small changes produced significant long-term trends (Fagley, I960; Kennedy, 1970; Bush, 1976). In many cases the justification given for the approval of birth control centered on the protection of the family unit in a changing world (Kennedy, 1970). However, while change has been nearly universal among the Western churches, there have been variations in the timing, tempo, extensiveness, and structure of changes.

Although the Catholic position has been modified toward the acceptance of nonprocreative purposes of sex and the use of the rhythm method to prevent conception, the overall position of the Catholic church has been less flexible than that observed among other churches (Noonan, 1966; Moore, 1973; Hoyt, 1968; D’Antonio and Cavanaugh, 1983). As the Protestant churches began to reevaluate their positions in 1930, the Catholic position was reemphasized by a new papal encyclical, Casti Connubii. Nevertheless, by the early 1960s the issue of birth control was being debated vigorously within the church, and a papal commission extensively studied the issue. Although the majority report of the commission recommended modification of the historical position, the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae issued in 1968 maintained the earlier position against artificial prevention of conception. (Hoyt, 1968.) This decision was not received well by many Catholics (Hoyt, 1968) and probably has contributed to what one observer has described as a “crisis in the church” (Greeley, 1979).

Divorce and remarriage also have been subjects of serious debates within and between churches for more than a century. Of central concern have been the legitimate grounds for divorce, if any, and the question of remarriage, with the trend being toward the expansion of the accepted reasons for divorce and the recognition of remarriage. Although the opposition of the Catholic church towards divorce and remarriage has been strongest and most persistent, even its overall position has been modified recently by the broadening of the grounds for annulment and the weakening of the sanctions against divorce and remarriage. (O’Neill, 1967; Chester, 1977; Preister, 1982; D’Antonio, 1983, 1984; Ripple, 1978.)

Of course, divorce, remarriage, and contraception are only a few of the family changes to challenge and modify the traditional wisdom and policies of the churches. Changing patterns of women’s employment, appropriate roles for women and men, premarital sexuality, teenage childbearing, abortion, and cohabitation also have provoked debates among the churches and initiated the reexamination and modification of traditional positions (D’Antonio and Aldous, 1983).

The process of religious accommodation to significant shifts in family structure and behavior is facilitated by the fact that religious leaders and policymakers experience the forces of change directly in their own personal lives and indirectly through sharing the experiences of their relatives. As clergyman are faced directly with such issues as the appropriate roles for men and women, the resolution of unhappy marriages, and decisions about childbearing, they are better able to understand and empathize with the decisions lay members face. In this process church leaders may come to modify or reinterpret official teachings for their personal lives, and these considerations then can become input to the official decision-making process.

Mormonism provides an example of the reflection of societal trends in the behavior of church leaders. The average family sizes of Mormon leaders has declined substantially; whereas wives of the top hierarchy of Mormon leaders born during the early part of the nineteenth century averaged about nine children, the average for those born early in this century was just over four. (Thornton, 1979) The personal experiences and adaptations of these church leaders probably made it easier subsequently to modify the official pronouncement of the church on family size and contraception.

Although this discussion has focused primarily on the role of religion as lawgiver, religious organizations also can play an important supportive and helping role for individuals and their families. In recent years there has been a widespread recognition among religious groups of the need for church programs and policies to strengthen family life. There has been a substantial growth in family ministries and programs designed to assist families, and some groups devote considerable effort to ensure maximum congruence between family and religious goals. Although the nature of these programs vary, virtually all recognize the changing structure of families in today’s world and attempt to be responsive to the changed patterns of behavior. Of course, as religious groups try both to support traditional values and behavior and to assist individuals who are experiencing nontraditional living arrangements, they are likely to experience continual strain and ambivalence.

Changing family relations also have had direct implications for church organization. One important example of this is the relationship between men and women in the churches. Just as gender has become a suspect basis for making distinctions and discriminations within the larger society, it has become increasingly suspect in the churches. Consequently, the role of women in many churches has expanded, and the issue of women in the clergy and holding the priesthood has risen everywhere. (Hargrove, 1983; D’Antonio and Cavanaugh, 1983; Aldous, 1983.) It is likely that the pressure to treat men and women totally equally within the churches will continue to mount with time, and where this pressure is strongly resisted, significant controversy is likely.

A constant theme of this paper has been the significant number of important linkages among societal, familial, and religious changes. One additional feedback loop merits comment: the responses of the churches to societal and familial change have important ramifications for the role of religion in the lives of individuals and their families. Intimate family and personal relationships are of such significance in the lives of individuals that the programs, guidance, and policies that churches provide on these issues can affect the total relationships between individuals and their churches.

Perhaps the strongest and most relevant evidence for the influence of family doctrine on the religious activity and commitment of individuals can be found in the Catholic experience of the past twenty years. In 1968, when the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae was issued, it was justified by its supporters as a reaffirmation of the church’s commitment to ethical values. Nevertheless, the encyclical met with immediate, widespread, and public dissent in the United States; it was criticized as being out of touch with modern circumstances, the authority of the papacy was questioned, and the right of individual dissent was emphasized. The strong traditional reaffirmation of the church’s teachings on family issues and the accompanying decline in church authority also may have contributed to rather substantial declines in religious devotion, belief, and activity among Catholics. Thus, the family doctrine and policy of the church may have eroded both the commitment of individual Catholics to the institutional church and the ability of the church to influence the lives of individual Catholics on nonfamily issues. (Greeley et al., 1976.) [6]

If the recent impact of Catholic family policy on the religious commitment and activity of American Catholics is as strong as the evidence suggests, this same kind of influence could have been operating in both Catholic and non-Catholic groups in less dramatic ways throughout the last century. The relatively slow and reluctant adaptations of the doctrines and programs of the churches to the changes in family life may have operated to decrease both the moral authority of the churches and the religious commitment and activity of individuals. That is, the long-term decline in the moral authority of the churches, which is often decried in religious circles, may have been accelerated by the rigidity and slowness of the churches in adapting to the changes occurring in family life. Of course, the churches also have had to be concerned about the reactions of individuals who look to religion as a source of unchanging values and proscriptions. It is possible that some individuals have been alienated from their churches because the adaptations that were made were interpreted as an abandonment of fundamental religious principles. Thus, there are constant pressures for religious groups to adhere to a narrow line between tradition and change.


This paper has documented an intricate web of interrelationships between religious institutions and values and family structure and behavior. Religious teachings and doctrine influence family structure and relationships, and family trends have an impact on religious programs and doctrine. In addition, the interrelationships between family and religion are not static but dynamic and changing, with the relationship being constantly modified as both institutions are changed by larger societal forces.

Three general themes have permeated this paper. The first has dealt with the substantial changes that have occurred in family structure and relationships in the Western world during the last two centuries. These changes have been observed across virtually every Western society and within virtually every population subgroup within those societies. Many of these family changes are interwoven with changes in the larger society, including increases in school attendance and achievement, declines in mortality, the growth of scientific knowledge, long-term economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization. Because of the central place of the family in historical social structures, these transformations have been instrumental in modifying the organization of the family and household unit, the activities of individual family members, and the nature of interaction within the family and household.

Second, the timing and pace of family change were influenced by religion and the changing place of religion and religious beliefs in the social fabric. Although the precise influence of religion and religious affiliation has been modified over the years, religion continues to influence family structure and behavior. Differences among religious groups today, however, are smaller than the changes that have occurred in family life.

Third, changes in family structure and behavior have led to substantial modifications in the teachings and policies of the Western churches. All religions have had to examine their traditional positions, and all have modified their stances on specific issues, although the extent and timing of religious changes have varied. The ways in which the churches respond to these issues also have ramifications for the moral authority and credibility of the churches themselves.

Although this paper has been able to provide only a brief overview of the interrelationships among the economic, social, religious, and familial dimensions of society, it demonstrates the intricacy and complexity of those relationships. All of these dimensions of society are bound together in an interlocking web of reciprocating causal influences. Changes, especially those of the magnitude experienced during the past two centuries, of necessity have implications throughout the system. The result has been centuries of adapting existing norms and patterns of behavior to new circumstances. Because of the unevenness of change across the institutions of society, there has been a century of dynamic tension among individuals and their institutions. These changes have occurred in central areas of human concern, with the consequence that they have generated great debates, political controversy, and difficult decisions by individuals, families, and institutions. Although a number of issues appear to be resolved, many are not; and it is likely that the next century will also be characterized by important family change, intense debate, political controversy, and religious adjustment.


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[1] Although the thrust of this discussion is limited to the Western experience, it is of some interest to note that a number of the same processes and trends also can be observed among non-European populations (Knodel, 1977; van de Walle and Knodel, 1980; Thornton, 1984).

[2] An important exception to this conclusion of relatively uniform trends is represented by the fertility of the Hutterites in Canada. As recently as 1971 their fertility levels resembled those existing in the United States during the nineteenth century (Statistics Canada, 1973). Their uniqueness probably can be attributed both to their strong religious beliefs about childbearing and contraception and to their commitment to a rural, agricultural life-style.

[3] The above discussion is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of family trends or their causes. Instead, its purpose is to highlight some of the major trends and to suggest some of the ways in which these changes were linked to the transformations of society brought about by increased school attendance, industrialization, urbanization, the decline of mortality, and the increase in scientific knowledge and technology. This discussion also emphasizes the American experience, although fundamental changes in family life also have occurred among the populations of other Western countries.

[4] This view is based on longitudinal research being conducted by W. C. McCready of the University of Chicago and summarized in personal communication with the author (see also “Religious Feeling . . . ,” 1984).

[5] These unpublished data are derived from a panel study of women conducted between 1962 and 1980. Also see Thornton (198).

[6] Of course, the task of linking complex behavioral and value changes to institutional events and decisions is a difficult one, and alternative explanations are possible. Consequently, as Greeley and his colleagues (1976: 143) themselves suggest, they “have not made a completely unchallengeable case in favor of the encyclical explanation for the decline in Catholic religiousness.” Nevertheless, they present a substantial amount of information that is consistent with this explanation.