Religion and Family in a Changing Society

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The 1950s religious boom was organized around the male-breadwinner lifestyle in the burgeoning postwar suburbs. But since the 1950s, family life has been fundamentally reconfigured in the United States. How do religion and family fit together today?

This book examines how religious congregations in America have responded to changes in family structure, and how families participate in local religious life. Based on a study of congregations and community residents in upstate New York, sociologist Penny Edgell argues that while some religious groups may be nostalgic for the Ozzie and Harriet days, others are changing, knowing that fewer and fewer families fit this traditional pattern. In order to keep members with nontraditional family arrangements within the congregation, these innovators have sought to emphasize individual freedom and personal spirituality and actively to welcome single adults and those from nontraditional families.

Edgell shows that mothers and fathers seek involvement in congregations for different reasons. Men tend to think of congregations as social support structures, and to get involved as a means of participating in the lives of their children. Women, by contrast, are more often motivated by the quest for religious experience, and can adapt more readily to pluralist ideas about family structure. This, Edgell concludes, may explain the attraction of men to more conservative congregations, and women to nontraditional religious groups.

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Editorial Reviews

American Journal of Sociology
Religion and Family in a Changing Society should be the starting point for anyone interested in understanding contemporary family-religion dynamics.
— Scott M. Myers
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion - Sally K. Gallagher
Penny Edgell's new monograph provides a much-needed analysis of the intersections of religion and family life. . . . Edgell's work reaches beyond sociology of religion and sociology of family in an effort to speak to broader questions about culture, meaning, social engagement, and social change.
American Journal of Sociology - Scott M. Myers
Religion and Family in a Changing Society should be the starting point for anyone interested in understanding contemporary family-religion dynamics.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2006 Distinguished Book Award, Section on Sociology of Religion, American Sociological Association

"Penny Edgell's new monograph provides a much-needed analysis of the intersections of religion and family life. . . . Edgell's work reaches beyond sociology of religion and sociology of family in an effort to speak to broader questions about culture, meaning, social engagement, and social change."—Sally K. Gallagher, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

"Religion and Family in a Changing Society should be the starting point for anyone interested in understanding contemporary family-religion dynamics."—Scott M. Myers, American Journal of Sociology

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
Penny Edgell's new monograph provides a much-needed analysis of the intersections of religion and family life. . . . Edgell's work reaches beyond sociology of religion and sociology of family in an effort to speak to broader questions about culture, meaning, social engagement, and social change.
— Sally K. Gallagher
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Penny Edgell is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of "Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religioius Life", which won the 1999 best book award from the American Sociological Association's religion section.

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Read an Excerpt

Religion and Family in a Changing Society

By Penny Edgell

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-08675-0

Chapter One


CHANGES IN FAMILY LIFE have transformed our society in the last thirty years. One of the biggest has been the virtual disappearance of the male-breadwinner lifestyle and the emerging dominance of the dual-earner couple. Working wives and mothers face questions about the effects of their choices on their children's welfare and their own health under the strain of the "second shift," while their husbands confront-and respond to in a variety of ways-new opportunities to construct a masculine identity not focused exclusively on breadwinning. Leaders in education, business, and government debate what policies should be in place to help people manage their work and family lives and who should bear the cost of work-family management.

Changing patterns of family formation and disruption have also created widespread concern and vociferous policy debates, forming a major theme of the "culture war" between liberals and conservatives. High divorce rates raise questions about the effects of divorce on children's well-being and future success and how to make "blended" families work. The problems facing single-parent families have become a focus of policy makers, religious leaders, and thenational media. Debates about homosexual unions have led to battles over gay and lesbian marriage in a number of states and many local controversies over what legal rights should be extended to homosexual partners. Delayed marriage and childbearing mean that more American households comprise single adults and childless couples, and remaining childless throughout life has become much more common, fueling concern among some about the decline of the family.

All of these changes have led to an increasing pluralism in family life and a new consensus that there are many kinds of loving, caring families. Most Americans spend some portion of their adult lives outside of a nuclear family, forming and reforming familylike connections periodically over the course of their lives, causing many to rethink long-held assumptions about the necessity of marriage and parenting for adults' happiness, security, and well-being. But this pluralism is intensely contested and debated for both moral and social philosophical reasons. Not everyone agrees about what constitutes "the good family" and what kinds of families are morally legitimate. Many Americans see the family as the bellwether of our society and find the rapid and numerous changes in family life over the last few decades to be troubling. Some argue that a devaluing of family life, and especially of lifelong, heterosexual marriage, inevitably leads to a decline of the nation.

These debates also focus on questions of resources and inequality. Who has access to the rights that marriage confers? Why does divorce lead to a reduction in women's and children's standard of living, and what can be done to change that? The culture war is real and has real policy implications, and in our national discourse, a liberal/conservative divide has largely organized debates about the family. But a focus on divisions between liberals and conservatives obscures both the presence of consensus across these lines on many issues and the other sources of division that come into play as we argue over what constitutes a good family today.

Changes in family life have been a central concern for religious leaders, activists, and local communities of faith. Throughout American history, religion and family have been intertwined and interdependent institutions. Congregations, parishes, and synagogues have provided an important context for families to spend time together and have shaped the religious education and moral development of children and youths. Sociologists have long noted that marriage and parenthood make religion more important to people and increase their participation in local congregations.

The constancy of the link between religion and family can obscure the fact that "the family" participating in local congregations has varied markedly over time and in different social contexts. Religious familisms, or ideologies about the nature of "the good family," have also varied over time and among different religious traditions. For example, the 1950s saw a century-high peak in U.S. church attendance rates and religious institution building, coinciding with the beginning of the baby boom and burgeoning of a postwar family-oriented lifestyle. The religious expansion of the 1950s was organized around a particular kind of familism, central to which was the middle-class, male-breadwinner, suburban family profiled in classic sociological works such as William H. Whyte's Organization Man and idealized in the popular media through productions such as Ozzie and Harriet. The historical irony is that almost as soon as mainstream religious institutions had developed official discourse and local ministry to facilitate this particular form of the family, rapid and fundamental changes in work and in family life began to transform our society.

How have local religious communities responded to this period of rapid change in family life? And how have these changes transformed Americans' involvement in local religious communities? This book begins to develop answers to these questions about the religion-family link today through a study of four communities in upstate New York, ranging from rural to small-town to urban environments, and including middle-class and working-class areas. From 1998 through the summer of 2002, I collected data on the religious congregations in these communities through a survey of 125 local pastors, participant-observation with a team of graduate students in twenty-three congregations, and focus groups with almost fifty pastors. At the same time, a telephone survey of just over one thousand community residents and eighty follow-up in-depth interviews provided a wealth of information about how people's family lives and work arrangements influenced their religious participation. The combination of qualitative and quantitative data on congregations and community residents provides rich detail about the interconnections between religion and family in these upstate New York communities. The appendix explains in detail why these communities were chosen and how the project data were collected.

These communities are not a microcosm of America or of American religion in the 1990s. They are about 94 percent white and have a religious ecology dominated by the mainstream religious institutions that one would have found in abundance here-and across America-for much of the twentieth century. Rather, these communities are an excellent location to study that portion of the religious landscape that was dominant in the 1950s and 1960s-the mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical institutions that grew so rapidly in the postwar religious expansion and organized their ministry so particularly around the middle-class, nuclear, male-breadwinner family with children. These mainstream religious institutions helped to establish the Ozzie and Harriet family as a pervasive cultural ideal, one that still inspires nostalgia today. Although mainstream congregations and denominations today face increasing competition from newer religious forms, they still encompass the majority of churchgoing Americans and have major financial and material resources. And they are highly influential players in the American cultural scene, exerting public leadership in national and local debates about gay marriage, single-parent families, policies to help with work-family management, and other "family values" issues.

The story of how these religious institutions have transformed what they say about the family (rhetoric) and how they provide ministry to families (practices) sheds light on central questions in the sociology of religion. How does religious ideology change over time? How do the institutional routines established in a period of expansion and growth shape the capacity for religious organizations and leaders to act in the future? How do religious leaders maintain moral authority as society changes, and how do individuals make decisions about the meaning and relevance of religious participation in their own lives when they confront institutions that may be slow to respond to contemporary family realities? How do institutions that defined and defended the ideal of the suburban male-breadwinner family define the good family today, and how do they welcome-or exclude-people whose lives do not fit the former ideal?

These questions concern not only sociologists, but anyone who wants to understand the role that religious institutions play in society, how they maintain moral authority and exercise cultural power, how they thrive or decline in the face of rapid social change, and how people judge them to be relevant, meaningful, and welcoming places. Throughout the book, I will argue that these communities provide a useful lens through which to examine the question of how a particular set of religious institutions have responded to changes in family life and how changes in the family have reconfigured religious commitment.


When we think about religious responses to family-related issues, our minds turn immediately to televised images of evangelicals picketing local abortion clinics, chanting and carrying signs, perhaps being dragged away by the police. Or we remember hearing an interview with a Catholic bishop who weaves his views on abortion, gun control, and opposition to the death penalty into a consistent ethic of life. We may recall a newspaper article on the briefs filed by liberal religious leaders with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court supporting the right of same-sex couples to marry. Religious leaders do not directly make policy but they do exercise a great deal of cultural power in American society-the power to bring issues to national attention, to shape policy debates and media coverage, and to change individuals' hearts and minds.

But most Americans do not encounter religious discourse about what is good, moral, and appropriate in family life solely, or even primarily, through news coverage or base their understandings on the pronouncements of religious elites and activists. People encounter religious ideas about the good family in the sermons and parenting workshops and adult education forums in their local congregations. They think anew about the centrality of family in women's lives when the church's annual Mother-Daughter Banquet is renamed the Women's Banquet and a speaker is invited to talk about women's contributions to local businesses and voluntary organizations. They confront the issue of whether homosexual unions are really "families" when they debate whether to become a congregation that is open and affirming to gays and lesbians. Evangelical men confront what it means to be the "spiritual head" of the family in the intensive workshops on being a good husband and father run by their pastor or in a Promise Keepers group.

People also encounter taken-for-granted assumptions about the centrality and importance of the family-and about what counts as a family-through the programs and ministries local congregations offer. Churches send messages about appropriate family lifestyles when they offer support groups for single parents or parenting classes designed for men. When the women's group meets at 10 A.M. on a Wednesday, women who work outside the home may conclude that traditional church-based women's groups are not relevant to their lives and not responsive to their concerns-and may either "vote with their feet" and go elsewhere or become involved in a different set of church-based activities. A proliferation of intergenerational programs designed to include people in all life stages and family arrangements may make singles or childless couples feel that their choices are supported and recognized as legitimate, and offering babysitting during the Parish Council meeting facilitates the participation of adults in dual-earner and single-parent families.

There are more than three hundred thousand local religious congregations in the United States, and what happens in these congregations shapes the moral debate about the meaning and legitimacy of changes in the family and shapes who feels included or excluded from practicing their religious faith. Churches and synagogues influence individuals' choices about marriage and parenting and how women and men divide responsibility for paid work and family caretaking. They influence people's attitudes about the morality of divorce and single parenting and gay and lesbian lifestyles. They provide social capital, connection, and belonging that help ameliorate the disruptive effects of family transitions on people's lives.

Local congregations do not simply reproduce official religious doctrine on family issues, but are creative arenas where new moral understandings are produced. Local congregations balance two moral imperatives when they confront changes in the family. Members and leaders want to do "what is right," to be faithful to the authoritative teachings of their faith traditions. They also want to do "what is caring," to be loving and inclusive of the real people and real families they encounter. Both are integral parts of lived religion, the basic moral requirements of religious community. Lived religion blunts the sharp edge of ideological zeal while new understandings of the good family evolve. This lived religion is what most Americans encounter and what shapes hearts and minds.

Understanding how face-to-face religious communities have responded to changes in family life and work-family arrangements is important for sociologists who analyze how religious institutions change over time and for anyone who wants to understand how religious institutions exercise cultural power and moral influence in American society. Understanding the "family values" that organize local congregational life is crucial for anyone who cares about the survival of faith communities in a changing world and the meaning of religious involvement for those who do not fit the Ozzie and Harriet family around which the last great religious expansion was organized.

This study was designed to uncover the moral frameworks through which local congregations grapple with the meaning and implications of the changing family. To some extent, the moral frameworks I found in these upstate New York communities do mirror the "culture wars" division between liberals and conservatives. This was particularly true when religious leaders were asked about general themes ("family ministry" or "changes in family life") as opposed to specific issues. This excerpt from one pastor focus group conducted in Tompkins County in June 2000 shows clear divisions among local pastors along liberal/conservative lines:

The pastor of a thriving independent Baptist congregation has just explained that in his church they try to avoid the term "family ministry" because it makes people who are not part of traditional "two kids and a dog" families feel left out. The focus group leader asks, "What about the rest of you? Do you use the terms 'family ministry,' or 'family programming,' or something else?" The following exchange occurs: G.B., pastor of evangelical Lutheran congregation:

"... the traditional nuclear family is not a bad thing. And it has been around for some time and it has a fairly significant endorsement from Scripture. The Lord knows the Bible is filled with a bunch of nontraditional families And you know, God loves people despite the weaknesses that have led them sometimes to do, to do what they've done But you cannot lose the fact that God still endorses the family. It is [pause] I think a strong, um, prescription that God advocates the marriage of a husband and wife and their allegiance to the children and the children's allegiance to the parents."

R.H., pastor of a Unitarian congregation:

"Um, personally I think that we, we try to speak of normal families in comparison or in contrast to the Bible, because to me the Bible is just filled with a bunch of stories about dysfunctional families. I [pause] I can't look at a Bible and find a family I would hold up as a model." [emphasis in original] S.W., pastor of independent Baptist congregation: "I do hold up, you know Scriptural families as a model ... and I say this, I'm very strongly convinced that whatever the Bible says is what is right, and I try not to change things because I think society's changing Someone said earlier God has established the family. He has, you can discover the groundwork in the Scripture for the family. He hasn't changed it, we have changed it, society's changed it."

R.H., pastor of a Unitarian congregations:

"You can go through the Bible and you just don't find any normal families that you would hold up as a model." (Continues...)

Excerpted from Religion and Family in a Changing Society by Penny Edgell Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables ix
Acknowledgments xi
Chapter One: Contested Changes "Family Values" in Local Religious Life 1
Chapter Two: Religious Involvement and Religious Institutional Change 27
Chapter Three: Religion, Family, and Work 45
Chapter Four: Styles of Religious Involvement 67
Chapter Five: "The Problem with Families Today . . ." 94
Chapter Six: The Practice of Family Ministry 125
Chapter Seven: Religious Familism and Social Change 146
Appendix: Choices 167
Notes 175
References 195
Index 207

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