Americans are overwhelmingly people of faith, and a new survey shows they are holding onto a traditional ideal of marriage and family. Yet as fewer families meet that ideal, they are becoming more accepting of divorce, cohabitation, and nontraditional family situations - across religious groupings.
"Faith and Family in America," a survey released last week by PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, highlights the contradictions between beliefs and reality, explores views on moral values, and compares religious practices of traditional and nontraditional families. The TV show begins a four-part series on the subject this weekend.
While the survey reveals that 71 percent of Americans believe "God's plan for marriage is one man, one woman, for life," only 22 percent say they see divorce as a sin. Even among religious conservatives (Protestant or Catholic), only about one-third say divorce is sinful. Protestants are more likely than other groups to get married, but they are no more likely to stay married.
About half of Americans now see cohabitation as acceptable, but only 40 percent support "trial marriage," in which people intending to marry live together first.
Although the traditional nuclear family continues to be prized, only 19 percent of families fulfill that ideal (nondivorced parents with children). And "48 percent of Americans live in households that depart dramatically from the ideal," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C.
Yet traditional and nontraditional parents are surprisingly similar in some respects, including seeing religion as important. Traditional parents attend religious services more regularly, but 49 percent of each type say they read religious scriptures every week. And close to 45 percent of both hold daily devotions with their families. These practices are carried on at a time when only about 31 percent of Americans attend religious services weekly.
Despite the disconnect between people's aspirations and their family experience, most Americans clearly prefer to sort things out on their own; 82 percent say they oppose government programs to encourage marriage.
This survey may solve the mystery as to what voters had in mind during the November 2004 presidential election when, in an exit poll, 22 percent cited "moral values" as their greatest concern. In the recent survey, 18 percent again choose "moral values" as their prime concern, but the largest proportion (36 percent) define them in terms of personal values, such as honesty and responsibility. Only 10 percent emphasize social issues like abortion.
While 59 percent of Americans say they do not support gay marriage, 43 percent do favor adoption rights for gays and lesbians, while 47 percent are opposed.
The survey of 1,130 US adults was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. of Washington.