Family Decline: A Political Response and a Religious Response


Paul Vitz, in this concluding chapter, outlines both a political and a religious response to the crisis of the family. Vitz begins by reviewing evidence from the social sciences of the tragic social and economic costs which large numbers of single-parent and divorced families have wrought, concluding that the state's self-interest should push it to support strong traditional families.

Paul Vitz

Let us reflect on the theoretical analyses and research-findings bearing on the contemporary American family, contained in this volume. It is clear that the present situation, involving large numbers of single-parent and divorced families, presents serious social and economic costs. The consequences to society of such families include:

  • dramatic increases in the number of illegitimate children, large numbers of whom are, with their mother, on social welfare.
  • large increases in psychiatric problems, both among children and single parents.
  • large increases in physical health problems of many kinds.
  • much higher risks of serious child-abuse, including death.
  • large rises in educational pathologies (e.g., learning difficulties, high drop-out rates) and an increase in depression and in negative attitudes about the self and others, both of which undermine the capacity of children to learn and to become successful contributors to the modern economy.
  • a much higher likelihood of using drugs, with the associated social costs.
  • a very large proportion of serious criminal behavior.

As a consequence, a heavy economic and social burden is beginning to fall on the state. And this burden can only grow, at least in the next few decades, because divorce, the rise in illegitimacy, and the large numbers of unmarried couples living together all predict a continuation, and probably a growth, in childhood pathology and youthful criminality with its related ills.

It seems reasonable, therefore, that the state, to the extent that its policies are rational, should attempt to halt, and if possible reverse, these social trends. Just as recent laws and unbridled social changes have promoted these pathologies, new laws and new social policies can, it is to be hoped, mitigate these harmful effects. After all, the state's self-interest should push it to support strong traditional families.

There are, of course, historical reasons to be pessimistic about reversing the factors responsible for demographic and social decline. But there is an important new element this time, namely our increased understanding of the problem and its causes. The kind of theory and research summarized and discussed in this book is historically new. In a sense, these positions give a genuine understanding of a major social disease. As with biological diseases which were first conquered through medical science beginning two hundred years ago, so perhaps we can use this new social science to substantially improve our social health. Perhaps with this new understanding we can forge the will to change society, and to implement new policy.

No country, so far as I know, has penalized divorce; on the whole, in the past few decades, divorce has been getting easier and easier: faster, cheaper, and increasingly socially acceptable. In the United States, as mentioned above, we have "no-fault" divorce, in which either member of the couple can simply decide to divorce, for any reason, at any time. (It is ironic that this legal innovation was strongly supported by feminists, who thought it would liberate women; instead, in the U.S., it has impoverished and embittered millions of women and children.) Likewise, I don't believe any state has tied retirement and health benefits to the number of children a person has.

What I propose, then, is a "preferential option for the family” In the United States, this might mean something like the following:

  • laws making divorce — when children are involved — harder and slower to get.
  • possibly, a divorce "tax" to be paid by couples who have children to help defray the social costs which divorce, on average, forces society to pay. The tax would be paid by the person seeking the divorce, and might be 1% of gross income for each child involved, for each year of the divorce until the child is 18. To take an analogy: in the past, businesses were often allowed to pollute the physical and biological environment. As the costs of this pollution became clear and burdensome, laws were introduced to restrict such practices, and to make businesses pay for some of these costs, through special taxes. Divorce, where children are involved, is a kind of social "pollution," and those who inflict it on others should be prepared to pay the costs.
  • We need to markedly reduce our society's widespread illegitimacy. This is a very difficult issue, but perhaps one of the best deterrents, at least for educated people, is for the negative effects of deliberately raising children with only one parent to be more widely publicized. It's time that we saw the deliberate raising of a child without a father (for example) as a form of self-indulgence, with the child being treated more like a pet than a human being.
  • Taxes and other social costs which today fall more heavily on those who are married and have children, must be reduced. For example, a large tax credit for the married who have children should be seen as a worthwhile investment for the society. Nothing will encourage marriage more rapidly than to make it much more financially attractive. The state must begin to see healthy children as its most important social investment. For example, see Carlson (1996) and (1998).
  • Economic security in old age — e.g., social security payments — should be linked to the number of a person's children. This controversial suggestion by the European demographer van de Kaa (1987) surely goes to the heart of the present problem. After all, why should those without children have their retirement paid for by other people's children?
  • A special "marriage encouragement" policy, proposed by the Family Research Report (Sept./Oct, 1994, 1-2) has merit. Specifically, it was proposed that married couples would get a 1% per year tax reduction for each year that they stayed married; married couples with children, who remained with — maintained guardianship of — their children would get another 1% tax reduction per child. (Children over 18 would cease to qualify.)
  • Change and adapt laws and zoning ordinances so as to allow much more home labor, especially the kind using modern computer and communication technology. This point has been developed along with a tax credit by Carlson (1996).
  • Get rid of the present tax penalty paid by married couples as compared to those co-habiting and with the unmarried. Carlson and Blankenhorn (1997) have cogently argued that the best way to do this is by using income splitting.

There are, of course, other ways in which a preferential option for the family could be expressed in the United States, and other countries as well. The above should be seen as constituting suggestions. One of the most important centers for policy and political support for the family is the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, 934 N. Main Street, Rockford, IL 61103/(815) 964-5819. And an excellent discussion of how the state might help the European family has been provided by Donati (1993).

Part 2: A religious response

The implicit understanding of a family in much of the prior research and discussion has been: a child (or children) living with its (their) two biological parents. A more useful definition of the family would speak in terms of children living with two biological parents who have a good marriage and a strong religious faith (or other world view). Let us briefly look at the evidence for this understanding of a family. THE FAMILY AND RELIGION: EVIDENCE FROM SOCIAL SCIENCE Evidence that a good marriage is an important and positive contribution to family life, and that a bad marriage is the reverse has already been presented. But the positive contribution of religion to the well-being of family members and society is also documented but is not well known. This research has been reviewed by David B. Larson (e.g., Larson, Larson and Gartner, 1990). See also Gartner, Larson and Allen, 1991; and Payne, Bergin, Bielema and Jenkins, 1991. I will present much of this important research here. A major point to keep in mind about the research literature on religion and health is that when religion is defined by behavioral commitment (e.g., church attendance) and the other variable is also behavioral (e.g., drug use) the research reliably shows a very positive picture of religion. However, when religious attitudes and paper and pencil tests are correlated, the picture is much more ambiguous, and sometimes negative. In short, beware of studies or polls that measure "religion” only by asking for a person `s "religious preference" or "attitude toward religion.”

Physical health

Levin and Vanderpool (1987), in a systematic review (a meta-analysis) of the literature reported: “Twenty-two out of 27 studies found the frequency of religious attendance to be significantly associated with health" (p. 590). Even the most tenuous sort of religious association had some positive impact on physical health.

This conclusion is consistent with past reviews: Argyle & Beit-Halahmi, 1975; Larson, 1985; and with other studies: Jenkins, 1976; Gartner, et al., 1991. All of the studies that Larson (1985) and Levin and Vanderpool (1987) reviewed confirmed that the religiously committed lived longer than those without such commitment; this effect was particularly strong in males. The index of religious commitment in most of these studies was frequency of church attendance.

An important study by Straus and Kantor (1987) analyzed 18 variables predicting child abuse rates. Parents with low “religious service attendance" were over 100% more likely to abuse their children than those with high church attendance. It is also worth noting that low marital satisfaction was associated with high child abuse rates (and vice versa).

Mental health

The first articles reviewing religion and mental health, Argyle & Beit-Hallahmi (1975), Moberg (1965), Stark (1971), reported that the elderly who are religiously active have greater well-being and experience lower frequencies of psychiatric disorder. A current review (Gartner et al., 1991) found six studies that investigated a wide variety of populations, two of which were elderly (Moberg, 1965; Rogalski & Paisey, 1987). Each of the six studies reported a positive relationship between religious commitment and well-being. It was unclear whether church attendance increased well-being for the elderly, or if it was simply an index of their overall level of functioning; thus, attending church could be a sign of good health and ability to function.

Williams, et al. (l99l) report findings that led them to conclude that religion significantly reduces the stress of life: as religious attendance increased, adverse consequences of stress decreased.

In addition, two large-scale epidemiological studies have examined the overall rate of psychological distress in the general population. Both found that the religiously committed were less disturbed than the religiously uncommitted (Lindenthal et al., 1970; Stark, 1971). Finally, Poloma and Pendleton (1991) found that religious experience during prayer was a significant predictor of general well-being.

Six studies, which assessed religious status and psychological status at more than one point in time, demonstrated improvement in psychological functioning following religious participation. For example, lower rates of rehospitalization were noted in schizophrenics who attended church (Chu & Klein, 1985) or were given supportive aftercare by religious housewives and ministers (Katkin et al, 1975). Also, participation in religious worship resulted in significant reductions in diverse psychiatric symptoms (Finney & Malony, 1985; Griffith et al, 1986, Morris, 1982).


Religious commitment reduces the likelihood of suicide. One large-scale study (Comstock & Partridge, 1972) found that those who did not attend church were four times more prone to suicide than were frequent church attendees.

Twelve more recent studies have demonstrated that being religiously committed greatly reduces the tendency to act out conflicts through suicidal behavior. Those who were religiously committed experienced fewer suicidal impulses (Minear & Brush, 1980-81; Paykel et al., 1974) and had more critical attitudes about suicide (Bascue et al., 1983; Hoelter, 1979).

Furthermore, a decline in church attendance has been found to predict suicide rates nationwide (Martin, 1984; Stack, 1983a; Stark et al., 1983). This single factor predicted suicide rates more effectively than factors such as unemployment (Stack, 1983a). Across nations, differences in "religiousness" have been found to predict suicide rates (Breault & Barkey, 1982; Stack, 1983b).

Substance use

In their 1976 review of the literature, Gorsuch and Butler found 20 studies that examined the relationship between religion and drug use. They found that religious people very reliably do not use illicit drugs. More recent studies have provided similar results: 11 of the 12 studies reviewed by Gartner, et al. (1991) demonstrated that people with a religious commitment had far lower rates of drug use. Gartner, et al. (1991) also found that 6 out of 7 studies showed that abusive use of alcohol was more common in the less religious.

Those who attended church frequently were also found to have the lowest rate of delinquency in 5 of the 6 studies Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi (1975) reviewed. It is important to note that it is religious behavior, not merely religious attitudes, that differentiated non-delinquents from delinquents.

Divorce and marital satisfaction

Religious people may simply be remaining in unhappy marriages out of obedience to religious proscriptions against divorce. Although this is unquestionably true in some individual cases, as a group the religiously committed — generally defined by church attendance — report higher levels of marital satisfaction (Larson, 1985). For example, one study found that church attendance predicted marital satisfaction better than any of the other eight variables included in a multi-variate regression model (Glenn & Weaver, 1978). Men and women from enduring marriages rank religion as one of the most important prescriptions for a happy marriage (Sporawski & Houghston, 1978).

Religion and family size

One of the central concerns, perhaps the central concern, of many commentators about the future of the West has been the arrival of very low birthrates, rates that are far below replacement, at least in most of the developed countries, especially Western Europe. In the United States, at present, the birthrate is 2.1 children per woman, and is about at replacement. But even here, the situation is disturbing. For example, the birthrate in the U.S. was below replacement from approximately 1970 to 1990 (Donovan, 1990). It has blipped up almost to replacement level in the past few years, primarily as a minor response to the large baby-boom generation, and as a result of the large families of many recent immigrants. And of course, as already mentioned, large numbers of the U.S. births are to single mothers — with all the problems this entails. In terms of planned births by married couples, the U.S. is already a one-child society (Donovan, 1990). The only reason that the total U.S. population has been growing in recent years has been through immigration, not the birthrate. Immigration, of course, creates all kinds of other problems. In much of Western Europe, the birthrate has been substantially below replacement for many years and is beginning to approach crisis levels.

In the United States I have long been attending to where large families can be found. I have a personal interest in this, along with my wife, since we have six children. My basic observation is simple: wherever we have noticed large families, especially groups of them, we have discovered that these families are seriously religious. Some examples are the Orthodox and especially the Hasidic Jewish communities in the New York City area (see Hoffman, 1990a, 1990b). These religious communities are growing very rapidly, and I have been informed that the median family size is roughly eight children! A recent Jewish commentator (Feder, 1993) has noted that within the near future, the American Jewish community will be dramatically dominated by these ultra-conservative and religiously committed groups. A similar phenomenon has been reported in Israel by Hartman (1984). Another group in the United States with large families is the Mormons. For example, see the research of Johnson (1982); Heaton and Calkins (1983); Smith (1985); Toney, et al., (1985). My own personal observation in recent years has been that the Mormon birthrate is well above the American national average. The Amish are another example of a religious community with a high birthrate (see Ericksen and Klein, 1981; Bishop, 1993). My experience with Catholic families over the last dozen or so years has very reliably led me to conclude that if a Catholic family has more than about four young children, it is almost certain to be a seriously religious family.

For general evidence that religious commitment is a factor in U.S. fertility, see Mosher et al. (1986); see Oakley (1986) for evidence that the non-religious are more likely to be childless. For a relevant world-wide analysis see Fu and Heaton (1995).

A related finding is that the seriously religious are much less likely to get divorced. In a Canadian study, Balakrishnan et al. (1987) found that couples that attended church once a week had an 18% chance of being divorced, while those less religious had a 47% likelihood. Couples who share a religious faith are also less likely to get divorced than those of no faith. (Moneker and Rankin, 1993). A study in Holland found that young people with devout parents are much more likely to get married without cohabitation or after brief cohabitation; they were also less likely to cohabit (Liefbroer and Gierveld, 1993).

Finally, at a conference on the topic of "strong families," the thirteen participating researchers compared notes. They agreed that "a religious or spiritual orientation" was a major characteristic of strong families in all studies with which they were familiar. (Kryson, Moore and Zill, 1990.)

In summary, research has shown that religious commitment as measured by religious attendance or participation appears to promote both physical and mental health. Religion helps people live longer and protects against the occurrence of serious misuse of drugs and alcohol. Religious participation also predicts lower rates of child abuse, suicide and delinquency. It protects families from divorce and thus also protects families from fragmentation. Religious participation mitigates against psychological distress and promotes a personal sense of well-being. And finally, religious commitment is a major factor in high — that is, above replacement — fertility.

In short, another way of stating the family crisis is to say that at heart it is a religious crisis. This conclusion is far from novel, as the same general view was brilliantly presented years ago by the Harvard sociologist Sorokin (e.g., 1947, 1956, 1957).

The case for a religious response

I will argue that the secular state is intrinsically incapable of reversing the present, well-documented, pathological family and social trends. Instead, I believe that the primary initiative lies with religion, and unless such initiative is taken, the situation can only continue to deteriorate.

Historically, there has been a long struggle in the West between church and state. In the last hundred years of this struggle, the state now triumphs in this conflict with routine frequency. The secular state and its associated secular worldview are now institutionalized throughout the West, and, however institutionalized and indeed fossilized, secularism has become the established social philosophy. Correspondingly, the religious life in most European and in many other Western countries has been driven to the periphery of society. Even in the U.S., religion has been driven out of the public political spheres (e.g. Neuhaus, 1984.)

The triumph of modern anti-religious secularism, as expressed in the modern state, raises serious obstacles, however, to the previously suggested policy of supporting the family. After all, the ideology that governs the modern state and those who administer it is hostile to the traditional family, and, of course, to religion. Furthermore, the growth of family pathology feeds the growth of state-supported social programs that attempt to alleviate family problems. In the process, such state programs typically make the problem worse and continue to undermine the family. Nevertheless, the state itself grows in power. As with all organizations, this growth in power is self-reinforcing. (See Carlson, 1997.)

But when this socially destructive logic unfolds and becomes understood, there may be a chance for a positive movement actually supporting the family and religion, as well. If this is not possible, I suspect that deep hostility to the very notion of the modern secular state will continue to grow — at least among the seriously religious population, especially those still having children. In the U.S., this is already shown by the recent political strength of the so-called "religious right."

In any case, I am quite convinced that the previously described single-parent, divorced, broken or non-traditional family can best be understood as the secular family: as the logical and necessary outcome of secularization. At its limit, the government itself, through its programs, becomes the family. The goal of utopian political theory is thus reached in an unanticipated manner. Today each single parent, in a sense, marries the government. In contrast, the strong family is best understood as the religious family. My reasoning is as follows. Secularism is about the absence of God and of higher meaning. Secularism is the philosophy of the isolated individual, living in a world without transcendent meaning; secularism is about the consumer mentality and a life devoted to hedonist and material pleasures for the individual.

In short, as secularism has expanded and become more extreme, it has created the "meaning" crisis, and with it the family crisis. As long as the dominant worldview is modern secularism, there is little reason for any individual to choose even the restraints of marriage, much less the obligations and duties of parenthood. Thus, it is likely that the marriage and birth rates will continue to decline in the U.S. and in much of the West. It makes rational sense, within such a secular framework, to concentrate on self-fulfillment, and to forget about the welfare of society. It makes secular sense to assume that the state will take care of you, and of those you fail to take care of. It makes sense to assume that other people's children will pay the taxes to care for you in your old age. And if there is a need for competent workers, or even for soldiers, it makes sense, from the perspective of the secular individual, to assume that other people's children will do the hard and dangerous work of the culture.

But the simple fact is that the state needs children just as much as any couple in a village in India needs them to care for them in their old age. `The only difference is that it takes longer for people in the modern state to become aware of this logic. But again, the problem is that from the point of view of the individual secular citizen, it is worth the gamble to not have children, because it is certain that your children will cost you much in time, money and anxiety. And it is possible that the state will be able to pay for your old age.

What is needed is a new and creative tension between church and state — a tension where each party is strong enough to prevent the problems caused by the dominance of the other. Because both church and state make important positive contributions to society, both have a vested interest in such a healthy competition. Otherwise, as shown by the family crisis, the very weakness of the church undermines the strength of the state.

To return to the general situation, our problem was first and most powerfully stated in the West by Nietzsche: "If God is dead, anything is permitted." Unfortunately, such logic leads inevitably to post-modern nihilistic self-indulgence. In the process, it leads as well to the rejection of marriage and children, both of which require self-sacrifice rather than self-empowerment; both require money, time, and effort. What is more — religious families know this well — children `justify" themselves in large part today by their transcendent meaning, by their importance in a religious framework. Children are gifts from God. Sacrificial love, perhaps best shown to children, brings you into a transcendent form of existence that leaves nihilist materialism in the meaningless dust.

However, the return of religion to Western culture does not depend upon the state. It depends upon religion itself. Should religion return, we can also assume that it will bring with it strengthened families, more children, and cultural survival. If religion returns, it may, of course, take many different forms, of which Christianity is only one. In the United States, we have many competing religions, the most lively today being Fundamentalist Protestantism, Mormonism, Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, and Islam, especially black Islam.

Whether a widespread religious revival will occur is impossible to say. Meanwhile, we live in a post-modern sunset: it provides a strange afterglow within which we have begun to understand that if God is dead, our families are dead — our society is dead. In short, if, for America, God is dead, then America is dead.


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Vitz, Paul C. “A Preferential Option for the Family: A Political Response and a Religious Response” In Defending the Family: A Sourcebook, 268-275. Steubenville, OH: The Catholic Social Science Press, 1999.

(ISBN: 1-888462-00-0). Order from Franciscan University Press, University Boulevard, Steubenville, Ohio 43952/(800) 783-6357. Reprinted with permission of The Society of Catholic Social Scientists, Inc.


Prof. Paul Vitz received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University (1962) and for many years was a professor of psychology at New York University, where he is now professor emeritus. Currently he is Professor/Senior Scholar at the Institute for Psychological Sciences (IPS) in Arlington, VA. This is a free-standing, fully accredited graduate program, awarding the Doctor of Psychology degree in clinical psychology. The program trains psychologists within an orthodox Catholic perspective.

Dr. Vitz's work is focused on the integration of Christian theology and psychology, breaking from the secular humanism and post-modern relativism prevalent today. His books include: Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship; Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious; Modern Art and Modern Science: The Parallel Analysis of Vision; and Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. He and his wife live in Manhattan; they have six children, and they are now expecting their tenth grandchild. Paul Vitz is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 Society of Catholic Social Scientists

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