Family commitment blended with strong religion dampens civic participation

December 18, 2012

Blending religion with familism -- a strong commitment to lifelong marriage and childbearing -- dampens secular civic participation, according to research by a Baylor University sociologist.

"Strong family and strong religion. What happens when they meet? Is that good for the larger society? It is not always as it seems," said Dr. Young-Il Kim, a postdoctoral fellow in Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion.

His study is published in Social Science Research. The findings are based on analysis of data from the first wave of the National Survey of Families and Households, a survey of more than 10,000 individuals age 19 and older designed by the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The findings are significant because no studies have shown that traditional family ideology discourages people from involvement with the secular world -- or whether the relationship varies by levels of religious commitment, Kim said.

Previous studies have shown that religion reinforces ties within a family, and that religious involvement promotes civic engagement. But Kim said he wanted to examine the interaction of familism and religion, including such activities as church attendance, on secular civic activities. He found that as religious participation increases, so does the negative influence of familism on civic participation.

The reason is uncertain for why the merging of traditional family ideology and religion insulates a family within its own members and religious social groups, according to the study, co-authored by Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Possible causes might be that the modern secular world causes feelings of insecurity for people who hold traditional family values, or that there is a desire to protect one's family from secular influences. Another possibility is that familistic Americans who are devoted to their religion and places of worship "probably have little time and energy to devote to secular organizations," Kim said.

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