The Decline of Institutionalized Religion: Does it Affect Relationships?

09.08.2010, 9:32 AM

Marriage is not the only institution that is suffering. While it is true that the majority of Americans would say that their belief in God is important to them, church is not nearly as important to Americans as individual belief is. (And I wonder if there could be a connection here between these floundering institutions—many of the people who do marry do so because of its religious meaning or because of the relationship norms that religion provides. Without a strong religious institution, incentives to marry wane.)

 Andrew Cherlin, in The Marriage Go Round, discusses how the cultural tide of individualism has not only made marriage something that is seen primarily as a contract between two individuals, to be severed whenever happiness evaporates, but how this individualism has also influenced churchgoers, particularly the evangelical type. Religion loses much of its communal meaning and becomes primarily about the preferences of individuals. Religion, as an institution, suffers.

 David and I are seeing that trend here in Ohio. It seems like just about everyone in this town was raised Baptist. Most of them would still say they believe in God, but statements like the following sum up attitudes about institutionalized religion:

  •  “I believe that as long as you are religious and you do the right thing, you don’t have to go to church every Sunday.” 
  •  “I believe there’s a God, I believe in the Bible, I believe in the beliefs, but I don’t exactly walk every line that you’re supposed to walk. I do some of it but not all of it.”
  •  “My dad is a pastor. I believe the Bible is right, but I don’t follow it.”
  •  “I mean, I go to church when I can. I don’t have much time now, but I used to go every week.”
  • “Who is the church to say that you are a good Catholic, or a good Baptist, or whatever?”
  •  “I mean, I am a good person, and that’s all that matters. I don’t think you have to go to church, and I think a lot of the people in my generation think that, too.”

 The idea that the individual can pick and choose what to believe and how to act, and that the opinion of the church as an institution holds no sway, is reflected in the relationship norms adopted by “religious” non-churchgoers. They say they believe the Bible and many claim that when in doubt they would do what God or the Scriptures tell them, but they see no problem with having lots of sex, living together, and having children out of wedlock (which are all things that the institutional church does not condone). To them, the church has optional, old fashioned views. It is smart to wait to have kids until marriage, but there is nothing moral about it. And, in fact, oftentimes the strongest statement believing non-churchgoers are willing to make about right and wrong behavior is this: everyone really should live together before they make the final commitment of marriage. I literally had one woman pounding her fists on the table, exhorting her peers in a voice reminiscent of a Pentecostal preacher, “You must live together. How are you supposed to know if you can make it work otherwise?”

 I think the following quote is a good note to end on. It demonstrates what little influence churches are having on young people when it comes to the choices they make about relationships.

 “Sometimes I think about waiting [for sex] until marriage. Like, what that would have been like….But, to each his own. I’m happy that I didn’t. Because, I know what the Bible says, and I was raised a Baptist…but I think a lot of the people who wait until marriage to have sex and they don’t live together and don’t believe in divorce—they’re stuck with each other for the rest of their lives. I think you need a test run before you drive the car. And I know that is a typical guy thing to say, but I believe that. And I mean, I’m not saying that you have to have sex. But I think it makes you closer, I don’t see it as a sin. We talked about it in Bible school once. This one church I went to said that you don’t have to be married, as long as you’re committed to each other. And they didn’t say what the definition of committed meant. So I guess you could say, ‘Hi, I’m Heidi. I’m committed to you for the next hour.’”

 It seems like people, no matter how important they say their belief in God is to them, tend to just make their own decisions when it comes to relationships. I should make the caveat that for a small minority of religious people that we have interviewed, religion does seem to influence relationship behavior: rather than sleeping around, these people wait to have sex until they are committed to marriage, and wait to live together until they are engaged. Still, they are having sex and they are living together before married, which is not something that most houses of worship approve of, even if engaged.

5 Responses to “The Decline of Institutionalized Religion: Does it Affect Relationships?”

  1. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    There is classic quotable material in this post. What invaluable insights.

    “Hi, I’m Heidi…” my goodness…

  2. Peter Hoh says:

    Amber, I realize your focus is on young people, but I suspect that it’s also true that churches have very little influence on older people when it comes to the choices they make about relationships.

  3. Amber Lapp says:

    Peter, it depends on what you mean by older. A lot of the elderly people I talk to around town (the 65 plus crowd) talks about how their decisions to marry (before living together and before having sex!) were influenced by the values that they learned in church.

  4. Peter Hoh says:

    Amber, it doesn’t surprise me that churches had much more influence on young people’s decision making in the past. I am asking about the church’s influence on the relationship choices that older people make today.

    In other words, do older people think they need to keep their choices in line with what their churches teach about sexual relationships outside of marriage? Or do they think that such teachings are really for the kids, and not for older people?

    There are older people who want to be married, but for whom marriage comes at a steep price — survivor pensions that are tied to remaining widowed, for instance. Some of these people choose to live together instead of marrying.

    The pastors at my church have performed weddings for older people who want to be married — in the eyes of the church and in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the state. I suspect that this is not uncommon.

  5. Eve Tushnet says:

    Hi Peter… would you mind emailing me at ? I’m working on an article about couples who marry in church but don’t register as legally married for financial reasons and would love to speak with your pastor. Thanks so much!