Overview: Religion and Relationships
Opening Remarks: Stephanie Coontz
Then. On February 10 it will be 50 years since the House of Representatives passed the Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, national origin, religion, or gender, and sent the bill on to the Senate. Today, few politicians would explicitly defend people’s right to discriminate in hiring and pay, but at that time opposition to the bill was fierce. Segregationists in the House tried for almost three months to keep the bill bottled up in committee, and when the bill was finally sent on to the Senate, Senator Richard Russell spoke for many Americans when he vowed to “resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality” or the “intermingling” of the races. For 54 days the bill was blocked in the Senate by a filibuster. A vote to override the filibuster narrowly passed only after Senate leaders introduced a compromise that weakened the bill.
On July 2, 1964, the bill was finally signed into law. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was set up to implement the measure.
Now. The Council on Contemporary Families asked a dozen researchers to discuss what has changed in the past half century for each of the populations affected by the law – religious groups, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. Today, February 4, the Council is releasing an update on the changing religious landscape of America. On February 5, researchers will describe the rearrangements of racial and ethnic relations since 1964. And on Thursday, February 6, we report on the progress of women since passage of the Civil Rights Act.
CCF’s Symposium on Civil Rights. Three themes emerge from the papers in this symposium. The first is that American men and women now live in much more diverse racial, religious, and occupational settings than 50 years ago. The second theme is the dramatic increase in cultural approval of “intermingling” between men and women of different races, ethnic origins, and religions. The third theme is that many groups continue to face serious disadvantages and inequalities, even as their more educated and privileged members have found a significant measure of acceptance into the upper echelons of economic and political life.
In 1964 the provisions outlawing discrimination on the basis of religion were less controversial than those against discrimination on the basis of race and sex, even though blatant bigotry and outright violence against Catholics and Jews had been pervasive in American history right up through World War II. Prejudices had begun to ease by the early 1960s, but the Civil Rights Act remains an important safeguard for religious (and non-religious) minorities, according to Jerry Z. Park, Joshua Tom and Brita Andercheck, of Baylor University.
In their paper, “Fifty Years of Religious Change: 1964-2014,” these authors find marked changes in the distribution of religious groups in America. In the 1960s, only 3 percent of Americans said that they did not identify with any religious tradition. Nearly 70 percent of the population was Protestant, and most were members of “mainline” Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Methodist denominations. Catholics, most of them native-born descendants of Irish and other Western European immigrants, accounted for about 25 percent of the population. Religious Jews were about 3 percent.
Since then the percentage of mainline Protestants has been halved. Evangelicals rapidly increased their share until the early 1990s, but have experienced some decline since then. The percentage of Catholics has remained steady, but their ethnic make-up has changed dramatically due to steady Latino immigration. While absolute numbers of non-Christian religious groups are small, in 20 states Islam is now the largest non-Christian religion, while Buddhism is the largest in 13 states.
One of the most striking changes has been the rise in the proportion of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition. This group has grown from 3 to 20 percent of the population, despite the fact that 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in God or a higher power.
Park, Tom, and Andercheck also discuss the differing socioeconomic and educational attainments of the various religious groups, along with their family practices, indicating which religious groups have the highest rates of religious switching, which have the highest fertility, and which have the highest and lowest divorce rates. Despite strong pro-family values, for example, evangelical Christians have higher than average divorce rates. In fact, they are more likely to be divorced than Americans who claim no religion. But the fertility rate of evangelicals is higher than average.
A second paper, “Interfaith Marriage And Romantic Unions In The United States,” by David McClendon from the University of Texas-Austin, traces the increase in the proportion of marriages contracted between couples from different religious traditions. Even more dramatic has been the increase in the number of marriages where both partners maintain their separate beliefs and practices, rather than one or both changing so that their religions match. The proportion of mixed-religion marriages has doubled since the 1960s.
McClendon argues that the growth of such marriages may plausibly be taken as a sign of increased tolerance of religious diversity. And such growth appears likely to continue. Today, 80 percent of young adults age 18-23 — an all-time high — reject the idea that shared religious beliefs are essential to a successful relationship.
The couples most likely to put these untraditional ideas about religion and relationships into practice are untraditional in other ways as well. While 40 percent of married heterosexual couples maintain different religious affiliations, 55 percent of heterosexual cohabitors do so. Forty-nine percent of female same-sex couples and almost three-fourths of male same-sex couples subscribe to different religious beliefs.
For Further Information
For more detailed information including figures and graphs that illustrate fifty years of changes in civil rights, visit today’s papers in the CCF Civil Rights Online Symposium on Religion and Relationships (see links on the top right sidebar). Stephanie Coontz was convener and editor of this symposium. The authors along with Stephanie Coontz are available for further information.
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Co-Chair and Director of Research and Public Education, at email@example.com, cell 360-556-9223.