Carl Trueman recently wrote, “The family is a mess. Religious institutions lack authority. The nation-state is no longer a source of unity but a theater of conflict in which we fight about what is and is not America . … And yet that basic human need to belong persists …” In addition to the “basic human need to belong,” William James identified a profound human need for faith that he conceptualized as “the will to believe.”
According to a 2018 Gallup Poll, about 40% of Americans self-identify as Evangelical or “born again” Christians. American Evangelical Christians generally report that one primary conviction of their faith is a strong belief in the Bible—the Protestant roots of sola scriptura, scriptura sola (“only scripture and scripture alone”). The other deep faith commitment is the striving for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In this article, we explore how these specific aspects of faith among Evangelical Christians reportedly influence their family life and family interactions.
In our personal and family lives, we have had meaningful interactions with many Evangelicals. We taught many delightful Evangelical students in state universities in North Carolina and Louisiana, a few of whom were bold enough to “evangelize” us. We had kind and helpful neighbors of that faith. In spite of their deep questions about our brand of Christianity, our children were included in their sports leagues (e.g., Upward Bound) which had an impressively generative feel to them. Each academic year, Dave invites Pastor Mark Turco to guest lecture in his Family and World Religions class at BYU where Mark always impresses students with his faith—and his tolerance, exhibited by laboring away in an area that is heavily populated by our own LDS community.
We interviewed Joseph and Jessica (all participant names are pseudonyms), a remarkable Evangelical Christian couple from the Eastern United States, for several hours as part of the American Families of Faith research project—a 20-year national effort to explore nearly 300 racially, regionally, and religiously diverse families in healthy long-term heterosexual marriages. Near the end of our interview, intended to reveal deep meanings and understanding about the nexus of faith and family life, Joseph said,
There’s something that … when as a family your hearts are pointed together toward the same thing, and it’s God, then parenting and economics and space and food and disagreements and hassles and joys and celebrations and all that other stuff … it works different, it seems different, it feels different. … Our family are all oriented in the same way. Christ is king, He’s center, He’s what it’s all about. … I don’t know how to convey to you that … yes, our faith informs our relationships and everything about us (Marks & Dollahite, 2017, p. 46).
Although it is more and more difficult to satiate the need to belong and the need to believe, there are some families like Jessica and Joseph’s who continue to co-create belief and belonging together. Jessica said of Joseph,
It’s always great for kids to be able to look up to their Dad and see someone that they respect. I’ve seen him changing over the years. He loves the Lord and wants to do what pleases Him … modeling what he sees as being valuable for the kids to see. He has an important role in being like Jesus to the kids. A lot of our understanding of who God is comes through fathers because God is presented as a father in the Bible. If a kid grows up having a father who is loving and kind and supportive and strong, I think it is easier for them to understand God and who He is.
Joseph said of Jessica,
I see [Jessica] get up every morning and take time to read scripture and pray and I just see that it’s not separate from the rest of her day and that it influences the way she does [everything], the way she interacts with me and the kids and everybody in the community. It’s central, it’s pervasive. [It makes me want to do likewise.]
Other Evangelical Christians we interviewed similarly discussed how their faith as wife and husband promoted belief, belonging, and enhanced marital unity. A wife and mother named Danielle said,
Someone pointed out to me one time that it’s as though God is at the center of [one of] those old wagon wheels and [we are] the spokes. So, the closer we get on each one of those spokes to the center, the closer we are with each other. So, I think what strengthens our marriage … is my constantly strengthening my relationship with God.
Many Evangelical couples reportedly strived to keep God as the “center” of their marriage, and mentioned turning to Him through prayer to bring them closer together. Kari, a wife, said,
I would say, He’s who we can go to if we have any questions. We’ll go to the scripture or praying. … [He] helps us have love, the kind of love He has so that we can work out problems when you have them. We can pray about them together. It’s great to have one [source] to go to that will give you the same answers so that whatever your divisiveness might be, you’ll come to the same conclusion. … He’s the center of our marriage.
Another participant’s response suggested that scriptures helped her understand what a marriage should be: “We’ll go to the scripture … [to find] out what our marriage should be, what our lives should be. [It is] a guide definitely. … [It] gives us direction. [It] helps us have love.”
Most Evangelical Christian couples reported that their religious faith offered them tools to resolve (and/or avoid) conflict in their marriages. Brent, a husband, said,
Putting others ahead of yourself, that’s important. Viewing others as superior. Not thinking too much of yourself. … Me being conscious of providing emotionally and physically, spiritually for the family, prevents me from spending too much time watching sports … or going out with the guys, or spending too much time at work. It’s definitely grounding.
Danielle, an Evangelical Christian wife, similarly said,
I found that what seems to destroy marriage, to me, is selfishness, criticism … [but] the fact that I’m a part of a faith tradition that is constantly pulling my thought[s] to good, pulling my thought[s] to God, helps me conquer those little things.
Another aim is to identify and acknowledge commendable practices within given faiths that earned our “holy envy.” A teaching and practice of Evangelicals that won our admiration is the consistent doctrinal emphasis on marriage, coupled with supportive resources offered by the faith community. Sophie, a wife, said,
At our church, many of the sermons were about relationships and seeking outside counseling. [That] was very key at one point in our marriage to help us have new and deeper conversations about issues. So those … [words of counsel were] really supportive for me and for [my husband] too.
Thomas and his wife Sissy reported that they go in for marital “check-ups.” Thomas explained,
We just met with the pastor a couple [of] weeks ago. Just kind of a spiritual checkup … to get [some insight from] a third party, get his advice on some main things we disagree on. … And so that’s helped to avoid further conflict.
Even in exemplary marriages, the challenges come. Danielle, an Evangelical Christian wife, said,
There’ve been times that I’ve found myself getting very upset with him, falling out of love with him, being disgusted … and then I can rear back and think … Where are these thoughts coming from? And when I can see that it’s … this … attack against good, against marriage, against faithfulness, then I can say, This is not my thought. … And so sometimes I have [to] sit down and read the [Bible] chapter on marriage—or I will literally make a list of all the qualities I love about him [and] fall in love again with those and [try] to keep my vision clear about who it is I’m married to and why I’m committed to this.
A husband named Joel similarly said, “I go back to … scripture, (my charter) is to love her like Christ loved the church—and that’s totally forgiving, loving; lay[ing] down your life for them.”
In Jessica’s words,
When I look at … the Bible, [what it says] in the Bible for husbands and for wives, [God] wants us to be successful; He wants us to be strong. And I do know when we follow [that], it makes, not for a perfect marriage, but for a very, very happy marriage.
In addition to discussing their faith in a marital context, most Evangelical Christian participants also reported that their religious faith was a strength and resource in their parent-child relationships. A father named Alex similarly said, “Our prayer … and having church activities together really strengthens the family unity.”
On this same note of faith and family unity, a teenage daughter named Chelsea said,
We … go to meetings together. We do pretty much everything together. … It’s nice though, because … everybody’s together and we’re all taking in similar things so that we can go home and we can talk about [stuff] or ask questions or just keep the conversation lines open.
In addition to the unifying influence faith can provide, a conceptual point of emphasis Evangelical parents repeatedly mentioned was that they viewed their children as gifts that came to them from God. A mother named Lucy said she believed in “honoring your children as gifts, as your gifts from God, to nurture and to help parent them to be loving, contributing members of society.” Lucy continued by explaining that this belief or perspective “very much influences how we parent our children, how we respect them as individuals, and their right to have some say as individuals.”
Other recurring concepts included both conflict resolution and forgiveness, often mentioned together. One mother stated,
The Bible says children should be obedient. But it’s a two-way street … we’re obligated before [God] to treat our children the best. … [T]hey’ve suffered at our expense sometimes, because we don’t do that. [It’s important to be] big enough to admit you’re wrong; [that] you didn’t handle a situation right, and [to] ask them for forgiveness and to really work at making it right.
A husband named Brent said that his faith helps him to see that,
Inevitably, I have sinned … in word. I’ve sinned in … not controlling myself the way I should. ’Cause I’m in a position where I should say … “Let it go.” … But I make it a big deal and … that’s wrong. I shouldn’t do that. And that’ll prompt me to want to make amends.
The above parental insights about seeking forgiveness call to mind a student of ours who observed after reading through portions of these interviews, “You know, there is one thing that a parent can model even better than God . … How to apologize and ask for forgiveness.”
For both marriage and parenting, the Bible seemed to be Evangelical participants’ most common resource, reference, and touchstone. Participants mentioned turning to the Bible to understand the will of God, to understand what marriage and family should look like, and to learn to give and receive forgiveness.
In addition to the centrality of scripture, Evangelical Christians also focused on the importance of a personal relationship with God. For Evangelicals, God is understood more as a person rather than an impersonal force. Thomas illustrated this by saying he, “felt like there was a third person here and we’re just drawn together through prayer.” This emphasis on God as the source for personal transformation also may explain why Evangelicals may emphasize the importance of dependence or trust in God as a way of overcoming individual frailties. Several participants spoke of how trust in God allowed them to focus on strengthening their marital or parent-child relationships.
Further, many referred to selflessness as a way that they felt religion helped them strengthen their family relationships. Most participants directly or indirectly referenced a religious call to practice humility was beneficial to their marriage and parent-child relationships.
Our data from our interviews with American Evangelical Christian families featured several strengths. Some of these overlap with other religious-ethnic communities (including the importance of family unity and/or the cohesive nature of shared, sacred time together). Other strengths were more distinct and pronounced.
First, Evangelicals were the only group to mention faith community-based marital counseling so frequently that it was identified as a key finding the Evangelical willingness to seek pastoral and professional help when marital help is needed, or even simply as a maintenance check-up, was laudable and instructive.
A critical sticking point for many, consistent with the research of family scholar Julie Zaloudek was that some Evangelicals have trouble reconciling the Evangelical concept of the husband as “head” of the wife with the structure of their marital relationships, which they considered to be equal. As with any faith tradition, there are complexities.
Many wives and husbands directly or obliquely rejected “male headship” in favor of “servant leadership,” a concept that seemed to meld elements of traditional Christianity with more egalitarian pragmatics. Even so, the Bible was central. Of particular emphasis was Proverbs 31 (“Who can find a virtuous woman?”) as a template for wives and mothers. Similarly, select Pauline epistles (“Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it,” ~Ephesians 5:25) were a source of reference or “charter” for husbands and fathers.
In connection with this latter reference and other similar passages, Evangelical spouses/parents reportedly strived to embody “servant leadership” in their marriages and families, an ideal that combined humility, service, and willing sacrifice for others (as discussed in connection with the theme entitled “the relationally facilitative role of putting others first”). This effort was, in many families, so earnest that it garnered our deep respect and holy envy.
Undoubtedly, among people of faith, there are far too many domineering husbands and fathers who have a “toxic faith” that oppresses instead of blesses those closest to them. Sometimes no religion at all may be better than one that is corrupted as a cloak for abuse. Among those we interviewed, this approach to religious was rare.
Gratefully, consistent with the work of sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, psychologist Rob Palkovitz, and others, we found prospects for more of the latter in the words of the mothers and fathers that welcomed us into their homes. As Jessica said of Joseph, “In our family [Joseph’s] an excellent role model. The kids … look up to him and see God in his life [so] that they’ll want to pattern their lives after him. … [Joseph] loves the Lord.”
The 20th-century journalist Robert Ingersoll wrote, “[I]t is difficult for a child to find a father in God unless the child first finds something of God in his father” (Marks & Dollahite, 2017, p. 150). We are grateful to report that in Joseph, in Jessica, and many others we interviewed, we found “something of God.”
About the Authors: While we ourselves are active (devoted) members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in our work in the American Families of Faith project, we seek to highlight the strengths of our friends of various faiths. We have developed a sense of deep respect and even holy envy for these families and their faiths. Additionally, the book chapters from which these articles are adapted included two coauthors who are devoted members of those faiths.
If you like listening to audiobooks and podcasts, we have recorded a set of conversations about the families we interviewed that includes additional quotes from mothers, fathers, and youth, more of our experiences in attending their services, as well as personal experiences with friends of other faiths. These podcasts are available at: