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Tightly Focused Study

Soul Mates
Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos
By W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger
Oxford University Press. Pp. 225. $27.95

Review by M. Dion Thompson

Anyone looking to see how much American society has changed in the last few decades need look no further than the American family. The declining influence of religion, the rise of secularism, and changing sexual mores have helped to redefine our understanding of what constitutes a family.

Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, who have dedicated their academic careers to family studies, seek in Soul Mates to understand how religion sustains and strengthens African American and Latino families. Armed with statistical, longitudinal, and case studies, the authors conclude that religion has an overall positive effect, but that faith, prayer, and church attendance do not guarantee a happily ever after life for married couples.

Their finding should not surprise anyone who has spent time in church. Married and unmarried churchgoing couples experience the same challenges, joys, and frustrations as those who never attend church. Religion does, however, offer what Wilcox and Wolfinger call a “code of decency” and often an affirming and supportive community.

The book’s title gives the impression that the authors have cast a wide net in their research. Actually their focus is quite narrow. It has to be. This is the statistician’s lot. Take a limited sample and extrapolate from there to make a sweeping conclusion.

And so Wilcox and Wolfinger give us couples struggling to find their way. Drug use and casual sex are normal behaviors. In this world, religion and church attendance, primarily in the Protestant and evangelical churches preferred by the subjects, become virtual life rafts that occasionally save them from drowning in what some of their Latino subjects call del mundo (the world). From this perspective, secular life takes on a menacing, seductive quality. People are “lured by the call of the street.” Church activities protect members “from the siren song of the street,” “the siren call of the street,” and “the ethos of the street.”

This street is a devouring, merciless monster, feeding on young men and women. The authors rightly point out the devastating effect of the nation’s criminal-justice policies on African American and Latino communities. One result is that marriages become imperiled. Some couples opt out of marriage, preferring to live together.

Yet the institution of marriage survives. The authors note the strong sense of family among Latinos. Among African Americans, the lingering effects of slavery and the burden of racism have been countered by the enduring strength of the black church.

In their conclusion, the authors write: “Clearly religion is no panacea to the challenges facing black and Latino families or, for that matter, families of any race or ethnicity. By our reckoning, it will take a range of economic, cultural, and religious developments to bridge the racial and ethnic divides in American family life.”

Wilcox and Wolfinger suggest that public policy changes to the earned income tax credit, reforms in the nation’s immigration policies, and eliminating jail time for nonviolent drug offenders could help the most vulnerable members of society and strengthen their families.

With its charts, graphs, and statistical analyses, the book often reads like a doctoral dissertation or public-policy report. Some assertions, such as the following, are painfully obvious: “Criminal activity and incarceration pose serious risks to the quality, stability of family life among Latinos and especially African Americans.”

This is not a writer’s tale, or a narrative journey into the world of religion and marriage. And, despite the book’s focus on religion, there is a startling lack of scriptural references to marriage.

It would have been interesting if Wilcox and Wolfinger had interviewed middle- and upper-class couples, and couples married 10, 20, even 50 years. Those couples are in the pews, and have stories to tell about faith’s role in keeping them together.

That, however, would have made for a different book, one that might have been more compelling and wider in scope.

The Rev. M. Dion Thompson, a former journalist, is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland.


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