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Soul Mates

Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos

W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger

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Soul Mates is a book about people like David Hernandez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent.  Twenty years ago David was dealing drugs in Spanish Harlem.  After a personal tragedy, he found solace at a Pentecostal Church and turned his life around.  Today he’s a happily married father and, in one of life’s great ironies, a cop with the NYPD.  He credits his turn-around to his faith and participation in his church’s ministries.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the state of the family, especially among African Americans and Latinos.  Countless academics and pundits have pointed to a family crisis, characterized by out-of-wedlock childbearing, fall marriage rates, and divorce.  Almost all of these commentators ignore the powerful role that organized religion plays in sustaining family life in minority communities across America.

Soul Mates is the first book to chronicle the vital role that churches are playing in contemporary America among Black and Latino families.  Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with American families, we shine a spotlight on the many happy couples that are benefiting  from their regular participation in a spiritual community.  Our book shows that couples who attend religious services regularly—denomination doesn’t matter—are much more likely to enjoy strong relationships.

Chapter by chapter, we study nonmarital childbearing, marriage, relationship quality, and divorce.  The past few decades have seen a powerful retreat from marriage, and it’s been strongest among Blacks and Latinos.  Both are much more likely than white Americans to have children prior to marriage.  African Americans also have lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates.  But we find that organized religion is a bulwark against the social and economic currents that buffet American families.  Church attendance reduces the likelihood of having children before marriage.  People who attend regularly have happier relationships, whether or not they’re married.  Religious participation also makes marriage more likely in the first place.  And men of color who attend church services regularly are less likely to run afoul of the law and more likely to succeed in the workforce.

Religion is not a panacea.  Curiously, regular church attendance reduces white divorce rates but has no impact on Black and Latino marital stability.  And of course religion cannot make up for the profound economic challenges that have undermined intimate relationships in contemporary America. Nor does religion completely offset the seismic shift in norms surrounding marriage and relationships.  Indeed, Soul Mates shows that structural factors, like income and education, and cultural forces, including attitudes toward marriage and single parenting, both contribute to the retreat from marriage.

One of the strengths of our book is the wealth of evidence we bring to the table.  Soul Mates is based on the analysis of six national data sets, scores of interviews and focus groups with clergy and parishioners, and a year of ethnographic fieldwork.  The national data allow us to identify patterns and trends, while the interviews and focus groups tell the stories of individual Latinos and African Americans.

Soul Mates introduces us to many people like David Hernandez.  We learn how religion works (and, occasionally, doesn’t work) in their lives to support stable and happy relationships.  The book concludes with a discussion of what else religion—and society more generally—could be doing to help men and women forge strong unions in an era of family change.

Soul Mates

About the Authors

Nicholas H. Wolfinger

Nicholas H. Wolfinger
Nicholas H. Wolfinger is Professor of Family and Consumer Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah.

He received his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley and his Ph.D. at UCLA, both in sociology. His books include Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages (Cambridge University Press, 2005), Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (with Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden; Rutgers University Press, 2013), Fragile Families and the Marriage Agenda (edited, with Lori Kowaleski-Jones; Springer, 2005), and, most recently,  (with W. Bradford Wilcox; Oxford University Press, 2016). Wolfinger is also the author of about 40 articles or chapters, as well as short pieces in The Atlantic, National Review, Huffington Post, and other outlets.

He is currently working, with Matthew McKeever, on a new book on the changing economics of single motherhood to be published by Oxford University Press.

Nick splits his time between Northern California and Salt Lake City, Utah.  He lives happily alone in both places. Follow him on Twitter at @NickWolfinger.

W. Bradford Wilcox

W. Bradford Wilcox
W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia , Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.

In his latest work with Nicholas H. Wolfinger, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos (Oxford, 2016), Brad Wilcox shines a much-needed spotlight on the lives of strong and happy minority couples. They find that both married and unmarried minority couples who attend church together are significantly more likely to enjoy happy relationships than black and Latino couples who do not regularly attend. Churches serving these communities, Wilcox and Wolfinger argue, promote a code of decency, encompassing hard work, temperance, and personal responsibility, that benefits black and Latino families.

Professor Wilcox’s research has focused on marriage, fatherhood, and cohabitation, especially on the ways that family structure, civil society, and culture influence the quality and stability of family life in the United States and around the globe. Now, Dr. Wilcox is exploring the contribution that families make to the economic welfare of individuals and societies. He is also the coauthor of Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (Columbia, 2013, with Kathleen Kovner Kline), and the author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago, 2004). Wilcox has published articles on marriage, cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood in The American Sociological Review, Social Forces, The Journal of Marriage and Family and The Future of Children.

His research has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Slate, The Washington Post, National Review Online, NPR, NBC’s The Today Show, and many other media outlets.

As an undergraduate, Wilcox was a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia (’92) and later earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Prior to coming to the University of Virginia, he held research fellowships at Princeton University, Yale University, and the Brookings Institution.


Among the notable strengths of the book, the authors do an admirable job throughout of leading with the structural factors contributing to both “street” behaviors and inequality in family outcomes (e.g., historical legacies of racism, economic restructuring and employment challenges, the prison boom) and then balancing these with cultural factors (e.g., the “family revolution” that devalued marriage and decoupled marriage from childbearing).

Samuel Perry, Assistant Professor, University of Oklahoma

There's no question that marriage is floundering. Many people aren't sure there's still a benefit to being married. But this groundbreaking research by Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger shows what those of us who are regular churchgoers know: having faith can help you have a happy marriage. Nonetheless, their findings also indicate churches still have a lot to do to help reduce divorce among their members. One thing that is clear about the importance of this research: The more we know about what it takes to create healthy, happy marriages, the better our society will be.

Michelle Singletary, Columnist, Washington Post

Soul Mates is an important and timely work. Wilcox and Wolfinger deftly synthesize data from many sources to argue that religious institutions, practices, and beliefs can strengthen marriages and families among African Americans and Latinos, thus countering the corrosive effects of racism and structural disadvantage. Rigorous and highly readable, this volume deserves careful attention from scholars, practitioners, and the wider public.

Christopher G. Ellison, Professor of Sociology and Dean's Distinguished Professor of Social Science, the University of Texas at San Antonio

The social transformation of American family life over the last half century has produced complex and varied consequences in people's lives. Soul Mates closely examines those experiences among two important minority groups, contributing particular insight on the often-neglected question of how religion interacts with family structure to shape life outcomes.

Christian Smith, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology, University of Notre Dame

In Soul Mates, Wilcox and Wolfinger show that churches foster 'a code of decency' that has helped to modulate the impact of family breakdown for Latinos and African Americans while recognizing that religion does not fully protect churchgoers from the earthquake in the American family. Their important book should be of great interest to scholars of the family and to others concerned about family life among African Americans and Latinos.

Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution


Soul Mates release conference

Wilcox and Wolfinger discuss Soul Mates with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie, and others at the American Enterprise Institute on January 19, 2015.

The Politics of Marriage

Wolfinger discusses his recent research with W. Bradford Wilcox on political beliefs and marital quality with Brian Schott of on September 23, 2015.

Poverty, Family, and Economics

Wilcox discusses the relationship between poverty and family structure in an interview with the American Enterprise Institute on April 28, 2015.

Wilcox & Wolfinger on Soul Mates

The authors discuss Soul Mates with conservative Alaska radio host Joe Miller on January 27, 2015.

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