Soul Mates

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

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W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2016.
     248 pages.
     $27.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780195394221.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Religion is, arguably, second only to family as the most influential institution shaping American life, providing practices, values, and social spaces that connect groups of people with one another. The shifting landscape of American family life during the last couple of decades, then, evokes questions about the relationship between family and religion. In Soul Mates, W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger take up the question of religion’s impact on the family, and investigate the possibility that religion creates conditions for successful relationships in both African American and Latino communities. The authors conclude that religion “is linked to higher marriage rates and happier relationships in large part because churches foster an ethic of care and enforce a code of decency among their members” (24).

According to Wilcox and Wolfinger’s research, consistent church attendance breeds a set of orientations and behaviors that support stability and happiness within marriages, families, and relationships. They use this information in chapter 3 to claim that faith makes a difference in how African Americans and Latinos relate to sexual activity and childbearing. Wilcox and Wolfinger find, though this is not as significant as with whites, religious influence on sexual and childbearing behavior is notable for African Americans and Latinos. Even more, they argue that these groups generally maintain traditional views about sex and child bearing and have a low likelihood of both pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and bearing children outside of marriage.

The authors also examine pro-marriage attitudes in African American and Latino communities. They suggest that religion does indeed promote marriage as an ideal relational goal and leads to measurably higher marriage rates among these groups. According to Wilcox and Wolfinger in chapter 4, these higher rates are a consequence of the significant and positive emphasis churches place on family life. Connected with the code of decency, such an emphasis results in collective appreciation for stable, long-standing relationships. They also claim—in chapter 5 and in the conclusion—that religion influences the quality of relationships within these groups. Beyond stability, Wilcox and Wolfinger assert that both married and unmarried couples who engage in religious faith practices enjoy happy, high-quality relationships.

Soul Mates is an interesting exposition of the valuable role religion plays in the lives and relationships of African Americans and Latinos. Wilcox and Wolfinger aptly use survey data and interviews to explore the dearth of information about these communities since much of the information circulating about the social, cultural, and economic realities among African Americans and Latinos excludes religion as an influential vector. Yet their examination of religion in these communities derives mainly from Christian perspectives, and “church” becomes synonymous with “religious institution” in a way that obfuscates other religious practices and beliefs within these communities. Given their attention to the practical and moral value of affinity groups, they would have done well to attend to the diverse ways in which these groups form, and learn from a variety of religiously oriented gatherings and spaces. Even more, their discussion of religion’s impact builds on a notion of decency, yet Wilcox and Wolfinger never explain what such decency entails.

Another concern is Wilcox and Wolfinger’s slippery usage of language related to race and ethnicity. Throughout the book, “black” becomes synonymous with “African American.” For example, they write, “Nevertheless, judging by the preaching, teaching, and pastoral programming of black and Latino churches, we expect religion to foster adherence to the code of decency among African Americans and Latinos in the United States” (55). Such slippage erases the conceptual and concrete complexity of race and ethnicity in a text focused on the experience of racially minoritized groups, designating African American-ness as the lens through which readers ought to understand blackness. What do the authors make, for example, of Afro-Latinos? Intersectional analysis would have been a helpful tool for Wilcox and Wolfinger to apply to the social identity categories investigated in this book.

Ultimately, I find Wilcox and Wolfinger’s exploration in Soul Mates an intriguing—albeit heterosexually focused—contribution to discourse on American families. Smartly researched and coherently written, their text offers insight into the shifting landscape of relationships within communities that experience significant external pressures and face systematic oppression. This concentrated study on minoritized relational practices results in an informed description of the religious resources positively impacting African American and Latino communities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nikki (Thelathia) Young is Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Bucknell University. 

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. Bradford Wilcox is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He also serves as a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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

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