The American Families of Faith Project is a national research project led by David C. Dollahite, PhD and Loren D. Marks, PhD, both professors of family studies at Brigham Young University. Dr. Dollahite and Dr. Marks and several key collaborators have conducted in-depth interviews with more than 300 religious couples and families with adolescent children (nearly 500 individuals) from 33 states in all 8 regions of the United States including New England (MA, CT), the Northwest (OR, WA), the Pacific region (CA), the Mountain West (ID, UT), the Mid Atlantic (DE, MD, PA), the Midwest (OH, WI), and the Southern Crossroads region (KS, OK), and the South (FL, GA, LA). Over half the families are from various ethnic, national, and cultural minorities. 145 Christian families including Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, Quaker, Christian Science, and Jehovah’s Witness, and Latter-day Saint (Mormon), 30 Jewish families (including Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed), and 25 Muslim families (including Sunni and Shi'a) were interviewed. We have recently interviewed 35 Unaffiliated families and 32 Interfaith families.
A large and growing number of social scientific studies (including our own) have demonstrated that religious beliefs, practices, and communities typically are associated with significant personal, marital, and family wellbeing. Conversely, a smaller but growing number of studies (including our own) indicates that religious beliefs, practices, and communities may also be associated with significant challenges for individuals, couples, and families.
Contemporary American families of faith live in a time that has variously been called a “secular age” or an “age of doubt” or an “age of faith transition” and this brings a variety of challenges and opportunities for families (and for faith communities). When we use the term “faith” we mean it in a broad and inclusive way: families of faith rely on their deepest beliefs and values, on meaningful spiritual practices, and on some kind of faith community to support their marriage and family life.
Most families of faith have some degree of involvement in a faith community. Such families might be called a “religious” family (or a Christian family or Jewish family or Muslim family). Some families of faith might not describe themselves as religious but perhaps as “spiritual” or “seekers” or “spiritual but not religious” or some other term.
Along with the nearly 200 highly religious families of shared faith we have interviewed, we now are interviewing religiously unaffiliated (also variously called “nones” or the “unchurched”) as well as interfaith families (parents involved with different faith communities). Our goal is to learn from each of them how families of faith draw on their core beliefs, meaningful spiritual practices, and communities of care to strengthen marriage and family life.
The mission of the American Families of Faith project is to engage in rigorous scholarship that thoughtfully explores the nexus of faith and family life in order to discover and share research-based ideas about ways of making one’s faith come alive in one’s marriage and family life that can best (a) facilitate human joy and relational quality and stability, and (b) help individuals, couples, and families thrive in a culture that is increasingly challenging for families of faith.
Strengths approach. Much social and behavioral research employs a “deficit perspective” that identifies and emphasizes shortcomings, problems, and conflicts in couples and families. Although we do identify important challenges and struggles, our work is focused on couple and family strengths—strengths that are found in individual families as well as strengths found within different religious and non-religious traditions. We highlight the ways that religious and spiritual beliefs, practices, and communities strengthen marriages, families, and individuals in hopes this may help strengthen other persons and families of faith.
Qualitative approach. Most social and behavioral science research employs quantitative methods (detailed surveys and statistical analyses) and important information comes from such research. However, because we want to learn from the personal experiences of families of faith, we employ mainly qualitative methods (in-depth interviews and textual analyses). In our extended conversations with research participants (typically 2-3 hours), we seek to learn about personal meanings (why faith seems to make a difference), relational processes (how religious and spiritual beliefs, practices, and communities work to influence couples and families), and meaningful experiences (specific life events that have made a difference for those we interviewed). In our research reports, we include many direct quotes from those we have interviewed because we believe much can be learned from such personal accounts by scholars, practitioners, faith leaders, and other persons of faith (of course, we change names to protect privacy).
Most families of faith must deal with at least two relational issues and three religious issues.
Relational Quality. While some families enjoy very high levels of relational cohesion, respect, love, and/or care, others struggle with high levels of conflict, dysfunction, and/or distance.
Relational Stability. While some families enjoy great relational stability, others struggle to establish and maintain lasting relationships.
Research shows that religious belief and involvement can improve both relational quality and stability although this research does not provide many specifics about the “whys” (meanings) and “hows” (processes) involved. In any faith community, some families enjoy mainly positive connections between their faith and family life while others experience various challenges. We address this by seeking to discover processes at the nexus of religion and relationships that promote relational quality and stability.
Religion Is Helpful and Harmful. History, contemporary events, and social science research all demonstrate that religion has great power to both help and harm individuals and families. It is important to try to understand in what ways religion facilitates and discourages relational quality and stability.
Religious Cooperation and Conflict. Religious families find themselves in an environment characterized by various efforts at interfaith cooperation as well as conflicts between religious groups. Deep religious commitment can lead to both religious conflict and religious cooperation.
Support and Hostility for Religion. Many individuals and institutions recognize the contributions religion has made and still makes in strengthening families. However, an increasing level of hostility toward religion and religious people is reflected in attacks by “New Atheists” who disparage religious practitioners and religion itself. Some live their faith and deal with these and other contradictions in religion in ways that promote relational quality and stability while others respond to these kinds of contradictions by decreasing religious belief or involvement. We address this by looking for commonalities in marriage and family life among families of various branches of the Abrahamic faiths, and by identifying the ways of being religious that are helpful and harmful to relationships.
Hoping to facilitate relationship quality and stability along with attendant human joy, we focus on three specific areas of faith and family life: 1) Religion and Marriage, 2) Religion and Parent-Child Relationships, 3) Youth Religious Identity and Spiritual Development.
1. Religion and Marriage. We seek to discover and share knowledge about the ways that religion influences the quality and stability of marital relationships including marital commitment, conflict resolution, relational forgiveness, marital fidelity, and the meaning of marriage in contemporary life.
2. Religion and Parent-Child Relationships. We seek to discover and share knowledge about ways that religion influences bonds between parents and children, how parents and children talk together about religious issues, and how parents can successfully pass along their religious identity and values to their children.
3. Youth Religious Identity and Spiritual Development. We seek to discover and share knowledge about how religion influences children and youth in developing strong religious identities and grow spiritually and how parents and youth leaders can best facilitate spiritual joy and growth among children and youth.
We hope to help scholars better understand the ways that religious belief, practice, and community help or harm relational quality and stability.
We hope to help religious leaders and youth leaders in their efforts to help religious families experience greater levels of relational quality and stability.
We hope that our findings assist policy makers to continue to support the idea of free religious expression in ways that strengthen marriage and family life.
Families of Faith.
We hope to provide religious people with concepts, ideas, practices, and stories that will help them live their faith in ways that encourage relational quality and stability.
We hope our work helps those with doubts, fears, or other concerns about religion have greater understanding, respect, and appreciation for the faith lives of others.
In the first phase of the project from 2001-2013 we focused on conducting in-depth interviews with about 200 American families from the “Abrahamic faiths” (Christian, Jewish, and Islamic). We chose to begin with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim families because those faiths share some important similarities (shared or similar sacred texts, monotheism, orientation to marriage and family).
We asked married couples about the ways their faith and family lives were linked and how they thought their religious beliefs, practices, and communities influenced their marriages. In about a quarter of the families we also asked parents and adolescent children to talk about how their religious beliefs, practices, and communities influenced parent child relationships, family processes, and youth identity and development.
In order to ensure that the ideas we would share were based on sound social science we spent the first decade of the project publishing articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and books. This means that our colleagues in the social sciences reviewed our research and decided the research findings were sound and deserving of being disseminated. In the second phase of our work (2013-) we will continue to write scholarly journal articles but will turn more of our attention to writing a number of books in order to share what we have discovered with a broader audience.
The first of these published books is Religion and Families: An Introduction (2017, Routledge) and we currently are working on a book to be titled: Holy Envy: Religious and Relational Virtues We Admire in Our Friends of Other Faiths.
Beginning in 2017 we began to broaden out the American Families of Faith project to include relationally strong while religiously unaffiliated families as well as interfaith families. In addition, in order to help fulfill our desire to bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3) we share what we have discovered with a worldwide audience through our American Families of Faith web site.
We have published over 50 articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and a book on Religion and Families. This book is the first multidisciplinary text to address the growing scholarly connection between religion and family life. The latest literature from family studies, psychology, sociology, and religion is reviewed along with narratives drawn from interviews with the 200 racially, religiously, and regionally diverse families which bring the concepts to life.