Family and religion are foundational to American freedom and the common good. For example, the married family plays an important part in promoting economic opportunity. Children raised by never-married mothers are seven times more likely to be poor when compared to children raised in intact married families. Religious institutions and individuals form the backbone of civil society, providing for the welfare of individuals more effectively than government-funded programs can. Yet policy at the federal, state, and local levels, coupled with social developments, has helped to undermine their important contributions.
It is essential to build support for policy changes that strengthen marriage and family and advance a robust understanding of religious liberty and the role of religion in society. Family and religion are indispensable, both in our American order and in our conservative philosophy. In order to promote a healthy public discourse that appreciates the historic and continuing significance of religion and moral virtue in American civic life, policymakers must strengthen and expand the current pro-family constituency and unite religious and economic conservatives more effectively.
- Defend marriage as a pre-political institution that provides the best environment for raising children. Today, more than one in four children is born outside of marriage. These children are five times more likely to experience poverty than are children born and raised by a married mother and a father in the home. Moreover, children raised outside of a biological family arrangement are at greater risk of lower educational attainment, elevated rates of delinquency, more unwed pregnancy and childbearing, and other consequences.Yet the Obama Administration decided not to provide a legal defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA) and then called for its repeal. An attorney appointed by the House of Representatives is now responsible for making the case for DOMA. Each of the four governmental interests identified as undergirding DOMA—defending and nurturing the institution of traditional, heterosexual marriage; defending traditional notions of morality; protecting state sovereignty and democratic self-governance; and preserving scarce government resources—is related to the public stake in marriage as an institution designed to bring men and women together and orient them toward their responsibilities in the begetting, bearing, and raising of the next generation.
- Understand and promote the many benefits of marriage to social welfare. Any form of financial penalty in tax policy that deters marriage should be eliminated. Policymakers and program managers should encourage pro-marriage messaging in existing government programs and other already available resources. Because a significant percentage of divorcing couples would respond to reconciliation efforts and restore their marriages, states should develop policies and programs that maximize the reconciliation option. Policymakers should also recognize the power of the bully pulpit and civic leadership to shape consensus and define progress.The promotion of marriage in low-income communities could have far-reaching economic benefits. Of the nearly $400 billion in annual welfare funding spent on low-income families, three-quarters goes to those led by single parents. The restoration of marriage in low-income communities requires three main steps: (1) inform young men and women of the importance of marriage in reducing poverty and improving children's well-being, (2) provide interested low-income couples with practical information on strengthening relationships, and (3) reduce the marriage penalties in welfare programs.
- Promote a robust understanding of religious freedom for individuals and institutions. Religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families, and the community. Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and positive outcomes for children. It also leads to a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, and addiction and an increase in physical and mental health, longevity, and education attainment.Yet, despite the societal benefits of religion, the expression of faith in the public square has faced many challenges. The law ought to make as much room as possible for the practice of religious faith. In addition, to win hearts and minds, advance freedom, and promote stability, U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy should systematically engage the role of religion and religious audiences.
- Uphold conscience rights for parents, patients, and practitioners. The rights of Americans to believe and act according to deeply held beliefs are increasingly coming under assault. For example, many provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act weaken family choice of coverage, undermine parental participation in minor children’s health care decisions, penalize the decision to marry, and undercut family values in health care. Additionally, its loose conscience protections, combined with inadequate guidance on conscience rights, may leave pro-life medical professionals with only limited protection to practice according to their religious principles.The ability to work, live, and provide services compatible with one’s beliefs is essential for maintaining a just and free society. As religious pluralism expands and moral consensus wanes, government protection of religious liberty and conscience rights will be vital to upholding civil society. Policymakers should enact permanent and comprehensive conscience protections and replace the current patchwork of federal statutes and annual abortion riders on spending bills with a permanent, government-wide policy.
- Promote sustainable welfare reform and an effective antipoverty framework. Congress should require the President’s annual budget to detail current and future aggregate federal means-tested welfare spending. The budget should also provide estimates of state contributions to federal welfare programs. Aggregate welfare funding should be capped at pre-recession (FY 2007) levels plus inflation to force Congress to determine whether or not these programs further the goal of alleviating poverty. Building on the successful 1996 model, welfare reform should continue to encourage work. For example, food stamps should be restructured to require recipients to work or prepare for work to be eligible to receive benefits.When considering government response to poverty, policymakers should acknowledge the relational nature of poverty as well as the vital contributions made by local and religious institutions that provide personalized approaches to overcoming social breakdown. Government serves best when it protects and safeguards, rather than crowds out, the poverty-fighting institutions of civil society.
Facts & Figures
- Today, the U.S. spends 13 times the amount it spent on welfare in the 1960s—about four times the amount needed to pull every poor family out of poverty—yet the federal poverty rate remains nearly unchanged.
- In 1964 only 7 percent of births in America were outside of marriage. Today, more than 40 percent are.
- Adolescents who do not live in intact families are more likely to engage in substance abuse, exhibit behavioral problems, have poor academic performance, and engage in risky behavior, including becoming sexually active at an early age.
- Children who do not live with both parents are more likely to experience psychological and emotional problems, ranging from low levels of social competence and self-esteem to anxiety and depression.
- Over the past six decades, the percentage of adults who are married has steadily declined among all Americans. The decline has occurred more rapidly among African–American adults, among whom less than 40 percent are married.
- Fathers’ involvement is an important factor in children’s well-being, from health and behavioral outcomes to school performance. Research shows that religious participation appears to bolster fathers’ involvement.
Selected Additional Resources
- “Parents’ Influence on Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior,” Heritage Foundation Family Facts Brief No. 42, 2011.
- Charles A. Donovan, “A Marshall Plan for Marriage: Rebuilding Our Shattered Homes,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2567, June 7, 2011.
- Charles A. Donovan, “Winning DOMA on the Merits of Marriage,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3244, May 6, 2011.
- Charles A. Donovan, “Obamacare and the Ethics of Life: Weakening Medical Conscience and the Protection of Life,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3106, January 19, 2011.
- Patrick F. Fagan, “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1992, December 18, 2006.
- Jennifer A. Marshall, “Why Does Religious Freedom Matter?” Heritage Foundation Understanding America Series, December 2010.
- Jennifer A. Marshall, “Religious Liberty in America: An Idea Worth Sharing Through Public Diplomacy,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2230, January 15, 2009.
- Ryan Messmore, “Does Advocating Limited Government Mean Abandoning the Poor?” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2551, May 4, 2011.
- Thomas M. Messner, “Same-Sex Marriage and Threats to Religious Freedom: How Nondiscrimination Laws Factor In,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2589, July 29, 2011.
- Thomas M. Messner, “From Culture Wars to Conscience Wars: Emerging Threats to Conscience,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2543, April 13, 2011.
- Robert Rector, “Marriage Is Detroit’s Secret Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, June 22, 2011.
Heritage Experts on Family & Religion