U-Va. sociology professor: Parenting in red, blue and purple America

BLOOMBERG President Obama looks over the crowd as he prepares to leave the stage after making an acceptance speech during … Continued


President Obama looks over the crowd as he prepares to leave the stage after making an acceptance speech during an election night on Nov. 7, 2012.

One of the abiding fissures in American life exposed by presidential election was religion. Exit polls indicated that about 60 percent of Americans who regularly attend church voted for Mitt Romney, and about 60 percent of Americans who rarely or never attend religious services voted for President Obama. This religious divide would have been even sharper were it not for the fact that many churchgoing blacks and Latinos pulled the lever for Obama.

Differences over family-related matters, from same-sex marriage to abortion, drove religious divide in voting. Secular progressives were attracted to Obama’s strong support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights, just as religious conservatives were repelled by his positions on these issues.

Given the importance of family-related issues in the presidential race, it is no surprise that the cultural divides so evident in the political arena also extend to the family arena, according to an important new report from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. The Culture of American Families project, by sociologist Carl Desportes Bowman, reveals that American parents are divided into four cultural camps. Two of those camps—“the Faithful” and “the Engaged Progressives”—roughly conform to the Red and Blue America narratives that now have wide currency in our culture.

The Faithful, who make up 20 percent of American parents and are largely white and middle class, believe strongly that “God’s timeless truths” about sex, marriage, and life remain as true today as they have always been. They seek to defend these truths in the broader culture and, failing that, aim to “buffer themselves from progressive currents enough that their families will remain faithful to their traditions.” Their most important parenting goal is “raising children to reflect God’s will and purpose.”

In keeping with their cultural commitments, the Faithful are more married (88 percent) than any other group of parents, have more children (3.06) than other groups, spend more time with their children than the average parent, and attend church regularly (82 percent). Indeed, one reason they are so invested in their children’s lives seems to be that they are much more likely than other parents to believe that fathers play as an important role as mothers in children’s lives and act accordingly (38 percent of Faithful fathers spend more than three hours a day with their children, compared to 28 percent of average fathers). Finally, this group of parents tilts Red (88 percent reported they would not vote for Obama).

The Engaged Progressives, who make up 21 percent of American parents and are whiter, better educated, and more affluent than the population as a whole, march to a very different beat than the Faithful, at least ideologically. They steer clear of organized religion, believe strongly in the virtues of personal freedom, choice, and tolerance, and seek to form their children into independent-minded adults. But these individualistic values are also tempered by a commitment among progressive parents to the “golden rule” and the values that go along with this rule: honesty, openness, empathy, and compassion for the vulnerable. Their cultural commitments point them in a Blue direction (82 percent reported they would not vote for the Republican presidential nominee).

Ironically, whatever their ideological differences with the Faithful, Engaged Progressives live lives that look surprisingly like their ideological opposites. Although they have fewer children (2.46) than the Faithful, they are almost as married (80 percent are married), about as likely to have stay-at-home-mothers when preschool children are in the home as are the Faithful (58 percent compared to 65 percent), and they also highly engaged parents, enjoying—for instance—more meals with their children than the average parent. So, in pursuit of progressive ideals, Engaged Progressives rely on largely neotraditional strategies: namely, marriage and an intensive parenting style.

The same cannot be said about the other two cultural camps of American parents detailed in the report: “the Detached” and “the American Dreamers”, who make up, respectively, 19 and 27 percent of American parents. Although a slight majority of the Detached are married (67 percent), this largely white, largely downscale group of parents feel incapable or unable to exert much of an influence on their children’s lives. They spend comparatively little time interacting with their children, do not eat daily with their parents, are disconnected from the religious and civic fabric of their communities, and instead allow the television and other outside influences to set the cultural agenda for their children. Indeed, Bowman contends that the Detached parents “lack the vision, vitality, certainty, and self-confidence required to embrace any agenda” for their children. Not surprisingly, this camp has little interest in or involvement with politics.

By contrast, the American Dreamers—who are disproportionately working class and minority—have high hopes for their children. Politically, they are divided, with black and Hispanic Dreamers tilting Democratic, and white Dreamers titling Republican. They believe strongly in education, their children are optimistic about their educational prospects, and they want their children to make good on the American Dream. But given that marriage is fragile in this camp (only 64 percent are married), they have less income and education than most parents, and they are more likely to hail from communities with anemic religious and civic institutions, it’s not clear that American Dreamers can make good on the big dreams they have for their children.

Indeed, when it comes to family-related matters, although the media, the activists, and the politicians have focused their attention on the culture war being fought between the Faithful and Engaged Progressives, the deteriorating economic, civic, and familial fortunes of the Detached and Dreamer families should be garnering even more of our country’s attention. After all, the kids of the cultural warriors are probably doing comparatively well. By contrast, children from the Dreamer and especially the Detached families are not likely to live the American Dream unless and until the economic, civic, and marital foundations of their families are set upon stronger and more stable ground.

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the author of “When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America.”
Wilcox served on the advisory board of the Culture of American Families Project.

Related content on On Faith:

Tenety: God after 2012: How did election change religion and politics landscape?

David Gibson: What’s next for religious conservatives?

Lisa Miller: After huge Hispanic vote, plenty of reason to compromise on immigration reform

Figuring Faith: Faith in 2012 by the numbers

Otterson: What lies ahead for Mormons?

Thistlethwaite: Compassion in chief: Why Obama won

Patel:Hopeful for explicit discussion from White House on religious diversity

Written by

  • Catken1

    Sounds like the biggest factor in having a healthy family or not has more to do with social class and economic stability, rather than religious beliefs or adherence to religious rules concerning marriage…

  • amelia45

    It is important to note that the very family oriented and overwhelmingly Catholic Hispanics voted for Obama. What has formed a political dividing line in the past between weekly church goers and the occasionaly church goer, may not be what defines them in the future. Truth is, church goers are more willing to think for themselves and less likely to be blindly led now than in the past. Just look to young people.

  • edbyronadams

    Which came first, stable families or stable economics?


    A government that didn’t pay companies to ship jobs overseas.

  • Catken1

    It’s a virtuous/vicious cycle, Edbyronadams. If you don’t have a stable family to grow up in, you’re less likely to have economic stability both as a child and an adult. But if you’re poor, you’re also less likely to marry and form a stable family (and this has always been true – that bit in Pygmalion where Alfred Doolittle now HAS to get married to his girlfriend because he’s now “middle class” and economically solvent? Completely true to Victorian English life).

    So now answer me a question. Why would conservatives, who advocate family stability as a prerequisite for economic stability, try to damage the family stability of gay people and their kids?