Elizabeth Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds, which I have reported on in my two previous blogs, rests on a study which ultimately has a religious purpose. The National Survey on the Moral and Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce, which Marquardt directed with Norval Glenn, was paid for by the Lilly Endowment, as part of their ongoing studies of the social effects of religion. And Marquardt’s findings on religion are among the most interesting and unprecedented in the study.
Children of divorce are less likely to be involved in organized religion. This fact has been reported before. But when children of intact and divorced families were asked how spiritual they considered themselves to be, nearly 3/4ths of each group answered “fairly” or “very” spiritual. Almost all from each group (90% and 86%, respectively) reported attending religious services as a child. The divorced kids, though, were more likely to report that they lost their early church in the divorce. Sometimes when the parents stop going, the divorced kids will start attending religious services by themselves. The children of divorce are, if anything, more serious in their search for meaning, order, and spiritual direction in their lives. Indeed, despite the generally lower church membership of divorced kids compared to kids from intact families, divorced kids are somewhat more likely to report that they are born-again or evangelical Christians, though they were no more likely to have been raised that way.
The study asked what the respondents made of the “prodigal son” story in the Bible. The two groups differed starkly in their responses. The children from intact families were likely to identify with the prodigal being welcomed home by loving parents, based on their own lives or those of siblings or friends. The divorced kids, on the other had, were more likely to identify with the parent, welcoming the prodigal home – only in their case the roles were reversed; their parents were in the role of the prodigal. This response is of a piece with the common effect of divorce in making the children, especially the eldest, adults before their time. Similarly, the intact family kids could respond straightforwardly to the commandment to “honor their father and mother,” especially if they were now married parents themselves. The children of divorce, on the other hand, found this commandment harder to embrace, or even understand.
The most fascinating, and poignant, religious responses of divorced kids come from their attempts to relate to “God the Father.” For many, their own bad experiences with their fathers spoiled the whole biblical vision of God for them. This difficulty, among others, likely contributed to children of divorce being less churched as adults. On the other hand, a subset of the divorced kids found great comfort in religion – God was the father they did not have in their own family life. These kids were more likely to have gotten themselves to church as a way to cope with the divorce. I expect that it is this group that produces the higher-than-expected rates of born-again and evangelical Christians.
One religious message of Between Two Worlds is that children of divorce, even high-functioning adult children of divorce, yearn for God and a supportive religious community. Precisely because they are torn between two worlds in their parents’ homes, they are more in need of a unified and supportive religious home. The superficial secularity of divorced kids hides a religious need and want which is, if anything, even greater than that of children from intact homes.