Faith and Family in America — Analysis

“Faith and Family in America” Survey

John C. Green
Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life


There are many types of families in the United States, and the survey shows the following types:

Family Type% Sample
Married couple, never divorced
With children at home
Married couple, divorced
With children at home
Unmarried person, with partner
With children at home
Unmarried, no partner
With children at home
Married couple, never divorced
No children at home
Widowed person,
No children at home
Married couple, divorced
No children at home
Unmarried, no partner
No children at home
Never married,
No children at home


Only 18.5% of families met the traditional nuclear family ideal: married, never divorced, with children at home.

Another 25.6% were married, never divorced, but with no children at home. Also another 7.5% are widowed persons with no children at home–mostly elderly.

If these three groups are combined 51.6% of Americans live in some type of “traditional” family (see bolded rows in the table above).

Put another way, about 48% of Americans live in households that depart dramatically from the ideal of the traditional family.

Nonetheless, 79.6% of all Americans agree that it is best for children if their parents are married, and 70.5% agree that traditional marriage is “God’s plan.” A majority of every type of family holds these views, although non-traditional families hold them to a lesser extent.

But Americans do recognize the decline of the traditional family in practice. For instance, 52% of families believe that divorce is often a good thing, and slightly less than one-half agree that married people are happier than non-married people, or that is it acceptable for couples to live together.


When asked to name their most important concerns, 18% of the sample listed “moral values.” But when asked about the meaning of the term, just 10% of those who listed moral values named “social issues,” such as abortion or marriage, and another 35% mentioned “family values,” such as protecting children from sexual abuse. These two responses are often closely related in many people’s minds. However, the single largest response was “personal values,” such as honesty and responsibility, which accounted for 36% of the respondents.

It is worth noting that 26% of members of “traditional families” (married and never divorced with children at home) listed “moral values” as their most important concern. And interestingly, single never-married respondents without children were the second most likely group to list “moral values,” at 20%. When asked to define “moral values,” 37% of both groups picked either “social issues” or “family values.” But in both cases, the largest single category was still “personal values,” such as honesty and responsibility.

In addition, there are differences by family type on social issues. Half or more of the members of traditional families held pro-life views on abortion (ban abortions or restrict them substantially). In contrast, a majority of non-traditional families were pro-choice.

An even starker division appears on the legal status of marriage: more than 60% of traditional families favored marriage as a union between one man and one woman and not civil unions or same-sex marriage. Nontraditional families were more open to these alternatives, although same-sex marriage is not a plurality in any type of family.


Traditional families were more commonly found in some religious traditions and among weekly worship attenders within these traditions:

All white Evangelical Protestants:55.6%
Weekly attending Evangelicals:59.8%
All white Mainline Protestants:58.4%
Weekly attending Mainliners:67.0%
All white Roman Catholics:55.4%
Weekly attending Catholics:58.1%
Entire sample51.6%



There was also considerable variation in the views of marriage by religious tradition and weekly worship attendance. The following table presents the percent that agree with these views of marriage:

Traditional Family
God’s plan
Acceptable for
couples to live
Divorce is
a sin
All white Evangelical Protestants:90%30%37%
Weekly attending Evangelicals:95%11%45%
All white Mainline Protestants:69%46%15%
Weekly attending Mainliners:83%23%20%
All white Roman Catholics:72%60%22%
Weekly attending Catholics:82%39%26%
Entire sample71%49%22%



The survey revealed some interesting variations in partisanship by family type:

Married no divorce with kids at home29.2%10.7%47.1%8.1%4.8%100.0%
Married, divorced with kids at home44.4%12.1%32.1%9.7%1.6%100.0%
Partnered with kids at home46.9%13.4%20.8%6.2%12.7%100.0%
Unmarried, not partnered with kids at home47.3%12.2%25.4%6.2%8.9%100.0%
Married, no divorce, no kids at home26.1%25.1%38.6%7.3%2.9%100.0%
Widowed, no kids at home42.0%14.6%36.3%2.7%4.4%100.0%
Married, divorced, no kids at home36.2%10.8%31.3%14.0%7.7%100.0%
Unmarried no kids at home44.0%12.5%28.9%10.9%3.7%100.0%
Never married no kids at home40.8%17.5%28.8%8.7%4.2%100.0%
Entire Sample35.7%16.0%35.3%8.4%4.6%100.0%


Traditional families tend to be more Republican than the sample as a whole (see underlined entries in the above table). In contrast, the nontraditional families tend to be more Democratic (see italicized entries). In part, this pattern reflects the effects of religion (traditional families are more likely to be evangelicals and weekly attenders). However, it may also be because the GOP has catered to traditional families, and the Democrats have catered to other kinds of households.

However, there is not as much difference by ideology.

Married no divorce with kids at home43.6%35.1%15.1%6.1%100.0%
Married, divorced with kids at home40.1%25.3%34.6%0.0%100.0%
Partnered with kids at home25.0%29.9%36.5%8.5%100.0%
Unmarried, not partnered with kids at home37.6%24.3%29.0%9.1%100.0%
Married, no divorce, no kids at home40.8%32.2%23.0%4.0%100.0%
Widowed, no kids at home46.3%35.0%16.2%2.6%100.0%
Married, divorced, no kids at home42.4%30.8%25.2%1.6%100.0%
Unmarried no kids at home40.1%29.5%26.2%4.2%100.0%
Never married no kids at home32.2%35.7%26.6%5.6%100.0%
Entire Sample40.2%32.0%23.3%4.5%100.0%


Non-traditional families tended to be more liberal than the sample as a whole, while traditional families tended to be conservative, albeit to a lesser extent (see bold entries).