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Contemporary Evangelicals, Families & Gender

a project directed by Sally K. Gallagher
Oregon State University

In this study of American evangelicals, sociologist Sally Gallagher explores gender and family ideals and practices among ordinary evangelicals. Beginning with a review of the history of ideas about godly manhood and womanhood from the Puritans to the Promise Keepers, she traces two strands of gender ideals – both hierarchy and mutuality – within the traditions that make up modern evangelicalism.

Key findings from this study are:

* Evangelical women are employed at about the same rate as other American women.

* Evangelicals increasingly emphasize involved fathering, not just as authority figure in the home but as an active presence in the everyday lives of their children.

* Most evangelicals think of marriage as a partnership in which husbands and wives are equal participants in decision-making and child-rearing.

* In spite of being pragmatically egalitarian, the majority of American evangelicals believe that final authority, leadership and decision-making is the responsibility of men in marriage.

* The ideas of “biblical” or evangelical feminism are reflected in the practices but not the ideals of most evangelicals.

Making sense of these findings, Prof. Gallagher argues that evangelical Protestants remain committed to ideas about husbands’ authority in family life because it reinforces husbands’ connection to family and provides a sense of security to wives.  Yet men’s authority in marriage is largely symbolic – focusing mostly on a sense of ultimate spiritual responsibility before God for what happens inside the household, rather than direction in making decisions about children, finances, or housework all of which are more likely to be shared.

While evangelical husbands and wives look very much like other Americans in terms of income, education, parenting  and standard of living, their distinctive ideas about men’s spiritual leadership provide a sense of continuity with religious tradition and a sense of religious community that set them apart from the broader culture. 

Gender & Marriage Ideals Among Religiously Committed Christians (percent) 

  Evangel. Fundamntlst. Mainline Liberal  Catholics
Empty/Unfulfilling marriages should be ended in divorce 13.3 22.4 29.0 40.9 34.9
Marriage should be an equal partnership 87.4 82.6 88.3 91.9 92.2
Husband should be the head of the family 90.4 82.8 70.5 59.0 38.1

For more information, read the full report on this project.

Additional information: 

Email: sgallagher@orst.edu

phone: 541-737-5367

Position: Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Oregon State University   

Book of this study:  Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life, (Rutgers University Press, 2003). Order it at Amazon.com now.

The research summary above is based on a three year research project on American evangelicals funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, under the auspices of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Christian Smith P.I.  This research involved personal in-depth interviews with over 300 self-identified evangelical men and women in 23 states, as well as a telephone interview with a national random sample of religiously committed Protestants (The Evangelical Identity and Influence Survey; n=2,087).

Questions or comments are welcomed by email regarding this research or the book, Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life.




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