Their husbands’ handmaidens, they are not. Though often stereotyped as subservient — witness the anti-Amy Coney Barrett protesters in Washington, dressed as “handmaid” characters from Margaret Atwood’s theocratic dystopia — highly religious women are, in fact, in charge of their homes.
The Barretts’ seemingly egalitarian marriage is a case in point. As Barrett has recounted, her law-partner husband asks every morning “what he can do for me that day.” The kids consider him the better cook, and he proudly does housework.
The Barretts aren’t alone. Shocking though it may be to liberal opinion-makers, new research indicates that when it comes to highly religious couples, the kind of relationship the Barretts describe is far from anomalous.
According to a report by the Wheatley Institution published this week, highly religious couples are more likely to say they make “major decisions” together. Survey data from 11 countries, including the United States, found a particularly strong correlation between shared decision-making and home-centered religious practices.
Typically, researchers measure religiosity by looking at the frequency of religious church attendance. But amid a pandemic and lockdowns, the report suggests it’s worth studying additional indicators of faith commitment, especially those that take place at home.
This includes things like praying as a couple or studying the Bible as a family, as well as lighting candles for the Sabbath or worshipping at a home shrine. Even more so than attending a service together, these intimate religious practices within a couple’s own four walls appear to be associated with a variety of positive outcomes that go beyond making big decisions together.
Couples who worship at home report fewer disagreements about finances. When respondents were asked, “Does money cause problems in your relationship with your spouse or partner?” the highly religious couples were significantly less likely to say “yes” than other couples. And women in these relationships were also much more likely to say their partners were “forgiving,” “kind” and “responsible.”
This doesn’t sound too dissimilar from, say, Amy Coney Barrett extolling her husband’s cooking in the Rose Garden.
Religious, home-worshipping couples also report greater relationship quality and stability, and they are three times more likely than less-religious peers to report a sexually satisfying relationship.
The women don’t appear to be repressed; in fact, they’re generally more likely to say they’re happy and that their life has meaning and purpose.
It’s nothing new that couples who share the same faith report slightly higher levels of marital satisfaction. According to a separate nationally representative survey from 2010, same-faith couples rated their level of marital satisfaction at 8.4 (on a scale of 1 to 10), while interfaith couples averaged 7.9. Still, high levels of religious worship at home are an added boost, the new data show.
So what is it about home-based religious ritual that seems to produce more harmonious relationships?
Well, for starters, church attendance alone may not fully reveal a couple’s true beliefs or their true level of religious devotion. To be sure, going to a synagogue or a meeting house each week is a significant display of one’s faith, but it may also be undertaken for a variety of social reasons, such as seeing friends or family, that have little bearing on personal piety.
Home ritual, on the other hand, is more likely to require explicit conversations between partners about faith, devotion and values. Do we need to pray before each meal or only before dinner? Should we pray with our children before bedtime? How much of the Seder will we be going through? Will we be fasting for certain holidays?
The buy-in regarding shared home rituals involves both partners, but it’s especially important for women. In America, anyway, women still tend to be more religious than men, and they also tend to run the household more often than men. At home, they typically play a larger role in determining how and when holidays are celebrated, ritual meals served and religious displays set up.
It isn’t surprising, then, that when both partners are participating in these home-based rituals, women are more satisfied. Indeed, it probably means that the men in these relationships are following their lead. Measured this way, then, a family’s religiosity may actually be a sign of a woman’s power, not her submissiveness.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow of the Independent Women’s Forum. Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University and a fellow at the Wheatley Institution.