How religion and high school peers shape when people marry

Sociologists generally agree that marriage is a good thing. It improves both health and wealth. But early marriage often brings problems. Those who marry in their late teens or early twenties are less likely to finish their education, earn less money, and are more likely to divorce. Americans today are more likely to delay marriage to an older age than their parents or grandparents, but about a quarter to a third still marry by their early twenties.

New research by Baylor University sociologist Jeremy Uecker examines why this is the case. He makes use of the Add Health Study. This survey interviewed over 12,000 adolescents and then followed them as they entered adulthood. This unique study allowed Uecker to see how the religion of adolescents shaped their marriage decisions while controlling for other factors known to impact marriage, such as income, race, gender, age, and geography.

Uecker found that adolescents who are Mormon or conservative Protestant are more likely to marry early than other religious traditions. These religious differences hold up even when he took into account other aspects of religion—church attendance, belief about the Bible, and the importance of religion.

The Add Health Study allowed Uecker with another window into the religious lives of adolescents: What about the religious makeup of their school? Regardless of their own religion, are students affected by the religion of their peers? The answer is yes.

Students who attend a school with a higher percentage of either Mormons or conservative Protestants are more likely to marry earlier than students in schools with few of students in these traditions. Nearly half of students in schools with a high percentage of conservative religious students marry by age 25. Students in schools with low numbers of these students are half as likely to marry by their mid-20s.

So, who marries early? Taking everything into account and controlling for a wide range of factors, Uecker finds

- Mormons are the most likely to marry early. Conservative Protestants are more likely to marry earlier than Mainline Protestants or Catholics.

- Attending a school with a higher percentage of Mormons or conservative Protestants increases early marriage. Other aspects of a school’s students such as average church attendance, belief in the Bible, or importance of religion have no effect.

- Adolescents who believe that the Bible is “the word of God without mistakes” marry earlier than those who don’t believe this.

- Religious commitment (church attendance and the importance of religion) have no effect on marriage decisions (again, taking into account other factors).

- Adolescent views about marriage matter. They are more likely to marry early if they believe that money is not important for a successful marriage or that it is OK to cohabit without intending to marry.

- Those who go to college delay marriage.

- Premarital sex and cohabitation have no effect on the timing of marriage.