The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Adultery among the Unfaithful

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Adultery may be common among the Hollywood set, yet that doesn’t stop screenwriters from making it a big deal when the storyline involves a devoted churchgoer or, better yet, an ordained minister. But the casting of religious folk as hypocrites flies in the face of a study by researchers, led by Amy Burdette of the University of North Carolina, that suggests that the hypocrisy of violating one’s wedding vow of “forsaking all others” is far more common among the unfaithful than the faithful.

Pooling data from the 1991 through 2004 waves of the General Social Survey, and limiting their sample to married or previously married respondents, the researchers explored the relationship between extramarital sexual behavior and several measures of religiosity. Although they did not find major differences between Catholics and different categories of Protestants, all respondents who claimed a Protestant or Catholic affiliation were associated with significantly reduced odds of marital infidelity relative to those with no affiliation. Catholics displayed a 32 percent reduction (p.001); conservative Protestants, a 33 percent reduction (p.001); moderate Protestants, a 37 percent reduction (p.001); and liberal Protestants, a 31 percent reduction (p.05).

The researchers also found that church attendance and views about the Bible were each linked to reduced odds of adultery. Each increment on a nine-point scale that measured frequency of church attendance was associated with an 8 percent drop in the odds of adultery (p.001). So the chances of engaging in extramarital relations for those who attend church several times a week are roughly 66 percent lower than those who never attend church. Likewise, respondents with a high view of the Good Book were less likely to report having committed adultery compared to those who see no sacred significance to the Bible (p.001 for those accepting the Bible as the inspired Word of God and for those accepting the Bible as the literal Word of God).

Moreover, the researchers claim that these two measures are the better predictors of marital fidelity. In models that placed all the measures in the mix, the links connecting marital faithfulness to church attendance and to biblical views remained statistically significant while the many associations with various Protestant and Catholic affiliations did not.

Their findings demonstrating that theological beliefs matter when it comes to marriage plow new ground. As they note: “Our findings suggest that such biblical beliefs may translate into greater resistance to sexual temptation on the part of married persons. This suggests that doctrines of moral conservatism and restraint are associated with real differences in personal behavior rather than simply beliefs.”

(Amy M. Burdette et al., “Are There Religious Variations in Marital Infidelity?” Journal of Family Issues 28 [December 2007]: 1553–81.)