Religion and substance use among youths of Mexican Heritage: a social capital perspective.

Author:Hodge, David R.

Despite elevated levels of substance use among many Latino youths, there has been little research on protective factors against such use. In keeping with federal commitments to address health disparities, this prospective study examined the protective influence of religion on substance use among a school-based sample (N = 804) of youths of Mexican heritage in the American Southwest. Drawing from the social capital literature, the authors posited that both integration into religious networks and trust in religious values at time 1 (T1) would predict less likelihood of using substances at time 2 (T2) but that exposure to religious norms at T1 would not predict subsequent substance use at T2.The hypotheses regarding religious networks and religious norms were largely confirmed, whereas little support emerged for the hypothesis regarding religious values. The results are discussed in light of the various pathways through which religion may exhibit a protective influence.

KEY WORDS: Mexican Americans; religion; social capital; substance use; youths


Compared with high school students in the early 1990s, current students are doing much better on a broad array of health-risk measures (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2008c). However, Latino students--of which Mexican-heritage youths comprise the majority--have not experienced the same degree of progress (CDC, 2008a). According to the CDC's (2008b) National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Hispanic students were more likely than either African American or non-Hispanic white students to use cocaine, heroin, or Ecstasy; ride with someone who had been drinking alcohol; avoid going to school due to safety concerns; be offered illegal drugs on school property; and drink alcohol while at school.

Although Latinos fair better than other ethnic groups on some other substance use measures, the CDC's epidemiological data may understate the substance use problem among Latino youths because it is based on students who are currently attending high school. Relative to black and white students, the drop-out rate among Latino students is much higher (Keppel, 2007). In earlier grades--before most students have dropped out--the prevalence rates across a number of substance use measures are comparatively higher for Latinos (Delva et al., 2005). For example, with the exception of amphetamines and smokeless tobacco, Latinos in the eighth-grade have the highest rates of use across all substances (Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman & Schulenberg, 2003). Because early initiation into substance use predicts use in later adolescence (Vega, Chen, & Williams, 2007; Warner et al., 2006), it is possible that the substance use problem among Latinos is significantly greater than the already concerning picture delineated by the CDC.

Despite federal commitments to address health disparities in areas such as substance use, little research has been conducted with Latino samples (Amaro & Igachi, 2006).The need for such research is particularly pressing when considering that Latinos are now the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, accounting for 15% of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). Furthermore, given that youths are particularly at risk for substance abuse, and the Latino population is younger than the general population and characterized by high fertility rates, identifying protective factors that help prevent substance use among youths is of critical importance (Delva et al., 2005;Volkow, 2006).

One factor that may inhibit substance use among youths is the multidimensional construct of religion. Religion can be understood as a shared set of beliefs and practices that has been developed in community with people who have similar understandings of the transcendent, which is designed to mediate an individual's relationship with God or the transcendent (Geppert, Bogenschutz, & Miller, 2007; Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001). In the following sections, we review the relevant literature, discuss potential mechanisms whereby religion may exhibit a protective influence, and posit research hypotheses.


A number of studies have examined the relationship between religion and substance use using nationally representative samples consisting primarily of non-Hispanic white youths (Bartkowski & Xu, 2007; Chu, 2007; Koenig et al., 2001; Nonnemaker, McNeely, & Blum, 2003; Sinha, Cnaan, & Gelles, 2007; Wallace et al., 2007). These studies have generally found an inverse relationship between religion and substance use. The relationships, however, were often inconsistent across various measures of religion, which has commonly been operationalized in terms of affiliation, attendance, or personal salience. For instance, after controlling for a number of potential confounds, Sinha et al. found that the personal importance attributed to religion was associated with a lower probability of using marijuana but was unassociated with alcohol use, whereas congregational attendance was linked with a lower probability of using both substances.

Some research has also been conducted with African American youths. Studies have examined the protective influence of religion among nationally representative samples of black youths (Wallace, Brown, Bachman & Laveist,2003) as well as regional samples consisting of youths living in low-income housing (Stewart & Bolland, 2007), high school students in a metropolitan area (Steinman, Ferketich, & Sahr, 2008), and at-risk inner-city youths Johnson, Larson, Li, & Jang, 2000). Although some comparatively minor differences have been observed, the results obtained using African American samples and European American samples were relatively similar (Steinman et al., 2008; Wallace et al., 2003). Religion is generally inversely related to or unassociated with substance use.

Compared with European and African Americans, Latino youths have been the subject of relatively little research in this area (Hodge, Cardenas, & Montoya, 2001; Steinman et al., 2008). At least two studies have explored the relationship between religion and substance use among a sample of primarily Mexican American students in a metropolitan area (Marsiglia, Kulis, Nieri, & Parsai, 2006) and a primarily Hispanic sample of students in a rural area (Hodge et al., 2001). In keeping with the just-cited research on European and African Americans, these studies found that religion exhibited a weak protective effect regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. These results are consistent with the findings obtained in related research conducted with youths living in Mexico City (Benjet et al., 2007) and students in Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala (Kliewer & Murrelle, 2007). Potential mechanisms through which religion may exhibit a protective influence are discussed in the next section.


A number of theoretical perspectives have been advanced to explain the generally positive association between religion and lower levels of substance use among youths (Koenig et al., 2001; Smith, 2003). One mechanism that is congruent with the conceptualization of religion as a communal construct is the notion of social capital (Bartkowski & Xu, 2007; Castro et al., 2007; Smith, 2003). A social capital perspective may be particularly relevant with Latino youths (Castro et al., 2007).Religion is woven into Latino culture and plays a significant role in many sections of the American Latino community. Although it is important to note that not all Latinos are religious, religion serves as a source of social capital for many Latinos (Wilson, 2008).

Drawing from Putnam's (2000) work, Bartkowski and Xu (2007) defined faith-based social capital as a composite of three components: norms, networks, and trust. These interrelated components serve to inhibit adolescent substance use. Religious norms entail values such as abstinence from illicit substances, self-control, looking to God or a higher power for help during times of stress, and respect of authorities (who typically espouse anti-substance use messages) (Smith, 2003). Religious networks include non-substance using adult role models and peer groups that provide opportunities to engage in prosocial activities. Trust consists of faith, belief, or confidence in the religious enterprise, which includes trust in religious norms and networks.

Thus, stocks of religious social capital comprise exposure to religious norms, integration into religious networks, and trust in or internalization of religious values (Bartkowski & Xu, 2007). As Bartkowski and Xu (2007) suggested, these three components can be assessed with the following three proxies. Religious affiliation (affiliated versus nonaffiliated) serves as a proxy for exposure to religious norms. Similarly, degree of religious participation assesses the level of integration into religious networks, and the self-ascribed importance of religion measures trust in or internalization of religious values.

Although single-item measures are characterized by a number of psychometric limitations, they can provide acceptable levels of reliability and validity in some cases (Menec, Shooshtari, & Lambert, 2007; Zimmerman et al., 2006). For instance, good to excellent reliability and validity has been reported for single-item measures of substance use and religion (for example, religious attendance) (Dollinger & Malmquist, 2009). As implied, single-item measures have been previously used to assess the aforementioned three components of faith-based social capital (Bartkowski & Xu, 2007). In the next section, hypotheses are developed regarding these three constructs.


On the basis of social capital theory and prior research, three hypotheses were tested in this study. Religion is often assumed to exert a protective effect regarding substance use; but the cross-sectional design used in most of the existing research precludes...

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