According to a study about to be published in the American Journal of Sociology, being conservative Protestant, i.e., an evangelical, is not helpful when it comes to staying married. In fact, the authors conclude, “divorce is higher among religiously conservative Protestants—and even drives up divorce rates for other people living around them.”
The study, entitled "Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding Regional Variation in Divorce Rates,” examined data on divorce for every county in the United States. What Jennifer Glass of the University of Texas and Philip Levchak of the University of Iowa found was that a “a key factor predicting divorce rates is the concentration of conservative Protestants in a county.”
For instance, Bible Belt states like Alabama and Arkansas rank second and third in divorce rates, while Massachusetts and New Jersey, so-called “Blue” states, are near the bottom in divorce rates.
If “conservative Protestantism” is supposed to be good for marriage, you would obviously expect the opposite to be true.
The authors’ explanation for the unexpected results is “the earlier ages at first marriage and first birth, and the lower educational attainment and lower incomes of conservative Protestant youth.” Glass claims that, “Restricting sexual activity to marriage and encouraging large families seem to make young people start families earlier in life, even though that may not be best for the long-term survival of those marriages.”
What’s more, Glass and Levchak found that “people who simply live in counties with high proportions of religious conservatives are also more likely to divorce than their counterparts elsewhere.”
Why? Well, according to Glass, “Pharmacies might not give out emergency contraception. Schools might only teach abstinence education . . .” and so on and so on.
Not surprisingly, the secular left, which has been sounding the alarm over the looming American theocracy, is trumpeting the results. But is the situation as dire as the study suggests? Are these data even accurate?
Well, not really. For starters, their “explanations” for why “conservative Protestantism” leads to higher divorce rates are largely unsubstantiated assertions: citing pharmacies not giving out emergency contraception tells us a great deal about the authors’ view of things, but next to nothing about its impact on divorce rates.
Furthermore, there’s the question of just who is a “conservative Protestant.” When a couple files for divorce, they’re not questioned about their religious affiliation, much less the depth of their commitment.
The most we can know from public records and census data is that a higher proportion of people who self-identify as, say, Southern Baptist or another “conservative Protestant” denomination, in a particular county is no guarantee of lower divorce rates.
Even more important, the data does not distinguish between nominal “conservative Protestants” and those who actively practice their faith. Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia has documented that this distinction makes a great deal of difference.
Whereas a nominal Protestant is much more likely to be divorced than the average American, an active conservative Protestant is 35 percent less likely! A similar difference can be found among nominal vs. practicing and active Catholics.
We should be troubled about the prevalence of divorce in the Bible Belt, no doubt. But the proper response is to turn nominal Christians into committed ones, not to deny or disparage the role of faith in family stability.
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