What does it mean when the so-called "Bible Belt," the Southern states with the most evangelical Christians, leads the nation in divorces?
Journalist David Crary, in an Associated Press story, reported new data that shows that Nevada, home of both the quickie-marriage and the quickie-divorce, leads the nation with 8.5 divorces for every thousand people. Then come states known for their social conservativism and family-values politicians: Tennessee (6.4 per thousand), Arkansas (6.0), Alabama (6.0), and Oklahoma (6.0).
The national average was 4.2 divorces per thousand. Of all the other southeastern states, only South Carolina (3.8) had fewer divorces than the national average. Furthermore, the socially liberal states of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts had only 3 divorces per thousand--half as many as Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma.
The article speculates that religion has something to do with it. The northeastern urban states have more Catholics, it points out, and the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce. The South, though, has more "fundamentalist Protestants," and that, suggests the article, may be part of the problem.
According to Robin Meyers, a self-described liberal clergyman from Oklahoma, evangelicals have "fairytale conceptions of marriage" and are unable to deal with the inevitable problems. "They have that whole dogma of 'This is right, this is wrong' and nothing in between," he says. "They don't have the mental dexterity to make the adjustments to a less than perfect marriage."
Stewart Beasley, president of the Oklahoma Psychological Association, blames the notion, recently reemphasized by the Southern Baptists, that the husband is the spiritual head of the family. This, he says, "puts a lot of women in a moral crisis."
Another reason for the high divorce rates, says Mr. Beasley, is the Christian teaching that there is to be no sex before marriage. In these Bible Belt states, fewer young people live together before marriage. "There is very strong pressure: If you're going to have an intimate relationship, it has got to be in marriage," he says. "When you get that pushed down your throat, it doesn't give you a whole lot of options." This leads to couples getting married younger, "and the younger they are, the less likely they'll make a success of it."
So what about the argument that conservative Christianity causes divorce?
First of all, it is a logical fallacy-a false cause argument, along the lines of post hoc ergo propter hoc. These Southern states have many other features, besides a high number of evangelicals. They probably have the highest per capita consumption of barbecue ribs: Could we argue that eating ribs causes divorce? Just because A happened before B (breaking a mirror prior to seven years of bad luck) does not mean that A caused B.
More controlled studies-which try to narrow down the influencing factors-show that conservative Christianity does, in fact, contribute to strong marriages.
Religious people tend to be more satisfied with their marriages-even reporting higher sexual satisfaction-than couples who are not religious. And, religious couples are, in fact, less likely to get a divorce. (Religion is only a negative factor when one partner is religious but the other is not.)
As for the charge that sexual morality contributes to high divorce rates, the studies prove the opposite: Women who had sex before marriage have a 71percent higher divorce rate than those who were virgins.
As for living together, those who cohabit before they get married are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who have not. (These statistics, with their documentation, can be found in How Now Shall We Live? by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey.)
Statistics are less certain than they seem. It is commonly said, for example, that 50 percent of marriages are doomed to divorce, a figure cited in the article (with Bible Belters having a divorce rate half again as much, which makes it sound as if 75 percent of Southern fundamentalists break up). The fact is, as pollster Louis Harris says, "The idea that half of American marriages are doomed is one of the most specious pieces of statistical nonsense ever perpetuated in modern times."
The scholarly legend began when the Census Bureau one year reported that there were 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces. "Someone did the math," explains Mr. Harris, "without calculating the 54 million marriages already in existence, and presto, a ridiculous but quotable statistic was born."
According to Mr. Harris, "only one out of eight marriages will end in divorce." The numbers vary, with other researchers putting the number at one in five.
Given the fact that statistics can be misleading and that Christianity does contribute to good marriages, it is nevertheless true that there is too much divorce, even among conservative Christians.
A factor in the Bible Belt states that has been shown to be related to divorce rates is economic status. These states rank at the bottom of the country for household income. As has been known for years, among the other hardships of life experienced by lower-income families is troubled marriages.
The problem is cultural--and yet, one could say that, based on the data, many evangelical churches are not having the impact on their culture that they should.
The state governments, alarmed at the rate of divorce which they rightly see as a social problem, are seeking ways of building up marriage and making divorces less frequent. Oklahoma governor Frank Keating has launched a campaign--enlisting clergymen, lawyers, psychologists, and academics--to reduce the divorce rate in his state by one-third over the next decade. Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is engaged in a similar effort to cut the rate by half. Louisiana has been experimenting with ways of making it more difficult legally to get a divorce.
More to the point, churches in these states are mobilizing to make marriage and divorce prevention a priority of pastoral care. Anthony Jordan, executive director of Oklahoma's Southern Baptist Convention, is asking clergy (who perform three-fourths of the weddings) not to marry any couples without ensuring that they take a marriage-preparation course.
And Mr. Jordan is aware of the larger cultural dynamics. "In the name of being loving and accepting," he says, "we have not placed the stigma on divorce that we should have." On the positive note, "more and more of our churches are offering opportunities to strengthen marriage."
It may be that some evangelicals have acquired a faith that is too interior, too subjective, neglecting the objective commandments of God and the objective grace that is lived out in everyday life. It may be that some are not applying God's Word--which describes marriage in terms of the relationship between Christ and the Church--to their marriages in a gospel-centered, relationship-transforming way. And it is evident that even among those who are, they are not having much of an impact as salt or light or yeast on the culture around them.