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Red state risk?

Religion | Study claims that evangelical influence increases a region’s divorce rate

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

A new academic study suggests that people in places with large numbers of evangelical Christians have higher divorce rates than in areas with few traditional Christians. The study’s authors, sociologists Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak, assert that “conservative Protestant community norms and the institutions they create seem to increase divorce risk.” Even though evangelicals typically teach against divorce, Glass and Levchak propose that factors such as marrying early, having children while young, receiving less education, and being reluctant to seek marital help all contribute to the frequency of divorce in “red” states, meaning places with more evangelicals and Republicans.

The controversial study’s findings have not gone unchallenged. University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus told Religion News Service that the study does highlight the risks of marrying in the teen years, but he blames a culture of “romantic individualism” and unrealistic expectations of marriage as more significant culprits than any supposed pressure by conservative churches for people to marry before they are ready. 

Sociologist Charles Stokes of Samford University argues that while the report is noteworthy, he would interpret Glass and Levchak’s evidence differently. Stokes contends that the most important question is not whether the couples in question call themselves conservative Christians, but how often they actually go to church. He acknowledges that the new evidence may confirm that people nominally affiliated with traditional denominations are more likely to get divorced, especially when they get married at age 25 or younger. “Active conservative Protestants,” however, score among the best of all groups in marriage stability, Stokes says. 

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To Stokes, the most significant revelation from the study may be the high divorce rates among those who identify as conservative Christians, but who don’t back their faith up in practice. “Nominal conservative Protestants,” he concludes, seem to “lack the habits and social support structures that are cultivated by regular participation in religious services, and which are needed to observe [conservative Christians’] stricter norms” about marriage.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler also commented on this question of nominal Christians and divorce, warning on Twitter that “cultural Christianity has no binding authority. It is no help in resisting the atomizing effect of modernity” for marriages in jeopardy.

Teacher on trial

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The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against a Louisiana school on behalf of a sixth-grade Buddhist student who says he was humiliated for his beliefs. The complaint contends that Negreet High School (a K-12 school) permits staff to promote Christian beliefs and ridicule people of other faiths. The ACLU alleges that the school routinely displays “Christian devotional phrases” and that a marquee outside the building constantly scrolls Bible verses.

Although the lawsuit lists many pro-Christian practices at the school, it especially focuses on the actions of teacher Rita Roark, who is named as a defendant. The sixth-grader, a student of Thai background called “C.C.” in the legal filing, enrolled at the school in August 2013 and reportedly became the “target of proselytizing” by Roark. She allegedly told her students that Buddhism was “stupid.” The suit contends that on one of Roark’s exams, the final question read “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE ___________ HAS MADE!!!” When C.C. failed to provide an answer, Roark marked it wrong and wrote “LORD” in red ink, the ACLU claims.

The Sabine Parish School Board stated that “a lawsuit only represents one side’s allegations, and the board is disappointed that the ACLU chose to file suit without even contacting it regarding the facts. The school system recognizes the rights of all students to exercise the religion of their choice and will defend the lawsuit vigorously.” —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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