Here’s a provocative title: “Are Evangelicals Bad for Marriage?” In the article under the title, Maggie Gallagher commented on a cultural model developed by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn in their book, Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford, 2011). The authors’ premise is that liberal-leaning states have fewer teen mothers and lower divorce rates, while the more conservative states count more of both. Since the red states are more religious, this seems counterintuitive: Why is marriage less stable in the very region that’s so politically vocal about “traditional and family values”?
Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak (of the universities of Texas and Iowa respectively) suggested an answer in the American Journal of Sociology. “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce” concluded that “conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability through the promotion of practices [like discouraging cohabitation] that increase divorce risk.” As Michelle Goldberg pithily put it in The Nation, “Conservative family values don’t work to conserve actual families.”
Take the case of Kayla and Adam, a young Ohio couple whose pastor refused to marry them unless they stopped living together. They moved to separate dwellings and advanced their wedding date by one year. But soon after, Kayla discovered that Adam was abusing drugs, a problem that only got worse. When she found a love note addressed to another woman, the marriage was over. Their original plan of living together for a year before getting married—an accepted practice in secular America—would have alerted Kayla to Adam’s problems and forestalled the agony of divorce. It’s obvious to the academics that secular blue-state mores actually protect the institution of marriage better than those of religious red states.
But not so fast. The truth behind the headlines is that reports like Glass and Levchak’s don’t make a distinction between religious affiliation and religious practice. We’ve all heard that divorce is as common, or almost, among Christians as it is among secular couples, but that’s true only if all professing Christians are lumped together: those who talk the talk and those who walk it. Among self-identified Christians who marry early (between 18 and 26), evangelicals who attend church regularly are about half as likely to divorce as their professing peers. Faithfully attending Catholics are only about one-fourth as likely. The others know the words to “Amazing Grace” (first verse anyway) and claim to love Jesus while they neglect his body—and the community support a fledgling marriage needs.
In the heart of red-state America, where even towns of “Pop. 45” have at least one church and every city of 100,000 or more boasts a megachurch, an outsider might easily confuse affiliation with adherence. But if you live here, you may have a neighbor who can explain the basic gospel while a succession of live-in boyfriends take up residence in her house. The homeless men at the local shelter will readily pray with you and admit their sins, but won’t repent of them. “My mama reads the Bible all the time,” they say, while Mama enables the irresponsible behavior of her kids. “I believe in the beliefs, but I don’t exactly walk every line you’re supposed to walk,” admitted the aforementioned Kayla.
Just as “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (to quote the much-quoted Alexander Pope), a little religion is likewise perilous, creating a sense of sanctity in the absence of the real thing. “In my experience,” writes David French at National Review Online, “the casual Southern Christian has very high expectations for others’ behavior at the same time that they are quite forgiving of themselves.” That’s a universal human trait, “but it’s rendered far more destructive when sprinkled with selective Christianity. In fact, it’s hard to imagine an attitude better-calculated to lead to divorce.”
Self-justification from the Bible is the worst kind; selective Christianity more damaging than rigorous humanism. It’s an all-or-nothing religion, a demanding religion, a countercultural religion, even in the “God-haunted” South. The only way to be in with Jesus is all in.