Do you think towns and cities with more conservative religious people are the safeguards to the traditional families? You’re wrong. Areas in the U.S. with a high proportion of evangelicals are often the places where marriages fail the most often. New research finds that people of all faiths face a greater risk of divorce simply by living in areas dominated by conservative Protestants or evangelicals.
For sociologists, this is a puzzle that had several possible answers. The easy answer would be that conservatives, despite valuing marriage, simply get divorced more often. This could be because of what Naomi Cahn and June Carbanda call the “red state family pattern”: couples in conservative America tend to marry younger, have less education, or have other risk factors for divorce.
But jumping too quickly to this answer runs the risk of an ecological fallacy. This fallacy can occur when one takes data from an aggregate (e.g., the divorce rate) to make inferences about individuals (e.g., whether individuals divorce). Just because states with more conservatives also have higher divorce rates does not mean that individual conservatives are more likely to get divorced.
A classic example of an ecological fallacy is the relationship between race and partisanship. States that have a high percentage of voters who are black tend to be states with the strongest support for Republicans. Does this mean that blacks are more supportive of Republicans than whites? Of course not. We know from surveys of voters, that 90 percent or more of blacks support Democrats. The pattern at the state-level (more black voters is related to more Republican votes) belies what its going on among individuals (blacks are much less supportive of Republicans than are whites).
The same could be true for conservative Protestants and divorce rates. Maybe conservatives are more likely to divorce, but maybe not.
A new study to be published in the American Journal of Sociology provides a fresh look at this puzzle. University of Texas’ Jennifer Glass and University of Iowa’s Philip Levchak used surveys and mixed it with data on where the individuals lived.
Glass and Levchak found that the evangelical culture that encourages marriage may, ironically, be making divorce more prevalent . In other words, when evangelicals make up a higher proportion of the local population, marriages are more at risk. This is due in part to evangelicals speeding up the “marriage market.” If a large segment of young religious adults are marrying earlier in life, then other adults will likely marry sooner in order to get a good spouse before they’re all gone. Another explanation is that this religious culture will foster values, policies, and institutions that promote earlier marriage or sexual behavior that leads to marriage (e.g., abstinence-only and anti-abortion programs).
It’s not being an evangelical that puts you at risk of divorce; it’s living in an area where evangelicals shape the culture of the family. The researchers found that, on average, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce. However, this was not because of their religion per se. Evangelicals are more likely to divorce because they have other risk factors such as becoming parents at a younger age. The pattern at the state-level (more conservatives and more divorces) was not due to conservatives divorcing more. This finding holds even when one controls for a host of other factors at both the individual and regional level. After taking into account race, ethnicity, education, economics, marriage patterns, and other demographics, the main conclusion of the research holds: living in a conservative religious culture encourages marital choices that make the likelihood of divorce greater, not lower.