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.

Divorce celebration cake

Divorce celebration cake John C. Bullas via Flickr


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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.

Read more: Study: Conservative Protestants’ divorce rates spread to their red state neighbors

19 Comments

  1. So it’s the fault of the people who take God seriously instead of those who don’t and make life choices that reflect that fact? People make bad choices because they don’t trust Gods Will. It’s no one else’s fault but their own.

    Go to your local Christian church everyone, it’s the best thing for you!

    • Yep.

      Those who buy into:
      Getting married for its own sake.
      Getting married young and breeding like rabbits (and avoiding family planning)
      Ignoring and/or condoning abuse of a spouse
      Ignoring and/or condoning abuse of children
      Keeping double standards for adultery (a husband is to be forgiven, a wife shunned)
      Staying married for no other reason besides “they won’t let me back into church otherwise”

      Because God says all those things are OK even if common sense tells you otherwise.

      • Larry,
        There is no religious group, conservative, liberal, or other, that condones and believes what you posted. Nor is there any religious text that says “God says those things are ok.” This is a straw man and a patently obvious one.

        • Who are you kidding? Are you that ignorant or just trolling for its own sake?

          Every conservative religion advocates abstinence as a way to encourage marriage for its own sake, get people to marry young, and to breed often. [Never heard of Quiverfull either?]

          The Catholic Church does not accept remarried people and attacks the concept of divorce. [You never heard of that either?]

          Condoning of child abuse according to Biblical principles is making a comeback [See "How to Train up a Child" controversy]

          Condoning spousal abuse is so common to “traditional” religious beliefs that your denial is just plain ridiculous. It is the common complaint people make of any insular religious community.

          http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Iu0kfcFwwiwJ:www.vawnet.org/applied-research-papers/print-document.php%3Fdoc_id%3D411+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a

          Of course claiming the Bible doesn’t say so is neither true nor helpful since all one has to do is look at the behavior and culture of the people who profess to follow such things. A “No true scotsman” argument is still a fallacy no matter how you frame it.

  2. Earold Gunter

    “Look, you wait ‘til they get to be 20 years old the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.” Phil Roberson

    Religion is poison!

  3. What is impact of some laws in these states attempting to make it harder to divorce thru covenantal marriage, or making it harder to get divorced through attempting to curtail no fault divorce? These probably won’t succeed just like other attempts at legislated morality.

    • Mark,

      You’re assuming that the person who files for divorce is the bad spouse, but the truth is that adulterers, addicts, irresponsible, and abusive people like having their cake and eating it too.

      They behave badly and then come home to a loving and faithful spouse and a warm bed and food, home to the good spouse who pays the bills, gets the kids to school, and tries to keep up appearances.

      A bad spouse is like a tick looking for a dog. They are users and takers. Why spoil a good thing by divorcing the good spouse who makes your life look normal, even when you’re trashing your life and your family?

      My point is: Often the guilty party doesn’t file for divorce.

      Please don’t recommend for-fault divorce. Those of us with abusive spouses, those of us married to child molesters, those of us tied to drug addicts need to be able to get out without undue expense and time.

  4. I weary of pointing out the fact that such statistics are bogus. Many non believers “shack up” with several ppl before getting “officially” married. Stats do not include these numbers. Not that divorce rates among Christians is not a scandal btw.

  5. As I read the article it quickly became obvious to me why there is a higher rate of divorce in Christian and conservative areas of the country. It isn’t people marring too early, if that were the case the divorce rate for our grand and great grandparents would have been high as well, but we know that most remained married their entire adult lives, because they married very early 16, 17, 18, etc. Here is where the problem is. In a community where there is no strong moral conviction and enfluence isn’t braught to bear, everything is cool. I do my thing and you do yours. It’s all good. But when pressure is being brought on individuals for holding to or not holding to a moral standard one of two things are going to happen. (1). You’re going to commit to the standard or you’re going to bail out. So what you’re seeing are uncommitted individuals bailing out of marriages because they can’t remain committed to Christian, conservative, moral values. That’s all it is. What do you say?

    • Doyle, you are full of crap.

      People did not have “Stronger moral conviction” back in the day. You are just buying into fictional nostalgia.

      There were tangible legal barriers to divorce which existed in your grandparents era and before which don’t exist now. Willingness to divorce and causes for divorce are as common now as they were back then. The ability to act on them was impaired by laws demanding “divorce for fault” and strict residency requirements for filing.

      Rich people divorced at their leisure requiring an extended stay in Nevada or in other countries (The play/movie, “The Women” was a perfect illustration of how that worked). Poor people had to hire private detectives to stage “proof of adultery” or had to convince a judge they were victims of cruelty or abandonment. Good luck getting child support orders enforced as well! In the “old days” it was difficult to divorce but really easy to leave a spouse and children destitute out of selfishness.

      You are seeing people who can act on their feelings and conditions without unnecessary legislated barriers.

      You have made it sound like being “a committed conservative christian with moral values” means overlooking, minimizing or condoning abuse, adultery and cruelty for the sake of approving nods from self-righteous busybodies.

      • Larry,

        I’m a conservative Christian and a demography geek and I agree with you, even though I wouldn’t express myself as you do.

        (It’s rare to see someone comment who knows the data and history of divorce in America. I don’t necessarily agree with everything you say in this thread, but I do agree with the facts in this particular comment.)

        People didn’t divorce in the past because it was extremely expensive both financially and socially. So 150 years ago many marriages simply dissolved informally thorough widespread spousal disappearance/abandonment, which we can trace in U.S. data since the time of Abraham Lincoln. And the rate was quite high, even in 1860-1900. One spouse simply walked out and never returned and never filed for divorce. In an age of no driver’s licenses, no social security numbers, and no databases, this was fairly easy to do.

        And yes, people had to fabricate evidence of adultery, especially in New York State and South Carolina in the 1800s and 1900s, in order to get divorced since that was the only acceptable reason for divorce.

        -Anon 2

        • David Carlton

          Actually, in South Carolina prior to 1948, divorce was completely illegal for any reason; it was written into the state constitution. Needless to say, there was a lot of desertion; I used to be an archivist working with genealogical researchers, and this was a common finding of theirs.

  6. Tobin, great article, this is a topic I’m very interested in. Fascinated, actually!

    I just read an article by a SC family lawyer, about adultery and how the definition has been expanding over the years he’s been practicing. http://www.gregoryforman.com/blog/2010/09/maybe-were-stretching-the-definition-of-adultery-a-bit-too-far/

    The divorce court trend down south seems to be “throw adultery in there, see if it sticks.” Rep. Christine O’Donnell believes that a married person does not have the right to masturbate, apparently (what is her function as a wife if her husband can just please himself?), and many conservative Christians support this interpretation of adultery. You know, since a wife’s sole purpose in the biblical sense is to please her husband.

    I can’t help wonder if there’s a correlation between this expansion of adultery claims that is pressing on the courts and the increase in conservative evangelical divorce rate. Since adultery is a biblical sin, is this ridiculous legal precedent giving biblical legitimacy to dissolving marriages?

    I also find it kind of ironic that Evangelicals prefer to blame feminism for the increase in divorce rate – I sincerely doubt that a feminist would be inclined to divorce over masturbation habits.

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