Good News and Bad News in Marriage and Divorce Statistics

The subject of marriage is on many minds lately, not the least of which are journalists and the POTUS. I love nothing more than to sit in front of pages of population estimates by state or country, over time, and discern the stories in the numbers. Since you the reader probably aren’t likely in a position to be—or worse, have no interest in—indulging such an interest, I’ll save you the work and report some interesting factoids here. No politics from this quarter today, just numbers. Here are a few things I learned:

First, the sheer number of new marriages (i.e., weddings) has generally been decreasing, even while the population of the US continues to increase. For example, in the year 2000 there were 2.32 million new marriages in a population of 281 million persons. In 2010, however, there were 2.1 million new marriages, despite a growing population of 309 million persons.

Ergo, marriage is in retreat (and more so among the poor and working class, as data noted below will suggest), a slight uptick in 2010 notwithstanding.

Second, there has been change in the marriage-to-divorce ratio nationally. This is the statistic that most people (incorrectly) use when they state that “half of all marriages end in divorce.” The ratio has commonly hovered around 2-to-1 since no-fault divorce became a reality. (Before that, it was about 4-to-1 from 1950 to just before 1970.) In other words, this means for every two new marriages recorded in a given year, there is one divorce.

But that ratio has exhibited some change recently. In 2010, the ratio stood at 1.89-to-1, compared to 2.05-to-1 in 2000. Not a radical shift, but a notable one. The action is largely on the marriage side of the equation: the marriage rate has dropped 17 percent in 10 years, while the divorce rate has dropped 10 percent. The two tend to rise and fall together, but clearly not tightly so. People are being more selective about marrying, likely, and as a result there are fewer divorces.

Third, some states exhibit dramatically different stories here. The marriage rate in Mississippi has dropped 48 percent in 20 years (from 1990 to 2010), while their divorce rate has dropped 22 percent. Their ratio of new marriages to divorce is now 1.14-to-1, meaning that if you were going to go ahead and misinterpret that statistic the old-fashioned way, you’d say something like 88 percent of all marriages in Mississippi will end in divorce. Of course we don’t know the future, and any given year’s new marriages aren’t often also reflected as divorces that year—Hollywood goofballs notwithstanding—but the ratio tells us that there are nearly
as many divorces in Mississippi now as there are marriages. Not good.

So which state has the best ratio? Which means (to me at least) the most marriages relative to divorces…the blessed state of my birth: Iowa, where 2.9 new marriages were registered in 2010 for every one divorce. Sociologist Maria Kefalas wrote about Iowa as having many “marriage naturalists,” and it appears so. Even though I’ve been gone from the place since I was 13, cultural traces remain, no doubt.

I should admit that there is one state that artificially has a better ratio than Iowa, but let’s not be serious about counting it as best. It’s Nevada, whose whopper 38.3 marriage rate is so far out of step with the rest of the country, due to its marriage industry. But whereas many wealthy and unhappily-married Easterners used to flock to Nevada for its tolerant divorce laws, that’s no longer necessary. But it remains a marriage factory…for now. But look at this: its 38.3 rate is a fraction of what it was in 2000 (72.2) and before that, in 1990 (99.0). I’m sure that’s not lost on the wedding industry. Times are tough for Elvis impersonators, I suspect.

Indeed, only in Hawaii do we see a marriage rate that has not lost ground since 1990. (I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it has to do with a rise in “destination weddings,” since Hawaii’s elevated marriage rate—17.6—is second only to Nevada’s.). A few other states whose marriage rates haven’t dipped nearly so much as, say, Mississippi’s 48 percent plunge: West Virginia (7% dip, from 7.2 to 6.7), North Dakota (13% dip, from 7.5 in 1990 to 6.5 in 2010), and Vermont (15%, from 10.9 to 9.3).

And in the end, the reliable conclusion tends to remain true: states that exhibit lower divorce rates tend to exhibit lower marriage rates as well, signaling elevated inclination toward cohabitation as a longer-term relationship strategy.

p.s. Note to marrying couples: only you like the idea of a destination wedding. Seldom does anyone else in your orbit feel like spending loads of cash to fly someplace exotic to watch you tie the knot and chat for three minutes. Get married where you live.

Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Part 1 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Next week, I start my first online course in sociology of religion at the University of North Carolina, and I’m about as nervous about it as when I first entered the college classroom 5 years ago as a new professor. Despite my trepidation, I agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks who wrote in a recent column that online education can certainly be done easily and quite poorly, but that when top schools start adopted online education, amazing things could happen.

Coursera, a free online education service has created partnerships with top institutes of higher education. My graduate school alma matter, Princeton, has one sociology professor, the famous ethnographer Mitchell Duneier, teaching introduction to sociology online for six weeks starting on June 11, 2012.

When I tell people I am teaching online, I get strong and opposing reactions like from “I think online teaching is awesome!” to “I think online teaching will never work.” Others are a bit more moderate, saying, “Well, I will have to wait and see more before deciding what I think.”

[Read more…]

Gender and Christianity: Why Do Women Pray More?

Here’s a very interesting article by Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, about gender and prayer. Specifically, she takes on the issues of why women pray more than men, and the answer, she writes, is imagination.

Previously I blogged on the finding that Christian women experience God’s presence more frequently than do men, which would fit with Luhrmann’s general point.

Here’s Luhrmann’s article:

” Women pray more than men do. The 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that two-thirds of all women surveyed pray daily, while less than half of all men surveyed do. The Pew survey was unusually large, accounting for over 35,000 Americans, but gender differences in prayer frequency have been found before (notably by Paloma and Gallup in 1991). In fact, the observation is so common that among evangelicals, we hear it repeated as a cliché.

Why do women pray more? Some argue it’s because women are more conservative, that they stick more to tradition, while others believe it’s because women feel more responsible for their families’ health and well being than men do.

As an anthropologist studying religious behavior, I have a different explanation: Women pray more because women are more comfortable with their imaginations, and in order to pray, you need to use your imagination.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that God is a product of the imagination. I am instead noting that to know God intimately, you need to use your imagination, because the imagination is the means humans must use to know the immaterial. This, by the way, is something the church fathers knew well. For Augustine, the road to God ran through the mind. It is our own peculiar era that equates the imagination with the frivolous and the unreal. That is why contemporary Christians sometimes get nervous about the word imagination. But they shouldn’t. C. S. Lewis knew so well that the imagination was a path to God that he entitled a chapter of Mere Christianity “Let’s Pretend.” “Let us pretend,” Lewis writes, “to turn the pretence into a reality.”” (To read the rest)

Behind the Numbers: Asian Americans and Social Institutions

As part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Census provides a fact sheet of the latest numbers on this particular collection of ethnic groups that are bundled under this racial term. Ever wonder why the Census Bureau knows about racial characteristics of the US? Believe it or not, it’s in our Constitution!

Article I. Section 2 reads:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

As you can see, in order to figure out how many seats a given state should have in the House of Representatives, we had to count households. But counting people and households is a complicated and in some ways a political statement. As you can see, Native Americans weren’t counted and non-free persons were not counted as fully a person. For the most part these were African American slaves. After the Civil War and Emancipation, the 13th Amendment nullified the Three-Fifths Compromise and all citizens were by law to be counted as persons. So while we have a more equal system of counting in place, we still continue to count people by their racial and ethnic backgrounds to this day. We do this because American society continues to have fairly unequal outcomes in proportion to the racial groups identified in the Census. [Read more…]

Wolves in Gaudy Sheepskin Clothing

Fleecing the faithful,” it’s called. The sort of story featured on the front cover of Saturday’s New York Times tends to rankle everyone’s feathers, from the utterly agnostic to the truly devout. I might also add that such stories tend to surprise no one. There’s news here, to be sure, about grandchildren calling their grandparents out on their moral and fiscal crimes. But it’s hardly new news.

While it may raise eyebrows that Americans continue to bankroll televangelists—$20, $50, or $100 at a time—exactly why they continue to do so when such ministries are so self-evidently opulent and excessive remains something of a mystery to the rational mind. I suppose some would simply reply, “If you can believe in something as outlandish as basic Christian doctrine, then you can be convinced to do things as gullible as that, and worse.” Hmmm…perhaps. Perhaps not. Lots of us, religious or not, are capable—under the right conditions of charismatic authority and legitimation—of heinous evil. Has always been true.

Back to the Trinity Broadcasting Network. What has long perplexed me about TBN is their look. I don’t quite understand the appeal of their truly faux architecture, gaudy sets, and personal attire. Maybe it’s the simple Midwesterner in me, but is there really an audience in America who thinks that look is attractive? I recently drove past a TBN facility of some sort halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, and it stood out—an accomplishment in that area, let me tell you—for its outlandishness. To whom does this appeal? To North Texas Pentecostals over the age of 60? (I don’t know.) No, I haven’t been everywhere (unlike the Johnny Cash song), but the only places that seem comparably cheesy are old sections of Beverly Hills, or perhaps some parts of South Florida.

I presume that most of TBN’s checks aren’t coming from those quarters, but who knows—perhaps the health-and-wealth gospel is underwritten by the healthy and the wealthy, not the poorer and disabled, as many have long presumed. It’s an empirical question, of course, but one that’s only answerable by open access to accounting. And we know that’s unlikely. And yet the checks keep rolling in:

“Clearly, many viewers have heartfelt responses. In 2010, TBN received $93 million in tax-exempt donations, according to its tax report. The company also had $64 million in additional income from sales of airtime and $17 million in investment income that year. It spent $194 million operating its far-flung network and investing in new programs. The company was in the red for the year, but could draw on its cushion of $325 million in cash and investments.”

It may sound like a lot, but it’s comparatively not. Think about it: if 1 out of every 337 Americans gave TBN $100 bucks this year, $93 million is exactly what they’d take in. For comparison, say a 6000-member suburban congregation witnessed, per capita, about $1500 in the offering plate in a year; there’s $9 million–and that’s just one congregation.

I nevertheless take some heart in the mass antagonism toward the small minority of Christian ministers who live opulent lives, whether honestly gained or ill-gotten. Because there remains a seed in all of us that just knows that the lives of the shepherds are to be more Christ-like than that. (Can you imagine St. Francis of Assisi staying here, in a hotel and city named after him?)

People expect better of shepherds, as they ought. Give them neither poverty nor wealth, I pray. And the same for me. (All of this raises disturbing questions about my own feeble level of generosity and excessive self-concern.)

Finally, let’s remember to retain some perspective here. After all the Christian hand-wringing, sheepish looks, and obligatory “we’re not all like that” apologies—blah, blah, blah—the fact remains that there is an extraordinary amount of legal-but-immoral wealth out there already, and little of it has been gotten by way of preaching in front of cameras or building cheesy theme parks. Plenty of modern wealth has been built upon fleecing people by more socially-acceptable means, including convincing people of things they “need” but cannot afford, or by—gasp—creating silly, time-wasting games and selling millions of them. Indeed, apparently my fair city’s tech future relies on such foolish sources of income. There are many ways to fleece, whether by taxation, donation, or clever marketing.

But as noted above, we expect better from (so-called) believers. I hope we always do.