D-I-V-O-R-C-E in the boonies

In the early 2000s, in my time as religion editor of The Oklahoman, Oklahoma’s then-Gov. Frank Keating always made for an interesting interview.

Whether sparring with Pope John Paul II on the death penalty or talking about his role with the church’s U.S. sexual abuse review board, Keating — a Roman Catholic — had a knack for supplying exceptional quotes.

In 2002, I wrote a series of stories on Keating’s effort to reduce the Bible Belt state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate. I used one of my all-time favorite Keating quotes in the lead story in that series:

Spousal abuse, adultery and abandonment constitute legitimate grounds for divorce, the governor said.

“But most marriages end because one party or the other is simply bored or decides that they want to have a new Jaguar,” he said.

Writing about marriage in my home state gave me some insight into the subject and whetted my appetite for news reports on divorce-rate trends.

I was fascinated by tmatt’s “Dissecting big Christian divorce myth” post last week.

And, yes, I couldn’t wait to read a New York Times story today with this headline:

Once Rare in Rural America, Divorce Is Changing the Face of Its Families

Unfortunately, the Times piece is haunted by what we at GetReligion refer to as ghosts, not to mention misleading statistical analysis.

The top of the story:

SIOUX COUNTY, Iowa — In the 1970s, the divorce rate was so low in this rural northwest Iowa County that it resembled the rest of America in the 1910s. Most of its 28,000 residents were churchgoers, few of its women were in the work force, and divorce was simply not done.

So it is a bitter mark of modernity that even here, divorce has swept in, up nearly sevenfold since 1970, giving the county the unwelcome distinction of being a standout in this category of census data.

Divorce is still less common here than the national average, but its sharp jump illustrates a fundamental change in the patterns of family life.

Now, we Americans live in a nation that increasingly blends one emotional and entertainment culture — a U.S.A., if you will, of cable/wifi. So maybe it’s not surprising that the distinctions between rural, suburban and urban have become less distinct.

But that obvious societal transformation aside, let’s start with the facts in this story: The community’s divorce rate is up nearly sevenfold since 1970, making this county “a standout in this category of census data.” That sounds bad!

Look at the numbers closer, though: The Times reports that there were more than 52 married people for every divorced person in this county in 1980 (not sure why the lede refers to 1970 and the body of the report uses 1980 figures). Now, there are just 14 married people for every divorced person, according to the story. That sounds bad!

But how does the current divorce rate compare to the rest of the nation? You’ll have to do your own math because the Times doesn’t compare apples and oranges in the story. But the story does include this:

Nationally, there were about 121 million married adults and 26 million divorced people in 2009, compared with about 100 million married and 11 million divorced people in 1980.

OK, according to my calculator, there were nine married people for every divorced person in America in 1980. Now, there are 4.65 married people for every divorced person.

What does that mean in the context of this story? Well, it means that the note that “Divorce is still less common here than the national average” might qualify for Understatement of the Year. In fact, this county boasts a divorce rate that is one-third of the national average. That sounds good!

Meanwhile, in its effort to explain the increasing divorce rate in Sioux County, the Times resorts to vague, generic (stereotypical?) language about values and Christians.

We learn that:

Craig Lane, a divorce lawyer from the area, described the county’s conservative nature like this: “If steam is coming from your dryer vent on Sunday, you’ll hear about it from your neighbor.”

Time has worn away some of its old values. These days, Sioux Center looks more like a suburb than a village. There is a McDonald’s and a mall, where residents shop to the sound of Christian music.

What old values? What kind of Christian music — old-time gospel or screamo rock? And, just for the fun of it, exactly how do Big Macs contribute to the demise of marriages?

We learn about the divorce of a woman named Nancy Vermeer:

When Ms. Vermeer divorced in 2002, she became the first teacher in her Christian school to do so. Divorce was more common than it had been in past decades, but she still felt judged, so she developed habits to keep a low profile, like going to the grocery when no one she knew would be there.

Does her Christian school have a denominational affiliation? An official policy on teachers divorcing? Is Vermeer herself a Christian — if so, what kind?

We learn that a young pastor of an unnamed church is trying to fight taboo topics like divorce in this community (which seems like a strange fight to have to wage in a place where people are reportedly divorcing like crazy these days, but I digress):

“There’s a perception here that you need to be perfect,” said the Rev. John Lee, a young pastor who has tried to encourage change in Sioux County by taking on taboo topics like divorce and mental illness in his sermons.

“Cars are washed, lawns are mowed in patterns and children are smiling,” Mr. Lee added. “When you admit weakness, you invite shame.”

The reason can be traced to Sioux County’s roots. About 80 percent of residents, most of whom are descendants of Dutch immigrants, belong to a major denomination church, compared with 36 percent of all Americans.

What does that even mean — belong to a major denomination church? Besides the generic unnamed church where the young pastor ministers, what are the major congregations in this town? What do those churches’ leaders teach and have to say about the climbing divorce rate here and nationwide?

We learn that:

Sioux Center might be rural, but it is relatively affluent, buoyed by a biotech industry and a stable manufacturing base. Its Christian college, Dordt, is a major presence.

What is Dordt’s denominational affiliation? (Click here if you’d really like to know, but don’t bother looking for that detail in the story.)

Oh, it probably doesn’t matter. The important thing to know about divorce in this community is this: The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Just ask Chicken Little — er, the Times.

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • mer

    A question on those numbers: does a “married person” refer to someone who has only been married once, or to anyone who is currently married (and possibly has been divorced one or more times)? Wouldn’t that distinction greatly change how we interpret the data?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby


    I’m not sure if the census stats include the number of marriages or not. I think never-married is a category, however, and that might be an interesting stat, as well.

  • http://www.religionpoliticsmedia.com Jim Dahlman

    Thanks for this. When I read the Times’ piece, I got the distinct feeling that the reporters knew — just KNEW — religion was part of the story but couldn’t quite figure out how … to … say … it. That’s my more charitable scenario. Or there’s my less charitable scenario: They were speaking in code, as in, “We know what these conservative Christian types are like. We’ll just make the usual allusions and labels and everyone will know what — and who — we’re talking about. No need to really explain any of this.”

  • Dave

    Mer’s question cuts the ground out from under the statistical analysis. They need a category of “married, never divorced” to straighten this out.

  • John M

    Can I just say that as a consumer of news it drives me crazy when people put newer numbers in front of older numbers? It took me twice as long to parse the following:
    “Nationally, there were about 121 million married adults and 26 million divorced people in 2009, compared with about 100 million married and 11 million divorced people in 1980.”

    as it would have if it had been written:

    “Nationally, there were about 100 million married adults and 11 million divorced people in 1980, compared with 121 million married and 26 million divorced people in 2009.”

    It’s equally maddening when people write things like, “the company’s stock price fell to $80 in February, compared to a 52-week high of $123 in December.” (Try: “the company’s stock price fell from a 52-week high of $123 in December to $80 in February.”)


  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin

    FYI, Rev. Lee’s church is mentioned in the margins. A rather roundabout way to get the information out, but it’s there.

    I grew up in Sioux County, and my parents still live there. Yes, we’re pretty rural, and yes we’re VERY Dutch. Like most people from rural parts far removed from the coasts, we’re sort of used to being looked at like an example from an anthropology textbook.

    There are bunch of oddities about this story that are more than a little amusing for us who know the area. For some reason they choose a small “Wayside Chapel” in the country to demonstrate that Sioux Center feels less rural. It’s surrounded by farm land.

    And the major denominations are The Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Both are of the Dutch Reformed movement — a fact that would have taken a few seconds to confirm for the authors. Most of the Christian High Schools in Sioux County are CRC, save a few smaller ones run by smaller Reformed offshoots. Again, a few seconds to give the story more depth.

    The biggest thing to me is how none of this says how Sioux County’s divorce rate fares to the rest of the country, how it was 40 years ago, or how much it compares to other heavily-religious areas. Is it far less than, say, the Bible Belt? New York? Utah? The story’s not very helpful.

    And for those who care, the mall plays the local radio stations last time I was there — including Dordt College’s. There was a Hardees 30-40 years ago, a Wal-Mart 20 years ago, and a mall for over 15. It’s no suburb, but this hasn’t been considered a village in a very long time.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    FYI, Rev. Lee’s church is mentioned in the margins. A rather roundabout way to get the information out, but it’s there.

    Thanks, Justin. I did note (and consider mentioning) that the photographer did include the church name in the photo caption. But the story has to stand on its own — at a small-town weekly and especially at The New York Times.

    Appreciate the other background, too.

  • kristy

    I appreciate Justin’s additional info. It wouldn’t have taken much for the journalist’s to include it in the story. One wonders if keeping that information OUT of the story was an attempt to generalize from “Iowa town with strong Dutch Reformed roots” to “Midwesterners who go to church.”

    It WAS annoying to read, because I know the background of Sioux City and that area, and I was waiting to find out what that background might mean in the story, but it was just ignored. There was also a lack of investigating the diversity in the county, and whether changes in types of population would have skewed numbers. Too many unanswered questions.

  • k.c.thomas

    One who knows the realmeaning of LOVE andone who wants to abide by God”s law and naturallaw will not resort to divorce. Let there be more awareness