Anonymous source confirms: Couples divorce

News travels fast. Sometimes.

Back in 1999, The Associated Press reported on Bible Belt states battling the highest divorce rates in the nation.

As religion editor of The Oklahoman nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of stories on Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating’s effort to reduce the state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate (I reflected on that series in a GetReligion post earlier this year).

Enter CNN with breaking news this week — in the year 2011:

(CNN) – While the Bible Belt is known for its devotion to traditional values, Southerners don’t do so well on one key family value: They are more likely to get divorced than people living in the Northeast.

Southern men and women had higher rates of divorce in 2009 than their counterparts in other parts of the country: 10.2 per 1,000 for men and 11.1 per 1,000 for women, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.

By comparison, men and women in the Northeast had the lowest rates of divorce, 7.2 and 7.5 per 1,000, which is also lower than the national divorce rate of 9.2 for men and 9.7 for women.

“In the South, there are higher rates of marriage and higher rates of divorce for men and women,” said Diana Elliott, a family demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau and co-author of the new report. “In the Northeast, you have people who are delaying first marriages, and consequently there are lower rates of marriage and lower rates of divorce.”

Keep reading, and CNN quotes a variety of experts. However, for a story about the Bible Belt, there’s a glaring absence of religious voices in the story, except for one Georgia author and minister. There’s no mention of the resolution passed by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in 2010 on “The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce.” (By the way, ReligionLink provided a nice primer this month for Godbeat reporters covering marriage and divorce. And a Wall Street Journal column this week provided an enlightening take on how the media frame bad news and religion.)

But four of the lamest paragraphs ever written by a major news organization tell you all you need to know about the level of reporting in this CNN piece:

A divorced mother of two who grew up in Virginia and is now living in the Atlanta area, Lynn (not her real name) said she knows why her eight-year marriage failed. She and her ex-husband got married after a whirlwind three-month courtship, and she now knows, “You really don’t know somebody after three months.”

She didn’t have a college degree when she got married, although she did eventually graduate from college and is now a teacher.

Lynn said she can see some reasons that Southerners divorce at higher rates than the nation as a whole.

“Where I grew up in Virginia, I saw some of my peers not finishing high school, some not going to college and some not finishing college,” she said. “I saw a lot of people just staying in my hometown, staying in dead-end jobs, just settling, taking very little risk-taking for their careers.”

Seriously, CNN?

Did CNN really just grant anonymity to a source to allow her to share the shocking news that she married too soon and it didn’t work out? I used a pseudonym like that in a high school cheating story one time, but my excuse is that I was writing for the high school newspaper at the time.

Are there no divorced mothers of two willing to go on the record in Atlanta? It’s been a few years since I visited the CNN Center, but I bet CNN could send an intern down to the mall food court and find at least one divorcee — or 50 — willing to speak on the record and use her real name in a story such as this.

If the goal is producing actual journalism, quoting a named source would be a step in the right direction.

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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.

  • Mike

    There’s a difference between living in the Bible Belt and being a regular church-goer and living in the Bible Belt. By focusing on the term “Bible Belt” rather than the geographical area of “South,” the piece implies that we all attend church, share the same family values and should therefore have a lower divorce rate. If they want to bring the Bible Belt into the equation, they should compare the number of divorces of those attending church regularly with the none church goers. It could also compare the divorce rates between urban and rural, white, Hispanic, black, Asian, etc. Bottom line, however, the article never backs up its assertion in the lead that because we’re in the Bible Belt, i.e. we’re more religious, we have stronger family values. The main reason is covered later in the story — lower education levels, marrying younger, marrying too soon, etc. Unless you’re prepared to back it up, keep the Bible out of it.

  • Denny

    I wonder what is the marriage rate in the Northeast? Could the lower marriage rate be a cause to the lower divorce rate?

  • Elijah

    I’m glad you posted this because I read that story this morning and thought “What on earth does the Bible have to do with this story?” Mike is right – the story does on to discuss almost every reason marriages fail except faith. Here I thought perhaps I was being too cynical…

  • Dave

    The article does get into relevant moral issues, dourness about premarital sex and pressure for early marriage. The reporter uses “Bible Belt” as a synonym for the South and perhaps should be criticized for that.

  • Sean P

    Mike is right on the spot, other tests have shown that those who are ACTIVE members of conservative Protestant churches are actually less likely to divorce.

  • Ann

    Pew Research did not find a strong connection between religion and divorce rate. They found a correlation between age when married and the following:

    ” Some state-level patterns of marriage and divorce correlate with the overall socioeconomic characteristics and political behavior in those states. This does not mean that one pattern causes the other to happen, only that both tend to be true in the same place.”

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1380/marriage-and-divorce-by-state

  • Dale

    Ann wrote:

    Pew Research did not find a strong connection between religion and divorce rate

    What Pew Research actually said:

    Religiosity was expressed as the proportion of a state’s residents who said in response to a survey that religion was “very important” in their life.4 However, this analysis did not find a strong association between a state’s religiosity and its marriage or divorce patterns.

    A statement that “religion is very important in my life” is so subjective and vague as to be meaningless. Thus, I don’t think the Pew surveys have much at all to say about a correlation between actual religious practice (like attending services and religious education) and divorce.

  • Dave G.

    Several folks here bring up some good points that suggest the attempt to link Bible Belt with divorce may be missing some vital stats and consideration of other factors.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    How come noone looks at the divorce rate of different religions. The Bible Belt is overwhelmingly Protestant–the Northeast is the most Catholic. I grew up in a mixed religion household (mother Methodist-father Catholic) and always heard from both sides of the family that”Catholics can’t divorce–Protestants can divorce.” It is, of course not as simple as that, but such a religious culture must have some effect.
    Also, I read somewhere that Hasidic Jews have about the lowest divorce rate in America.

  • Amy P

    Also, the NE is old, while the South is a lot younger.

  • Jerry

    The CNN report also ignores the old news that atheists and agnostics get divorced at a lower rate compared to other religions. http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_dira.htm

  • Elijah

    So the South = the Bible Belt? All southerners are now Christians? You just committed all of the errors we’re commenting on!

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    Does a higher level of religiosity in the South than in the Northeast, presumably manifested in public policy, do anything to reduce rates of divorce, after accounting for differences in age and religious composition? That i what I would like to know.

  • Henry

    It’s also interesting to consider that divorce rates do not typically include cohabitating couples that break up. That makes sense if one wants to measure strictly the number of legal divorces that occur, but it is perhaps inadvisable to use that data alone to make generalizations or insinuations about the effects of religious practice on long-term commitment in relationships.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks for all the comments. A lot of excellent points and questions.

    Another angle for reporters to explore might be: The federal government has spent millions of dollars on healthy family programs (read: efforts to reduce the divorce rate) in states such as Oklahoma and California. It would be interesting to see if — after a decade-plus of such funding — there are any examples of those programs reducing the divorce rate, and what role religious communities have played.

  • Harris

    The role of income and marriage stability is one that has been explored especially by the sociologists W Bradford Wilcox and Andrew Cherlin. Their paper to the American Sociologist Association last week (No Money, No Honey, No Church) further calls to attention the decline of church attendance on the part of moderately educated whites.

    Note, that a generation ago, this social group had greater involvement in the church than its college-educated peers. So a reasonable hypothesis linking broken marriages and religion my lie in the changing prospects of this once important segment of the Evangelical church. That’s a fancy way of saying that the Evangelicals have grown middle class and left more of their lesser educated peers behind.


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