Breaking news (again): Bible Belt divorce rates high

News travels fast. Sometimes.

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

As religion editor of The Oklahoman in 2002, I wrote a series of stories on Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating’s effort to reduce my home state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate.

Nearly a decade later, CNN became the latest to report that — surprise, surprise — D-I-V-O-R-C-E is a problem in the red states.

Just last week, I referenced Oklahoma’s high divorce rate again in analyzing coverage of a federal judge striking down the Sooner State’s ban on same-sex marriage. However, I added:

But lest anyone jump to the easy conclusion that there’s no difference between people sitting in the pews and everyone else when it comes to divorce, be sure to read Religion Newswriters Association president Bob Smietana’s recent Facts & Trends piece on “bad stats.”

So why do I bring up all of the above one more time?

Because the Los Angeles Times just published a story on a new study examining the issue:

Divorce is higher among religiously conservative Protestants – and even drives up divorce rates for other people living around them, a new study finds.

The study, slated to be published in the American Journal of Sociology, tackles the “puzzling paradox” of why divorce is more common in religiously conservative “red” states. If religious conservatives believe firmly in the value of marriage, why is divorce especially high in places like Alabama and Arkansas?

To figure that out, researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Iowa analyzed county divorce statistics against information from an earlier study of religious congregations. They categorized Protestant denominations that believe the Bible is literally true as “conservative Protestants.”

Researchers discovered that higher divorce rates among conservative Protestants were tied to earlier marriages and childbearing – factors known to ramp up divorce. Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages, University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer Glass said.

Unfortunately, the Times story is shallow (less than 500 words) and relies on stereotypes:

County by county, for every 1% increase in the share of conservative Protestants compared with mainline Protestants, the divorce rate increased 0.02%, the study found. Glass argued that community institutions in such areas might encourage early marriage, affecting divorce rates for everyone who lives there.

“Pharmacies might not give out emergency contraception. Schools might only teach abstinence education,” Glass added. On top of that, “if you live in a marriage market where everybody marries young, you postpone marriage at your own risk. The best catches … are going to go first.”

No, the Times doesn’t provide any concrete examples of counties where real evidence suggests those “might” factors are at play. Nor does the newspaper quote any actual religious leaders or ordinary church members — married or divorced — in those overly generalized bastions of conservative Protestantism.

The Times also fails to explore the potential factor of race. Blacks have higher rates of divorce than whites. And as tmatt has noted, there is more racial diversity in conservative pews — especially among charismatics and Pentecostals — than in mainline churches.

So we’re left — not for the first time — with a cotton-candy headline (“More religiously conservative Protestants? More divorce, study finds”) and a story that lacks any real meat.

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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.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    I share your skepticism about the alleged causes of the higher divorce rate. That said, one of the reasons that non-Christians won’t give up “same-sex marriage” is that Christians won’t give up divorce.

    Stated another way, only when revival takes place in Christians will the moral slide of broader society be slowed.

  • http://www.carmelites.net/ James

    Great article. Loved the link on the bad statistics… It’s a shame that the same sloppy stats keep getting regurgitated over and over again. Confirmation bias to the extreme.

  • Christopher Pittman

    I don’t doubt the divorce rate numbers of Bible Belt states. I live in Tennessee and personally know several young couples who divorced before their first anniversary. But, as tmatt has pointed out on several occasions, the people who consistently show up for Sunday night church services are the ones who take their faith most seriously. If I remember correctly the Sunday night crowd makes up about 20% of a church’s congregation. I would be interested to see the divorce rate among those folks. My gut tells me it would be lower than the general population.

  • cvg

    Sounds like the problem with the statistical reporting is a lack of mathematical literacy / context. A valid comparison would need to account for the religious population that otherwise would just have cohabitated like their secular counter parts.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks for the comments!

  • Darren Blair

    My suggestion: a county-by-county breakdown in which we see both the divorce rates and the population numbers per county so as to determine if there’s a correlation between population and divorce rate.

    If there’s a situation in which a county with a small population has a high divorce rate, then we need to determine if the high rate is a statistical aberration due to the population characteristics (for example, there are few marriages in the first place, and so even one divorce can shoot the rate up) or if there might actually be something to consider.

  • strongfathersstrongfamilies

    There is something that is missing in the discussion. The divorce rate is high among those that MARRY. Many if not most couples not from a religious background (and some that are) are not marrying but “co-habitating” AKA the PC term for “shacking up”. The research shows these relationships are stronger than we would think but still not as solid as married relationships. The reason divorce rate is high in the Bible belt is because of too much divorce but also because conservative Christians are one of the few groups still actually getting married. The Times article is a farce. They come to the country and to the south and go straight to the trailer park, laundry mat, or local WIC office and put conservatives in the same pot as poor and disenfranchised. As well, it is disturbing that marriages are breaking up over finances. Not because folks do not have enough to live on, but they do not have as much stuff as they think they deserve. Blue collar and working poor families are not splitting up half as fast as middle and upper income families in the same states. They can’t afford to pay for the legal action and cannot survive well without the relationship.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      The story does include this note:

      The study also found that it was not poverty nor higher rates of marriage, on the whole, that were driving up divorce in “red” counties, as others had theorized.

      Alas, the piece fails to provide any details or context to back up that statement.

  • wmrharris

    It seems that with an academic study causes necessarily have to be framed as “might.” It’s not really a failure to report, it’s a limitation of the study itself. What the study evidently did, to judge by the linked map, is compare incidents of divorce with levels of conservative belief. The map does not track the usual concentrations of blacks in the south (this undercuts the racial suggestion), but instead reveals that the heaviest combination of divorce rate and religious belief lay in a strip from the Ozarks to W Va, picking up Tennessee especially. This is the upland south, and in that sense the observed correlation is likely more cultural in character than specifically religiously derived.

  • Barbara

    I was visiting a friend in Texas recently who got married last year at the age of 22. I myself just turned 24, and while I would love to get married, I have no intention on doing so anytime soon. I am from New Jersey, and while I know a couple people my age who are getting married soon, the vast majority are not. My Texas friend asked about this, and then suggested that the north’s divorce rate must be a lot higher since we get married later. I have long known about the actual statistics, but I didn’t have the heart to correct my friend. I hope her marriage lasts, but then again, she did know the guy for less than a year before she married him.

    • Jim Van

      Knew him for < yr? Red flag alert!


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