Evangelical Author Shaunti Feldhahn’s Misleading Work on Marriage and Divorce

Evangelical Author Shaunti Feldhahn’s Misleading Work on Marriage and Divorce July 30, 2015

Ladies Against Feminism recently linked to a Western Journalism article from last year, written by Matt Barber and titled “You May Have Heard That The Divorce Rate In The Church Is 50% . . . Get Ready To Be Shocked.” I clicked through because the overall divorce rate isn’t 50%, and I’ve known that for years.  Heck, a New York Times article addressed exactly this myth in an article last year as well:

Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist (who also contributes to The Upshot).

Just afterward, Jezebel covered this point as well:

Our steady upswing in putting up with each other is easily explained by a handful of factors. Here are the some of the reasons Miller cites for the decline:

  • More permissive attitudes
  • Waiting longer to marry
  • Birth control
  • Cohabiting first and breaking up rather than marrying
  • Marrying for love, so they actually like each other
  • Fewer people are getting married overall
  • Greater acceptance of single-parent households
  • Feminism

If you think about it, this only makes sense. With less pressure to marry in the past, people are taking more time to make sure they’re sure before getting married, and some people who would have aren’t. The overall result is that the marriages being created are on the whole stronger right off the bat. Yes, people still get divorced, but a variety of factors—largely driven by feminism—have brought the divorce rate down. Sociologists have been talking about this for years.

And if you think about it, it’s also really hard to calculate what percentage of marriages will end in divorce, because the people getting divorced in any given year are people who married in previous years, and sometimes many many years before, and who can say how many of this year’s marriages will end in divorce when saying that requires looking fifty years down the road? Social scientists know this, and say this, but journalists tend to prefer quoting quick stats without all of that pesky context, and it is those stats that people remember.

Now let’s return to the Western Journalism article:

This is a game-changer. Talk about “an old wives’ tale.” You’ve heard it said that 1) 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce; 2) most marriages that do happen to make it are, nonetheless, unhappy, and 3) Christians are just as likely to divorce as non-believers.

These claims, long understood to be research-based facts, never quite sat right with me. Still, admittedly, while these assertions do swim upstream against the flow of both our common sense and our common experience, we have, nevertheless, accepted them (present company included) as valid because – well, you know, because “social science …”

As it turns out, your gut was right. It’s all nonsense – urban legend of a sort, propagated, most likely, by the same post-moderns who today seek to similarly undermine the God-designed institution of legitimate man-woman marriage by redefining it into oblivion.

Shaunti Feldhahn is a Harvard-trained researcher and author. In her recently released book, “The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths about Marriage and Divorce,” Feldhahn details groundbreaking findings from an extensive eight-year study on marriage and divorce.

Social scientists (who are by and large the “post-moderns” referred to here) are not the ones who have “propagated” the 50% of marriages end in divorce statistic, and Feldhahn’s new book is not a “game-changer” in explaining that this stat is wrong. Social scientists have long known the problem with the oft-quoted state that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and they’ve long known that divorce rates are declining. There is no coverup here. If anything, there’s a popular misunderstanding of how social science works.

In fact, the place I’ve heard the 50% stat trumpeted the most is on the Right, as a sign of the collapse of our society. It’s those on the Left that have been saying, hey wait a minute, feminism hasn’t destroyed marriage, it’s improved it! News that the divorce rate has been dropping and that young people marrying today have stronger marriages than in the past shows the triumph of feminism, making it somewhat distasteful to those on the Right, who would generally rather portray Millennials as the spawn of Satan (I exaggerate, but not by much).

There are other stats, too. Marriage is increasingly becoming the purview of the rich, and the divorce rate is mostly declining among the middle class and wealthy, and working class individuals are still subject to a variety of economic and cultural issues that make marriages more rocky and lead to a far higher divorce rate, but I doubt Feldhahn’s book even gets into that given that I haven’t seen it mentioned in any of the blurbing.

Let me give you a couple of blogs run by sociologists that cover some of these issues and are really fascinating. The first is Peter Cohen’s Family Inequality, and the second is the Society Pages, run by the University of Minnesota’s Department of Sociology. These blogs are absolutely solid. I’ve read them for years and I consider them crucial reading.

But let’s talk about Feldhahn’s new book for a second. First of all, let’s talk about Feldhahn’s credentials. The Western Journalism article describes Feldhahn as a “Harvard-trained researcher and author.” Curious, I went to her website but could not find a CV or university affiliation anywhere. So I clicked on “Biography“:

Shaunti received her graduate degree from Harvard University and was an analyst on Wall Street before unexpectedly becoming a social researcher and best-selling author and popular speaker. 

What did she study at Harvard? Her biography didn’t say. So I clicked on “My Personal Life” and found nothing in the text, but I did find links to “My Story” and “My Beliefs.” And that’s who I finally found this:

I then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to go to Harvard for graduate school. I got a Master in Public Policy with a concentration in business in 1994, taking all my core classes (and earning my degree from) Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and taking my electives at Harvard Business School. For those who are wondering, an MPP is an analytical, quantitatively-oriented degree that is a bit like a business degree, but for working with anything in the public interest.

Not every researcher has to have a university affiliation, and degrees are not the be-all end-all to knowledge. It’s absolutely possible to be self-taught and write books for popular audiences. The problem is that the Christian and conservative news sites that cover her work present her Harvard credentials without saying what she studied, and she does not appear eager to correct their misleading presentation of her and her work. They present her as a ground-breaking Harvard-trained social science researcher—a label she claims herself—and that is, again, seriously misleading. She is not making new social science discoveries, she is at best presenting existing social science research to laypeople.

Check out how the Christian Broadcast Network presents her:

ATLANTA — Most people believe only half of U.S. marriages make it. But a leading researcher is announcing the true divorce rate is much lower and always has been.

Shaunti Feldhahn received her research training at Harvard.

Feldhahn is a popular author, not a “leading researcher.” And note, again, the quick flash of Feldhahn’s Harvard credentials. Look, I’m in graduate school myself. I could someday do some independent research and write a book for popular audiences in a field I’d never studied. If I did this, however, I would be very careful to be clear that my professional training was not in that field. To do otherwise is misleading. Having a graduate degree does not make you an expert in every field, it makes you an expert in one field (and yes, gives you some useful skills that may transfer, but that only goes so far).

Perhaps Feldhahn does correct people about this. If so, the problem here is not her, but a Christian and conservative media eager to use the Harvard label to promote the credibility of her books.

What about the content of Feldhahn’s book itself? While I haven’t read her book on divorce, I’ve read her books For Men Only and For Women Only. My mother gave them to my husband and I, probably thinking we would find them useful. They are full of cliches and stereotypes about men and women, accompanied by a strong helping of God-talk. The books are not scholarly works of research, they are pithy collections of just-so stories, self-help books that border on devotionals.

Feldhahn’s books are popular among evangelicals and appear to have some popularity beyond that as well. And that’s fine! Her writing style is interesting and she is definitely funny, so I can see why. But Feldhahn is a Christian author first and a researcher second. To be clear, there are plenty of Christians who do good research in the social sciences, including evangelicals. Feldhahn, though, does not have a university affiliation and appears to be more author (especially devotional author) than academic. Check out this excerpt from her description of one of her books:

What do you crave to make you happy? …every day is filled with things we want and crave. Things that will make us feel good at least for a moment. But what happens when that moment is gone and the need returns? There’s nothing wrong with wanting certain things, but God didn’t create us to rely on those things to make us happy. He created us to crave Him, and a happiness that lasts.

Now on some level, this is not a problem—after all, there are plenty of situations where academics are (for whatever reason) unable to effectively communicate their findings to the public, and an educated layperson is able to come along and present their findings in a more accessible way. Rick Perlstein does this truly excellently with history, and even Bart Ehrman, who is himself an academic, does this to some extent (after all, he writes for a popular audience and isn’t presenting his own findings, but rather those of the discipline). Perhaps Feldhahn is uniquely situated to communicate what sociologists already know about marriage to an evangelical audience.

There are still two problem here, though. First, Feldhahn has an agenda, and that agenda does not involve educating the public about the complicated and fascinating thing that is the sociological work on marriage. No, that agenda involves talking married couples out of getting divorces, because God. Second, Feldhahn appears to prefer relying on simplistic tropes to actually delving into complicated issues. The beauty of Perlstein and Ehrman’s work is that they make the complicated issues of specific disciplines—history, in Perlstein’s case, and biblical and early Christian studies, in Ehrman’s case—accessible to laypeople. Based on the excerpts I have read of her work, Feldhahn does not do this. As you can see from her biography, she is not approaching this issue as either an academic or an educator:

In The Good News About Marriage, Shaunti Feldhahn presents groundbreaking research that reveals the shocking, incredibly inspiring truth about marriage such as the actual average divorce rate has never come close to 50%, church attendance makes a HUGE difference! (The Barna data is misunderstood.), and most marriages are strong and happy for a lifetime! One of the main reasons couples even open the door to the possibility of divorce is due to the myth that half of all marriages end in divorce.

Feldhahn got with Barna to look only at the divorce rate for individuals who reported having attended church the previous Sunday, and found that the rate of divorce for these presumably regular church attenders was lower as compared to the rate of divorce among those who had not attended church the previous Sunday. See her explanation here:

Another very important finding was that the rate of divorce is not the same in the church. That is a misunderstanding of Barna Group data – because Barna was not trying to study divorce “in the church.” They were studying beliefs, so those who said they held Christian beliefs had the same divorce rate as those who said they didn’t. But since Barna wasn’t studying actions, the researchers didn’t include worship attendance in the analysis.

So I partnered with Barna and we re-ran the numbers: and if the person was in church the prior week, their divorce rate dropped 27% compared to those who weren’t! Many studies have found that church attendance drops the divorce rate 25-50% compared to those who don’t attend.

A good researcher would look at the lower divorce rate among couples who attend church regularly and ask why. Are regular church attenders are likely to be better educated or more financially secure, factors we know correlates with more stable marriages? Perhaps couples who attend church are more likely to receive premarital counseling and less likely than others to marry on a whim? Maybe regular church attenders are more likely to believe divorce is wrong, and to stay in unhappy marriages? Perhaps having a strong social network (such as that found in church) lessens the chances of divorce? Maybe regular church attendance, like college graduation, is a measure of someone’s tendency to follow through once having made a commitment? Or maybe, since Feldhahn was looking at current church attendance and asking about past divorces, couples who divorce are likely to leave the church because they feel judged, or inadequate?

Feldhahn does none of this. Instead, she takes the number and uses it to pressure couples not to divorce (see her statement that “one of the main reasons” couples consider divorce is that they believe divorce is common)—indeed, trying to prevent couples from divorcing appears to be the main goal of her book. This is not what an academic does. Feldhahn’s argument that the divorce rate has “never come close to 50%” is also misleading, as the 50% stat is based on data from the 1970s when divorce rates were at their peak—and for some demographics, did come close to 50%.

The issue is not so much that divorce rates were never close to 50% but rather that they’ve come down, thanks in part to feminism (or rather, thanks to changing patterns and approaches to marriage). But you’re not going to see that in Feldhahn’s book. There is a lot of really good really interesting sociological research out there on marriage and divorce, but the Christian press’s misleading portrayal of Feldhahn’s book as authoritative because it’s written by a Harvard-trained expert may make evangelicals only less likely read any of that.

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