The media will occasionally peruse academic journals to find expert support for narratives it wants to tell. Though the anti-divorce effects of religiosity and active conservative religiosity has been well documented in the scholarly literature, for the most part, the media has been uninterested in that story. But recently, it latched on to a new study which purports to question those findings. I’ve read the article and observed many of the same problems noted in this thorough review from Family Studies (excerpt below):
A few intriguing findings in the article are likely to get buried in mass media coverage of the main storyline. Early in the article, Glass and Levchak point out that “the average county would double its divorce rate as its proportion conservative Protestant moved from 0 to 100%,” but then they note “this effect is much smaller than the unaffiliated effect which is almost three times larger [emphasis mine].” The evidence from this article does not suggest that marriages would be better off in non-religious contexts but actually points in the opposite direction. Additionally, the authors find that higher concentrations of conservative Protestants are associated with lower levels of cohabitation, which reduces divorce rates. Glass and Levchak’s later analyses show that these pro-marriage effects are offset by the aforementioned divorce risks of early marriage and lower educational attainment, but this finding nonetheless uncovers some anti-divorce factors in conservative Protestant counties. And most intriguing among these less-touted findings is that counties with the highest proportion of conservative Protestants (the top quartile) actually showed no elevated risk of divorce.
[Next] “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce” leaves out a very important element to the story. While religious affiliation tells us something important about how religious groups impact divorce, it doesn’t tell us everything. Headlines featuring this article are likely to conjure images of active conservative Protestants, the ones who actually occupy pews on Sunday mornings and who, presumably, take to heart the pro-marriage messages of the movement. According to the logic of the article, it is the regularly involved conservative Protestants who should be most invested in promoting the “pro-marriage” norms that are paradoxically putting their marriages (and others’) at risk. But new data discussed below suggest just the opposite.
Figure 1 shows the proportion of ever-divorced young adults by religious affiliation and participation. These data are taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a nationally representative study of young Americans who were first surveyed as teens in 1994 and most recently surveyed again as young adults in 2008. The young adults represented in Figure 1 got married between Waves III (2001-2002) and Wave IV (2007-2008), and they are grouped by their religious affiliation and participation at Wave III, before they were married. These young adults were all married at age 25 or younger, statistically early marriages for their generation. Thus, those who subsequently divorced represent relatively short marriages and early divorces.
The comparison groups in Figure 1 are designed to mirror those of the Glass and Levchak study, but they are divided into active (attending religious services two or more times a month) and nominal (attending less than two times a month) subgroups. As the figure shows, active conservative Protestants are statistically no more likely to have divorced in the first few years of marriage than their active peers from other Christian denominations, and both groups who attend church frequently are significantly less likely to have divorced than their non-religious peers. The group that stands out in Figure 1 is the nominal conservative Protestants, the most likely group to have divorced. Thus, in the exact group (early-marrying conservative Protestants) whose marriages Glass and Levchak would expect to falter, active conservative Protestants are above average in marital stability early in marriage, while nominal conservative Protestants fare worse than the non-religious.
This evidence suggests that nominal, not active, conservative Protestants are driving some of the results from the Glass and Levchak study. It may be that nominal conservative Protestants absorb the marital norms associated with conservative Protestant beliefs and culture (especially in largely conservative Protestant communities) but lack the habits and social support structures that are cultivated by regular participation in religious services, and which are needed to observe these stricter norms. Why a lack of regular religious practice should create greater divorce risk among conservative Protestants than among their other Christian peers is worth further investigation.