From Professor Charles Stokes:
It’s a well-worn lament heard from many American pulpits: there is just as much divorce inside the church as there is outside. But if pastors and their flocks are embarrassed by divorce equality, then recent findings published in American Journal of Sociology are likely to give them an even nastier shock: conservative religious beliefs are not only failing to uphold the marriages of religious conservatives, they are actually destroying their neighbors’ marriages too.
The recent study “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce” makes a straightforward claim: “Conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability through the promotion of practices that increase divorce risk in the contemporary United States.” For example, by discouraging premarital sex and encouraging early marriage, conservative religious institutions unwittingly contribute to high divorce rates, the authors argue. Their analysis finds that “communities with large concentrations of conservative Protestants actually produce higher divorce rates than others.”
Kayla and Adam are a young married couple interviewed as part of The Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a four-year qualitative research inquiry into the relationship and family formation of 75 working class young adults. At first blush, they seem like poster children for the “Red States, Blue States” research. They pushed up their wedding date by a year because Kayla’s Baptist parents disapproved of their cohabitation, and because their pastor refused to marry them unless they stopped cohabiting. Shortly after their wedding, Kayla discovered Adam was abusing his prescription medication. A few years later, he got arrested for overdosing on heroin. Then, Kayla found a love note from Adam to another woman. And just like that, it was over.
Now Kayla wonders if she could have avoided divorce by cohabiting and delaying marriage—exactly what her Baptist parents and pastor advised her against.
Kayla and Adam appear to illustrate what writer Michelle Goldberg concluded about the “Red States, Blue States” research: “conservative family values don’t work to conserve actual families.”
The Story Doesn’t End There
It’s tempting to leave the story with Goldberg’s ironic twist, but findings from four years’ worth of interviews with couples like Kayla and Adam, combined with our recent analysis of some of the best survey data available on the lives of young Americans, paints a more complex story of religion, marriage, and divorce in young America. That story has implications for strengthening marriage in working-class communities, where research shows divorce and single parenthood is most common.
Here’s the key nuance: while religious affiliation makes no difference when it comes to divorce, religious attendance does. The “Red States, Blue States” research fails to make this distinction.
The strongest evidence of the marriage-stabilizing power of religious participation comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a federally funded, nationally representative sample of young adults. Our recent analyses of Add Health reveal that attending church regularly during young adulthood appears to significantly decrease the risk of divorce, even for those who marry relatively young.
Of the 2,800 young adults represented in Figure 1, all married early by American standards, from ages 18 to 26. Those who divorced (about 20 percent of this sample) had relatively short marriages. According to the “Red States, Blue States” research, it is precisely among this divorced group that you would expect to find lots of conservative Christians. But, as Figure 1 shows, the two groups likely to have the most conservative family values (high-attending conservative Protestants and high-attending Catholics) are also least likely to have divorced.
In multivariate analyses, high-attending conservative Protestant young adults have 34 percent lower odds of divorcing than do the non-religious, and high-attending Catholic young adults have 76 percent lower odds of divorcing than do the nonreligious. (Other religiously conservative groups, such as Latter Day Saints or Muslims, may exhibit similar “divorce-proofing” patterns, but the sample size is too small to distinguish these groups.)
It appears, then, that conservative family values do “work,” but only when those values are regularly reinforced and supported by integration into a local religious community.