Thursday, February 6, 2014

Conservative Faith Groups and High Divorce Rates

The Council for Contemporary Families (CCF) got some headlines recently for releasing findings of a study showing, among various things, that conservative Protestants are most likely of all to be divorced among various religious groups. Additionally, they noted that evangelical Protestants are more likely to be divorced than non-religious persons. This type of finding surfaces every couple of years and gets a lot of media attention because it is counter intuitive. After all, don’t conservative Protestants tout marital and family stability as a strong value? (The answer is: Yes they do.)

You can read the summary of the findings CCF released here (search for the term “divorce” once you get to that page). I have a few thoughts on the release by CCF. Before proceeding, I need to make it clear that I have only read what is on CCF’s website. The information there is based on a symposium they hosted for the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What they have posted there is all I’ve read. That is important because there could be some greater depth and nuance in recent analyses that I have not yet read and will not be addressing here in this post.  

My main reaction to the facts they have posted is that there is not so much a new finding here as there is a lot of attention to type of finding that has often been obtained in social science. Conservative religious groups have long had higher divorce rates than other less religious or non-religious groups. I first read of such findings at least 20 or 30 years ago. For a long time, the two primary explanations for such a counter-intuitive finding are that the conservatively religious tend to be lower in socioeconomic status and that they also tend to marry at younger ages. The report by CCF acknowledges both points. Further, they put the most emphasis on early age at marriage. They also summarize research by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak in this way:  “However, new research by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak suggests that evangelical Protestants’ cultural encouragement of early marriage and discouragement of birth control and higher education attainment explain the higher divorce rate in counties with a larger proportion of evangelical Protestants.”

I am going to focus in on the early age at marriage part. Marrying young has long been among the greatest—if not the single greatest—risk factor for divorce.  Yes, we all know many couples who married 18 and who have wonderful marriages. But there are scores of other couples who married young whom you may have never even met as a couple, who nevertheless went on to divorce.

This association between divorce and early marriage is so strong that many experts believe that the rising age of marriage is among the chief reasons that the divorce rate has come down and leveled off. There is an entire report about this and related issues published by the National Marriage Project, called Knot Yet. The report deals with both delayed marriage and also the implications child bearing not being similarly delayed. The report is excellent and, if you want to go deeper on these this particular theme, I suggest you read it.

The finding emphasized by CCF is the real deal. It is so real in fact, that it’s worth of serious thought and discussion among conservative religious groups (including some evangelical protestant groups). What should you encourage young people to do in light of various beliefs and values you hold dear? As a side point, I would suggest that there is a pretty huge range of evangelicalism in the US, and many such groups do not marry young. So, before scratching your head too much on this, it’s worth being focused on which group in particular you want to think about.

Let’s talk about the practice of faith. CCF is implicating conservative faith culture in higher divorce because of greater cultural expectation and pressure to marry young. This does not mean that faith itself—as in the content of one’s faith and all aspects of the practice of one’s faith—is causing divorce. Far from it. It does mean that the cultural practice of some conservative groups, specifically related to pressure to marry young, is implicated in risk of divorce.

I can best clarify the distinction I’m trying to make above by pointing to another finding that CCF touted. In fact, the CCF release mentions two facts that seem to me to be mildly contradictory. First, they noted that “. . . the common conservative argument that strong religion leads to strong families does not hold up.” If you focus on the risk for divorce based in marrying very young, where marrying young is partly driven by conservative beliefs about sex and marriage, they have a reasonable point. That is, “strong religion” (their term, which they suggest is typified by evangelical Protestantism) is, indeed, associated with more divorce. In fact, I’ve never seen any data to the contrary, just differences in how large this effect might be in different studies and samples.

Second, the CCF release noted another finding from the recent research: “Overall, couples who have higher levels of religious service attendance, especially if the couple attends together, have lower rates of divorce.”

Is that “strong religious” too? It seems religious. It seems strong. It also fits a pattern that a number of studies have shown over the years: how you act on your faith is going to have a larger impact on how your married life will go than how you religiously identify yourself. That’s a fancy way of saying that those of faith do best when they walk the talk. All talk and no walk does not get you anywhere beyond where you are now (because only your mouth is moving).

As CCF notes, it turns out that spouses who practice their faith together tend to have stronger marriages. If you are a couple of faith—and especially if you share the same faith—there is a pretty great question here: what are you doing that involves practicing your faith together?

Taken together, there are offsetting findings noted in the CCF release. On the one hand, a practice associated with some conservatively religious groups—marrying young—is truly associated with greater odds of divorce. On the other hand, the very kinds of practices often strongly recommended by these same groups—practicing your faith together—are associated with lower odds of divorce.  That, to me, is a more interesting paradox than the often noted finding that some religious groups have higher divorce rates than you'd expect. 


[My colleagues and I just came out with the second edition of our book, A Lasting Promise. It is written for those who are interested in strengthening their marriages from a Christian tradition, and it includes a lot of both clear theological teachings and strategies based on solid research. If you are still reading this far and that question above about practicing your faith together has relevance for you, we deal with things like that in the book. Just sayin.]