By Marc Jampole
Call me counter-intuitive, but I always figured that divorce rates were higher in communities and states in which the Christian right dominated. For one thing, fundamentalism predominates in rural and exurban areas, where there are really only three things to do most of the time and two of them lead to sex, while one is to have sex (the other two are drugs and drinking). More poor people tend to inhabit rural America than urban or suburban communities, and poverty serves as a destabilizing element in relationships.
It turns out that I was only half right. Christian fundamentalism leads to greater divorce in every circumstance—among the rich, the poor, rural folk and city slickers. It doesn’t matter, according to new research by Professors Jennifer Glass (U-Texas) and Philip Levchak (U-Iowa). Their paper, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” scheduled to be published soon in the American Journal of Sociology, demonstrates that “Conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, in balance, decrease marital stability through the promotion of practices that increase divorce risk…”
Yes, less educated people get divorced more frequently, but the less educated fundamentalists get divorced more often than the less educated who aren’t as fanatical about their Christianity. And yes, poor people get divorced more often than wealthier people do, but again, the poor Christian fundamentalists get divorced more often than the poor non-fundamentalists and the same pattern exists among the wealthy—the more you buy into the Christian right, the more likely you are to have a divorce. Even non-believers living in communities in which the Christian right predominate have higher rates of divorce. The effect is additive: Protestants in conservative Protestant areas get divorced more often than conservative Protestants in more mainstream areas.
I first ran across the report in Nation by Michelle Goldberg, but it turns out that it has received a goodly amount of pre-publication publicity at least in the non-Conservative print and Internet news media.
As Michelle Goldberg details, the very practices that right-wing Christians follow to strengthen marriage in fact make it harder to stay married. By promoting abstinence until marriage right-wing Christians give teenagers the best reason in the world to get married early—to satisfy the natural need for sexual contact that most teens and adults have. The children of Christian fundamentalist communities and families tend to receive poor sex education and have limited access to contraception, leading to more unwanted pregnancies which lead to more marriages made under the duress of a shot gun (or AK-47, depending on the gun-toter’s taste in weapons). Less access to abortions and social norms strongly forbidding this safe and inexpensive procedure exacerbate the increase in unwanted children and early marriages.
Then there’s the pressure to conform: The study authors mention the pressure to marry younger, but there is also the pressure on people who are not the heterosexual marrying kind to get hitched and have a few young fry. I’m guessing that more LGBT in fundamentalist communities succumb to the pressure and opt for conventional heterosexual marriages, as do more of the asexual. More couples who don’t really want to have children succumb to the pressure and have them anyway in a fundamentalist community. People have an almost infinite multitude of desires, cravings, preferences and inner voices. The more strictly regimented the social norms, the more people are going to chafe under them and become unhappy. And there can be no doubt—unhappy people get divorced.
No one mentions it, but I imagine that the Catholic taboo on divorce prevents the divorce rates among right-wing Catholics from approaching the sorry numbers of right-wing Protestants.
I also wonder whether the very mentality of right-wing Protestantism plants the seeds for more divorce. The essence of fundamentalism is that all humans are sinners, but that we can all be born again unto the Lord. So if the social strictures leading to unwise marriages are strong, even stronger is the forgiveness that each receives upon finding the Lord again. The ability to be born again can both wash away the sins of the divorce (or those committed in the marriage) and justify the divorce as part of the process of becoming the new, more pure person. Starting over is what divorce is all about and it’s what born-again right-wing fundamentalism is also all about.