No, Christianity is Not Bad for Marriage: Brad Wilcox on Red State Family Structure and Conservative Protestantism

February 11, 2014

Andrew Walker discusses the article Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates with Dr. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. He is also a Visiting Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute. The article referenced in this interview was written by Jennifer Glass, University of Texas, and Philip Levchak, University of Iowa, and was published in the January 2014 American Journal of Sociology. You can find Dr. Wilcox on twitter.


Walker: Conservatives, and particularly conservative Protestants, are known for waving the “family values” flag, yet for years our divorce numbers have been troublingly high. That Christians divorce at the rate they do is a major inconsistency in the theology we profess.

A study titled Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates has been published in the American Journal of Sociology. And it suggests that our very faith is a big part of the reason we now are divorcing at even higher rates than others.

First, is this true? Are religious conservatives really divorcing more than religious liberals, or more than people who have no religious affiliation at all?

Wilcox: Up to a point, yes. The article finds that conservative Protestants, and counties with higher shares of conservative Protestants, are indeed more likely to divorce—compared to Americans in other mainstream traditions, from mainline Protestantism to Mormonism to Catholicism. But I’ll mention two caveats that have gone unrecognized by popular media treatments, such as Michelle Goldberg’s article in The Nation:

This study also finds that religiously unaffiliated Americans, and counties with higher shares of unaffiliated Americans, are the most likely to divorce. So, religion per se is not the problem and, indeed, secularism seems to be more conducive towards divorce than conservative Protestantism.
A new article by sociologist Charles Stokes in www.family-studies.org suggests that the problem here is mainly with nominal conservative Protestants—those who attend rarely or never. It’s these nominal conservative Protestants—e.g., the Southern Baptist couple in Texas who rarely darken the door of a church—who are much more likely to divorce.

Walker: The study seemed to show that the theology held and practiced by religious conservatives isn’t just a small contributor to divorce—it’s the major driver behind rates of divorce. Do you agree with that conclusion?

Wilcox: Not so much theology, but morality. The study contends that the traditional approach to sex and family life championed by conservative Protestantism is now unworkable. Specifically, conservative Protestants and conservative Protestant communities in America have tended to discourage premarital sex, encourage marriage, and early family formation. This new study suggests that early marriages and less educational attainment help explain higher rates of divorce among conservative Protestants and the communities where they are more common.

Walker: Describe what the authors call the “red family pattern” and tell us how that contrasts with the “blue family pattern.”

Wilcox: The “red family pattern” and the “blue family pattern” are brilliantly described by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in their book, Red Families v. Blue Families. Basically, in many red states, adults are more likely to marry young, acquire less education, have more kids, and divorce more often. In many blue states, adults are more likely to focus on education and work as young adults, marry later, have fewer kids, and divorce less often. The biggest downside to the red-state model is divorce; the biggest downside to the blue-state model is low fertility.

(Important qualification to this typology: This story may be complicated by the rise of cohabiting families, which are highly unstable and, historically, more likely to be found in blue states. I await the study that focuses on family instability for children that includes divorce and unmarried union breakups.)

Walker: The authors contend that in blue family patterns, couples would cohabitate to determine if they would be good marriage partners. A lot of them determine that they don’t want a lifelong relationship, and so it ends. But those same couples in a red state would be sexually active then be forced by guilt or perhaps an unplanned pregnancy to marry. They divorce a few years later, creating these high divorce numbers. What are your thoughts about that red-blue comparison?

Wilcox: In many Southern red states, it is true that the red-state model doesn’t work. What you often have is a combination of young marriage, parenthood, inadequate financial resources, an overly romantic view of marriage, and little real integration into a supportive community—including a church. This is the stuff of a thousand country music songs, and unfortunately, statistically, it doesn’t work well. It’s no surprise that this combination doesn’t work in the twenty-first century. But the red-state model does work in the Northern Plains and in parts of the West—where relatively early marriage and parenthood are coupled to strong communities and churches, and a local culture that is more family friendly. In Utah and North Dakota, for instance, there are comparatively low levels of divorce and high levels of intact, two-parent families. So, the red-state model can work when communities really stand behind young families.

But the red-state model falls flat for many conservative Protestants in places like Arkansas and Kentucky. Young adults in these states get married young, have kids young, have high expectations for marriage, and quickly see those expectations dashed by the realities of family life and making a living—especially in a world where it’s harder to find good jobs for men who don’t have a college degree.

Walker: In another article that draws similar conclusions to this one, Cahn and Carbone wrote that the red-state paradigm has not acknowledged the effect of the changing economy on marriage. That is, the areas where conservative Protestants tend to live have suffered from blue-collar jobs moving away. And because higher education is not valued as much in red-state country, the population there is not able to adapt and find work in our technology-driven society. And the stress that comes from low or no employment causes financial problems that in turn lead to divorce. Would you agree with that conclusion?

Wilcox: Yes, there is something to this claim. Chronic underemployment or unemployment is linked to divorce—at least at the individual level. And in parts of red-state America, young adults are not taking the time to get the education they need to compete in today’s global economy. But it’s important for us to understand that more college is not necessarily the answer. In many cases, better vocational training and apprenticeship programs—as we are now seeing in South Carolina—are the answer. These kinds of educational initiatives are very appealing to working-class young adults and give them the skills they need to flourish in today’s economy.

Walker: Both Mark Regnerus, a sociologist, and Albert Mohler, a theologian, have made the case for early marriage, because, as Mohler states, abstinence until marriage in your mid-20s is “battling our Creator’s reproductive designs.” Would you agree or disagree with that?

Wilcox: The research—highlighted in Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America—suggests marrying as a teenager is a disaster. Marrying in your early twenties is also risky when it comes to divorce. The risks are much lower for those marrying in their mid-twenties and later. Moreover, Knot Yet suggests that young adults marrying in their mid-twenties may enjoy the happiest marriages: they are mature enough to enter into marriage and not old enough to have become too set in their ways, or disillusioned with real love by a history of multiple heartbreaks.

The one exception to this general pattern, as Stokes’ article in Family Studies suggests, is that young adults who marry in their early twenties and are embedded in a religious community seem to be protected from some of the risks associated with early marriage.

Walker: The authors reference an article you wrote in 2008:

As Wilcox notes, the purposeful sacralization of marriage as the bedrock of both family and church imbues marital relationships with particular meaning in conservative churches. Divorce represents a failure to fulfill God’s will for both church and family. For those scholars who have found that religious belief and participation generally strengthen marriages and improve relationship quality, the failure of conservative religious concentration to deter divorce is unexpected.

Do you find this study’s conclusions valid? Did they surprise you?

Wilcox: This study is largely on target—so far as it goes. But, remember, what this study is really showing is that nominal conservative Protestantism, combined with early marriage, poor economic prospects, and a romanticized view of marriage in the South, don’t create optimal conditions for an enduring marriage culture.

But a close look at this study tells a much different story when it comes to religion, family life, and divorce as a whole. Specifically, this study finds that

1. counties with high percentages of Mormons, Catholics and mainline Protestants have the lowest rates of divorce, 2. religiously unaffiliated Americans, and communities with lots of unaffiliated individuals, are the most likely to divorce,

3.counties with lots of cohabiting couples are more likely to divorce, and

4.counties and couples with bigger families are less likely to divorce.

These findings should cheer family-friendly scholars, policymakers, and civic leaders alike.

Walker: How does this study influence your thinking about the “family values” message conservative Protestants are known for? What changes should our leaders make in the way we teach and preach about family values, and marriage in particular?

Wilcox: First, never use the term “family values.” It’s a total turn-off to young adults today.

Second, this study suggests that a conservative way of family life does not work in the modern world unless it is anchored in a community—be it religious or otherwise—that lends social, economic, and cultural support to that way of life. So, churches—especially conservative Protestant ones—need to be a lot more supportive of the young married couples in their pews and outside of their pews.

They also need to “deep six” a romanticized view of marriage. Marriage is hard work, it’s vital work, and nothing is more important to our kids than to renew the communities that make for strong marriages. Marriage is not some kind of Disney fairytale that makes everyone feel “happily ever after” all the time. Marriage is a difficult, bracing, and ultimately rewarding adventure best undertaken for a cause much larger than one’s own individual fulfillment—including the welfare of one’s spouse and any children that one may have. Of course, the paradox here is that spouses who embrace an ethic of generosity in their marriage are also more likely to end up happy!

Thankfully, this study suggests that some communities and some churches around the nation are succeeding in fostering this model of generous and stable marriage.

Walker: Concluding the interview on a practical note, I think there is one conclusion to draw, especially related to the mission of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:

The data seems to suggest that the role of the local church is vitally important in preventing divorce—in terms of rates of attendance, proximity to pastoral authority and oversight, discipleship, and access to mentorships with older, more experienced couples. Bottom line: the function the church plays in preparing couples for marriage is a very important factor in marital success. That marriage preparation and nurturement is best done in the context of a local congregation is a focal point that pastors should consider when examining whether their churches are fostering healthy marriage cultures.

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24