By / Feb 11

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 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.