Is Fundamentalist Christianity Bad for Marriage?

christian marriage

“The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio

In the February 10, 2014 issue of The Nation, Michelle Goldberg had this to say about Fundamentalist Christian marriage and divorce:

We’ve long known that, in general, the parts of the country most obsessed by family values are also the most beset by family breakdown. Crimson-red Southern states like Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas have the highest rates of divorce, while the liberal, decadent Northeast has the lowest. People have tried to explain this phenomenon in a number of ways. Some conservatives argue that the Northeast has low divorce rates only because it has low marriage rates, too. Others suggest that it’s all about class—in addition to being conservative, the South is poor, and poverty is linked to family dysfunction. “It’s a puzzling paradox,” says Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas. “These are places where you would expect the reverence for marriage and social disapproval for divorce to keep couples together.”

Working with Philip Levchak of the University of Iowa, Glass set out to investigate this paradox. Examining America county by county, they found that, even controlling for income, education and rates of nonmarital cohabitation, the link between conservative Protestantism and divorce remains. It looks as if right-wing Christianity itself undermines modern marriage.

“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,” Glass and Levchak write in a new paper, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates,” which will appear in the next issue of the American Journal of Sociology. Ironically, the very practices meant to shore up marital security in conservative communities end up sabotaging it. By promoting abstinence until marriage, these communities encourage people to marry young. Poor sex education and limited access to contraception for teenagers lead to unintended pregnancies and shotgun weddings. Gender-role traditionalism leads to single-earner families with precarious finances.

Further, Glass and Levchak write, “the effects of personal and community-level conservative Protestant affiliation are additive, meaning that conservative Protestants in strongly conservative Protestant counties have higher divorce risks than conservative Protestants in mainline dominant counties.”

These findings are surprising, since other social science research suggests that couples who attend church together are more likely to stay married. Glass doesn’t dispute this: “Religious belief in general is a good thing for married couples as a shared activity,” she says. But her work suggests that the positives of shared faith fail to outweigh the negatives of fundamentalist culture.

According to their paper, it’s not just believers who are affected—simply living in an area with lots of right-wing evangelicals makes divorce more likely, because the prevailing community norms and institutions affect everyone. The more powerful Christian conservatives get, the worse the problem becomes. “One plausible interpretation of the results is that as conservative Protestant presence increases, elite conservative Protestant influence grows stronger, which results in policies and programs that do little to reduce divorce, but only increase early marriage,” write Glass and Levchak.

“One of the things that happens is that early marriage and parenthood in particular are bad times for very young women to be entering the labor force,” says Glass. “They withdraw from the labor force and withdraw from schooling to take care of their kids.” Meanwhile, she says, “it’s become very, very difficult for young men to support an entire family. Families that are formed early have a really difficult time making ends meet with the human resources they have at their disposal.”

 

 

Comments (21)

  1. Paula

    To a certain extent, I agree that strict religious upbringing may lead to earlier marriage, and consequently to a higher rate of failed marriages. But I also believe that the rate of divorce is lower in very liberal parts of the country due the lack of moral stigma in shacking up and sleeping around. More people just don’t bother to even try to make a marriage.

    In my case, I believe both of us coming from religious families where the parents were faithful lifetime partners and set a very moral example in how they lived only benefited us. Raised around other people who lived as our parents did, we didn’t see an example of sleeping around, or divorcing and multiple marriages, of kids with multiple sets of parents and step parents. I’m thankful for the example. We’ve had a good life together and celebrate our forty first anniversary next week. I am politically pretty liberal, but morally conservative. I wouldn’t trade my life for the messy, complicated lives I observe where people have grown up without a good example and have not honored their spouse.

    On a personal level, I don’t believe there is any substitute for a lifetime partner. On a societal level, I agree that divorce, and plain old single motherhood, are often a first class ticket to poverty, and we all pay for it. So many of the people ruining their marriages and divorcing cannot possibly pay to maintain two households, and they let the rest of us pick up the slack.

    One local curmudgeon who wrote a letter to the paper actually made a good point. He was writing about reasons so many young people were in financial trouble. One of his first suggestions was “marry right, and stay married.” I would add to that, don’t marry at sixteen, although my mother-in-law did, and my in laws were married for life and were never on welfare of any kind.

    A lot is said about age and educational level, and I’m not saying it isn’t important, but the really important thing is being sure it’s real love, and personal integrity and commitment.

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  2. Anne

    Not surprising. Fundamentalist Christianity is just plain toxic, period.

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  3. Ian

    I think too much emphasis is placed on a piece of paper from the government stating that you are married. Being in a committed relationship is just as good as, or better than, having a piece of paper that shows the government taxed you.

    I also agree that early marriage and lack of sex education and life skills leads to divorce.

    That is a very interesting study, sure to be dismissed by fundimentalists and conservatives alike.

    Reply
  4. mikespeir

    “Others suggest that it’s all about class—in addition to being conservative, the South is poor, and poverty is linked to family dysfunction.”

    Even if that wholly accounted for the thing, so what? The Christian is supposed to have a supernatural edge that lets him weather the storms unbelievers can’t handle. So why isn’t it working?

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  5. Van

    Gotta call BS on this, at least until the actual paper is published and we can understand the methodology and see the data. Lots of subjective assertions (“most beset,” “higher,” “highest,” “lowest”) with no metrics cited at all. Is the difference 20 vs 18, or 25 vs 50? How did they measure conservative Protestantism? I don’t remember being asked that on the census form. And heck, even us conservative Protestants can’t agree on who all is a conservative Protestant also. And how do they know the divorce rates in the South wouldn’t be even higher but for the religious influence? Last, the Rubio comment is a non-sequitur. He is saying that if a couple can stay married, there is a greater chance their kids won’t grow up in poverty. The gist of the article is that it is harder to stay married in certain parts of the country. Those are two separate assertions that don’t contradict each other.

    A provocative article no doubt, but I need more evidence before I buy it. (After all, that’s why I come here…looking for evidence).

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I offered no commentary :) like you, I want to see the numbers. I think the issue is a complex one. There is, in some fundamentalist circles, a belief that marrying young is God’s way of doing things. (Especially in the patriarchal movement) one young man, young woman comes to mind. They never touched each other before their wedding. They were pressured to marry. They never sexually consummated the wedding. He had no interest. My suspicion is that the man is gay. Their pastor brokered the marriage, told them it was God’s will. They are now divorced.

      Reply
      1. Van

        Yes, I noticed you did not comment on the article; you just re-posted and re-arranged a little. Very un-Bruce-like.

        I’ve never observed the phenomenon of encouraging marrying young in the churches I’ve belonged to. If anything it was the opposite; overt discouragement to marry young. Of course if you waited too long, then people start to whisper “I wonder what’s wrong with him/her.”

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    2. mikespeir

      Granted, there are some questions here. However, one thing that does not appear to be supported is the common Christian claim that Christian marriages are likelier to endure.

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    3. Kat

      Van: You say you are a conservative Protestant, so you must believe in things like the virgin birth and water into wine and manna from heaven and all that, but you’re automatically calling BS on a sociological study you haven’t even read yet? This is just a report on the report — obviously they aren’t going to go into the numbers and methodology here. I understand that these findings must go against your belief system, but you might want to wait until you read the article itself before pronouncing judgment.

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  6. bhammons

    Bruce,by your standards I would be regarded as a fundamentalist, but by the churches that have asked me to leave I am not. I read a report this summer which showed the rate of divorce in the church was the same as outside the church, and that the rate of abortion was actually a bit higher. This study made no differentiation between conservatives, liberals or Catholics simply lumping them together. Still, it shows what is the greatest problem in the churches I have been to in that faith is mostly spoken not lived. There is deep confusion as to how to live as the Bible says we should. There should be little surprise that a body that can’t or won’t commit to Christ can’t or won’t commit to the spouse that individuals promised to cling to before God. I have met very few believers that are at peace with their beliefs. So their time is spent covering their own sins while denouncing those of others. I must confess that the churches I have been to are cliquish, insincere, and at times rather unkind.

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    1. Paula

      It makes sense that the abortion rate in the church would be somewhat higher. That is probably due to desperate young girls who are afraid to tell their parents, plus afraid for everyone to know how they have been living, although often the parents really rally around and stand by the girl and her child.

      In some circles outside the church, there is no stigma in unwed pregnancy. There may even be misplaced pride and deliberate attempts to become pregnant.

      By the way, I was asked to leave a Methodist church because I dared to question the pastor, despite doing it privately rather than publicly.

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      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        Man, pretty bad when you get asked to leave a Methodist church. :) I think a lot of pastors think they are absolutely right, above criticism. Everyone in the pew knows better.

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        1. Paula

          After twenty years pastoring churches, he is now working as one of those guys whom churches employ to guide them in coercing members to give huge amounts of money to build huge new churches.

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    2. mikespeir

      You don’t see the implications of what you wrote? Basically, Christianity doesn’t work all that well, does it? Take a moment to ponder on why it doesn’t.

      Reply
    3. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I tend to agree with your assessment. Towards the end of my time in the ministry, I came to the conclusion that what mattered is how we lived our lives. Christians spend way too much time arguing over beliefs rather than living them.

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  7. Van

    Kat, Admittedly I used hyperbole in my opening to try to get the reader’s attention. Not unlike Bruce replacing Conservative Christian with Fundamentalist Christian in the title of his post. It’s sweeps month, after all.

    What you need to know about me is that over the last 24 months I have de-converted from Christianity, but am still active in my ‘conservative Protestant’ church while I remain in the closet (waaay in the back, behind the wrapping paper and under the outgrown kids shoes). I no longer believe any of the supernatural events you cite, but still very much identify as a cultural Christian, and am still socially conservative on many of the issues Bruce brings up here.

    I’m also an engineer, so I like numbers. Words like higher, lower, most, least, and so forth are meaningless to me unless i can see all the numbers. Is 20 higher than 19? Yes. Is is significant? Depends on what we are talking about. So an article like this one is particularly aggravating to me.

    Your point is well taken…we need to see the evidence before passing judgement. But I’d argue some of the other commentators have also passed judgement, in the other direction, without waiting to see the evidence.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I changed the title because I thought it was a more accurate term. If you have been reading my writing for awhile you know I think all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists and often reporters wrongly substitute conservative for Evangelical. Thus, my use of the word Fundamentalist.

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      1. Van

        Oh yes, I know. I chuckled when I saw what you did.

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  8. gimpi

    In my limited experience, religious commitment has little to do with weather or not a marriage lasts. Compatibility, respect, shared interests and beliefs and, yes, love make much more of a difference.

    I didn’t have to “commit to Christ,” just my husband. We don’t have to conform to obsolete gender-roles, so we have (at least right now) enough resources to support ourselves. We didn’t regard “shacking up and sleeping around,” as a moral issue, so we took our time, lived together, saw other people, got to really know each other. We married quite late, (41 for me, 49 for him) so we really knew ourselves as well. Neither of us wanted kids. Because we weren’t part of any religious group that condemns birth-control, we felt no pressure to have them, no guilt in taking steps to prevent them.

    Marriage outside of religious controls can be a good thing. A great thing, in fact.

    Reply
  9. mikespeir
    Reply
  10. Van

    Still haven’t found the actual article, but found this press release (http://www.contemporaryfamilies.org/impact-of-conservative-protestantism-on-regional-divorce-rates/) and this analysis (http://family-studies.org/findings-on-red-and-blue-divorce-are-not-exactly-black-and-white/).

    One thing the analysis points out, which neither the press release nor the article Bruce linked to say, is that the comparison is between Conservative Protestants and all other major Christian groups (liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons, etc), not to the non-religious.

    The press release includes a map from the study, which is the first hint of numerical results. To me, the dark blue green counties (high conservative protestant, high divorce rate) supports the existence of the paradox. But there is a large area of purple too (high conservative protestant rate, low divorce rate), which seems to contradict the presumption that the high conservative protestant rate is the cause of the high divorce rate. Your interpretation may vary.

    Reply

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