A persistently troubling fact for evangelical Christians is that their divorce rate is similar to other Americans’. Pollster George Barna publicized this many years ago and it has become one of those rare statistical findings known by everybody. Barna’s most recent research (March, 2008) shows evangelicals slightly less likely to divorce than the general public (28% of once-married evangelicals are now divorced, versus 33% of the general public) but Barna has a very narrow definition of evangelical. What most people call “evangelical” is what he calls “born again,” and for them divorce is as common as for the general public, according to his findings.
I doubt any group of Americans is more pro-marriage than evangelical Christians, nor does any group offer more resources to strengthen marriages than do evangelical churches. Yet they still get divorced in high numbers.
Judging by Barna’s research (http://barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released) the divorce rate is bad for just about everybody but Asians (20%) and “upscale” (22%). For some reason Barna doesn’t bring in education. As indicated in an earlier post, “The Champions of Marriage,” those who graduate from college have a much lower divorce rate than other Americans, and it has declined dramatically in the last decade.
But what about Christians? Do they really divorce as readily as other Americans? The answer is no, if you compare apples to apples. An active Christian who graduates from college is less likely to divorce than a non-Christian who graduates from college. A Christian high school dropout is less likely to divorce than a non-Christian high school dropout. The difference an active faith makes is significant, and the more active the faith, the more significant.
No difference in faith, however, compares to the difference made by age at marriage, level of education, and wealth. Demographics trump religion. Since evangelical Christians tend to marry earlier and have less education and less wealth than other Americans, they end up having just as many marital problems as other Americans, on average. Faith pulls them up, demographics pull them back down.
Right here is where people get stuck. If demographics are destiny, what can we do? Of course churches can continue to offer classes on marital communication, can provide marriage counseling, and can preach sermons on God’s intentions for marriage. Such moral and spiritual efforts make a difference, but not enough to stem the awful pandemic. (If you doubt the seriousness of the issue, see my earlier post, “Marriage and Children.”)
It’s a stretch, but Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the latest New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/10/090810fa_fact_gladwell?yrail) got me thinking. Gladwell talks about the deep South of the 1950s by discussing Big Jim Folsom, governor of Alabama, and Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird. (The novel was published at about the same time that Folsom was driven out of office by the racial polarization that came after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.)
Folsom, according to Gladwell, treated African Americans as human beings. One of his famous (and scandalous, in Alabama) acts was to invite Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell for drinks at the governor’s mansion. Folsom did not stop at symbolic gestures; he commuted sentences against African Americans that he considered tainted by racial bias. And he encouraged African Americans to register to vote. As soon as segregationists felt genuinely threatened by civil rights, though, the system had no room for such liberalism, and he was swept out of office.
Similarly Atticus Finch was a courageous and far-sighted individual, but his kindness toward African Americans led to his contemptuous treatment of “white trash.” (I won’t go into Gladwell’s case here; you should read the article if you’re interested.) Gladwell’s basic point is that it’s not good enough to be kind and fair. If bias and mistreatment are part of the system, you have to change the system.
Here’s the connection: Right now, our American social system does not sustain marriage. It especially does not sustain marriage for those who need it most: the poor. The poor and the poorly educated (which are virtually the same thing) are being decimated by divorce and by out-of-wedlock births. Their problems get passed on to their children, and amplified by the dearth of intact two-parent families. We’ve never really had a class system in the US, but this could be creating one.
It’s not good enough to feel strongly about marriage. It’s not good enough to offer seminars and counseling and support. You really have to change the system.
What does that mean? Well, think about what it meant in segregationist Alabama. It meant changing everything, from courtrooms to voter registration procedures to school admissions to lunchroom accommodations to job discrimination to dressing rooms in department stores. An interesting parlor game is to ask which of those areas was most crucial. What broke the back of segregation? Voting rights? School desegregation? Public accommodation? They all had to change.
We could draw up a different list for marriage. Movies and TV. Divorce law. Poverty/education. Childcare. Drugs and alcohol. Spousal abuse. Infidelity. Actually, let me throw it out there. What do you think is driving divorce in America, and how might that be changed systemically? I’d be interested to hear.