What’s Driving Divorce–Part 3

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.


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9 Responses to “What’s Driving Divorce–Part 3”

  1. Paul VanderKlay Says:

    Terrific series. Thanks for writing these pieces.

  2. Dan Stringer Says:

    One of the biggest factors I’ve noticed among my generation (I’m 28) is rampant cynicism as to whether wedding vows and marriage licenses are even desirable or “worth the risk.”

    In conversations with grad school classmates, I keep hearing the false assumption that since you can’t have divorce without marriage, the “safest” bet is to avoid tying the knot in the first place. The political fracas over gay marriage has also led some to erroneously conclude that marriage is an inherently “sexist” institution and thus they want no part in it.

    Recent calls for government to “get out of the marriage business” have led me to formulate a non-religious, non-homophobic case for civil/legal marriage over at my blog:


  3. Silas Says:

    What if getting a marriage license required more than just showing up to the courthouse with your driver’s license (i.e. premarital counselling, mandatory waiting period, some sort of rudimentary approval system)? Also, I second Paul, I have really enjoyed reading these marriage posts.

  4. steve_v Says:


    I think the cause of greater level of divorce has to do with our tendency, as a culture, away from spiritual faith. Recently referenced in Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint newsletter:

    … attributed to an 18th-century Scottish writer:

    The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence…from bondage to spiritual faith…from spiritual faith to courage…from courage to liberty…from liberty to abundance…from abundance to selfishness…from selfishness to complacency…from complacency to apathy…from apathy to dependency…from dependency back to bondage.


    It appears we are somewhere in this progression near dependency. If we to fix our problems by requiring our liberties to be suspended we will then proceed to bondage. Israel (in the bible) went through the same process (several times).

    Short of a new dependance, on Jesus, it seems difficult to reverse the trend.

  5. Cindy Says:

    This is a fascinating series and I hope that you’ll continue to stir others to ponder these questions. It was enlightening to learn about Big Jim Folsom.

    As for this question about what’s driving divorce, it seems the underlying question is: “What’s driving people to get married (or not)? I am married with children and want to stay that way. However, when I think about the heterosexual couples I know that are living together outside of marriage, I think that they’ve missed the boat about marriage. A famous song asks “What’s Love Got to do with it?”

    To many couples, marriage is a practical issue: combining incomes, buying a home together, planning to have children. A friend of mine who lives in Germany told me that many young people are given the incentive by the government to start a family in order to get a “kitchen”(fully furnished, nice home to raise children). Otherwise, a couple, no matter how committed to one another, has no practical reason to get married, except for their faith beliefs (as you mentioned and Steve wrote about above).

    Beyond these practical and materialistic reasons, I believe that marriage adds to one’s sense of belonging and identity. The challenges are many, but the rewards are lasting. The sustaining nature of a good marriage takes hard work, but cannot be bought at any price, regardless of the media personalities who get huge money settlements from divorce.

    I’m sorry that I don’t have an answer to how marriage might be promoted, but I believe that the lack of it may be what’s driving people to divorce. Even in Moses’ time, divorce was granted by God because Israel (and all humans) are a “whiny” and sinful bunch. In closing, I can only say that I’m so I glad that I have Jesus in my life.

  6. Paul G Says:

    I’d like to comment on this blog and the previous entries on marriage. In your previous entry you state that divorce is bad for children, but in part 1 you pointed out that divorce is one part of a web of social ills affecting Americans, particularly poorer Americans. I think we have to ask the question, how much is it divorce that is bad for children, and how much is it all the other social ills that so often attend divorce? I am not pro-divorce, it is always a tragedy (to twist a phrase of Obama); but sometimes it is the best option, particularly in cases of abuse. I agree that divorce is bad for children – but even worse for children are the things that cause divorce, which almost always have been affecting them deeply, long before the marriage split up.

    What is driving divorce in America? I think we come back to the web of social ills that you mentioned in part 1. Or, theologically speaking, human nature is driving divorce. Our God given image and our need for love and companionship drive us together while our sins drive us apart. What has driven up divorce rates in the US in the past 40 years? I think the answer lies in the removal of the barriers to divorce. There used to be much more social pressure against divorce and opportunities for women were much more limited. Those barriers have been greatly reduced and divorce has flourished. I think the problems that caused divorce were for the most part present before the current divorce boom.

    (I had to ask myself the question here, “If human nature drives divorce, why then does education have a greater effect than religion?” I believe that more educated people are no less sinful than the rest of the population! I think the answer is that different cultural and socioeconomic groups tends toward different patterns of sin. Different groups’ sins may break apart marriages more or less, and their mores may enforce barriers to divorce more or less. Educated Americans have no more barriers to divorce – they may even have less as they tend to be more liberal and women have more options. But, as you pointed out in part 1, the web of social ills, driven by sin, of the less educated in America are particularly destructive to relationships. Those ills/sins don’t plague more educated Americans in the same way, and so divorce is not as prevalent.)

    How can you systemically change the divorce trend if that trend is driven by human nature? I don’t think we want to resurrect all the social barriers (though some would be good) or limit the options of women in society. I think we come back to Jesus’ solution. The only way to impact people’s lives in this is through radical, sacrificial love. If the church can become an agent of Jesus’ love to struggling couples, young couples, stagnant couples, engaged couples, and people seeking to be a part of a couple in such a profound way that they are changed (and they are helped to acquire the relational skills necessary to navigate the difficulties of marriage) we can start to see some systemic change in society. My observation is that churches throw some how-to seminars people’s way and then lets them figure it out on their own. This won’t systemically change society, and apparently – if the stats in part 1 are correct – isn’t even helping the people in the church that much.

    Trying to pack how to systemically change society in the area of divorce into a blog response is hard, to say the least, but I hope you can grasp my idea. I’ve enjoyed your posts that I’ve read. These on marriage have been very thought provoking – which you can see from my long response!

    • timstafford Says:

      Good thoughts. Changing society at such a basic level is daunting, but at this point I don’t see too many groups thinking hard about how to do it. We have a huge industry devoted to rethinking education, for example, and many organizations concerned with poverty, but not much serious attention gets paid to policy related to marriage and divorce. The situation reminds me of what pertained regarding drunk driving before MADD got going.

  7. darcy morrison Says:

    Very timely and informative. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. annelisefrench Says:

    I think that wrong ideas about marriage drive divorce. People are wrongly expecting another human being to be the total fulfillment in their lives, like some kind of magic. It’s apparent to me due to the cohabitants who get married! Why do people who live together get married? Is it for the big show, the party afterwards, the experience of a wedding? Do they think something is going to change after they are married? Are they hoping that marriage will change their partner? Some gals that I work with cohabit, but then got married when they wanted to have children. I think that society has promoted a warped view of marriage through movies, TV shows, and magazines and our culture has been changed over the years because of it.

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