Conservative Protestants are not only failing to live up to their own pro-family standards, now they are making it harder for everyone else to stay married, too. At least that’s the story likely to be reported based on findings in a new article, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates,” published this week in the American Journal of Sociology.

Authors Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak are more nuanced in their own telling of the story, but their findings are provocative. The authors conclude, “The results here show that communities with large concentrations of conservative Protestants actually produce higher divorce rates than others, both because conservative Protestants themselves exhibit higher divorce risk and because individuals in communities dominated by conservative Protestants face higher divorce risks.”

As for exactly how conservative Protestants are increasing divorce risks for themselves and their neighbors, Glass and Levchak point to evidence that conservative Protestants and their communities encourage young people to marry and have children earlier, sometimes before their educations are completed. These early-marrying couples face a double dilemma of learning to live together (and perhaps raise children together) while also struggling to get by in an economy that is increasingly tough on those who don’t finish college. Then, speculating beyond their data, the authors suggest that conservative Protestant norms against premarital sex and abortion (which might encourage earlier marriage and childbearing) and disdain for religiously “mixed” marriages, along with public policies that fail to support quality public education (enacted in communities dominated by conservative Protestants) combine to create a brew which, paradoxically for divorce-disdaining conservative Protestants, undermines stable marriages.

Early-marrying couples face a double dilemma of learning to live together and  raise children together while also struggling to get by.

Glass and Levchak have carefully crafted an important study using some of the best available data, and their findings and conclusions should not be dismissed by conservative Protestants or their pro-family allies. But there is more to the story. Below I suggest a few additional considerations that are in order before rushing to declare conservative Protestants unwitting enemies of marriage.

First, there are a few things missing from the article that shouldn’t be ignored. What’s most surprisingly absent from an article purportedly about red states and blue states is any measurement of political affiliation. The units of analysis are counties and individuals, not states, and of all the county- and individual-level variables used in the study not a single one measures whether a county or person is Republican or Democrat. Instead, the title of the article, along with a few subtle references in the text, suggests such a close correspondence between Republican politics and conservative Protestant beliefs that we shouldn’t be bothered that the supposed linkage isn’t actually measured. Similarly, though less of a jump, conservative Protestant affiliation is treated as synonymous with conservative Protestant beliefs, though no actual religious or family-related beliefs are measured. And, most importantly, as I’ll elaborate below, there is no measurement of actual involvement in conservative Protestant churches.

Second, a few intriguing findings in the article are likely to get buried in mass media coverage of the main storyline. Early in the article, Glass and Levchak point out that “the average county would double its divorce rate as its proportion conservative Protestant moved from 0 to 100%,” but then they note “this effect is much smaller than the unaffiliated effect which is almost three times larger [emphasis mine].” The evidence from this article does not suggest that marriages would be better off in non-religious contexts but actually points in the opposite direction. Additionally, the authors find that higher concentrations of conservative Protestants are associated with lower levels of cohabitation, which reduces divorce rates. Glass and Levchak’s later analyses show that these pro-marriage effects are offset by the aforementioned divorce risks of early marriage and lower educational attainment, but this finding nonetheless uncovers some anti-divorce factors in conservative Protestant counties. And most intriguing among these less-touted findings is that counties with the highest proportion of conservative Protestants (the top quartile) actually showed no elevated risk of divorce.

Counties with the highest proportion of conservative Protestants actually show no elevated risk of divorce.

Third, it is important to note the comparison group throughout this study. Conservative Protestants are compared not to the non-religious (who, as noted earlier, are more divorce prone by comparison) but to all other major Christian groups. And though the article frames conservative Protestants as the pro-marriage group that is failing to meet its own standards, the major comparison group isn’t exactly pro-divorce. In fact, Catholics are the most anti-divorce among major Christian groups, at least doctrinally (and the entire study is predicated on an unmeasured link between beliefs and behavior). Mormons, who also fall into the comparison group, are famously pro-family, promoting early marriage and childrearing, and holding strictures against premarital sex, all beliefs similar to those of conservative Protestants. And mainline Protestants, though usually considered more liberal than conservative Protestants, certainly don’t promote divorce. Some scholars have even suggested that mainline Protestants churches are more dependent on traditional families than are their more conservative peers. This is all to say that conservative Protestants are coming up short against some fairly stiff competition.

Finally, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce” leaves out a very important element to the story. While religious affiliation tells us something important about how religious groups impact divorce, it doesn’t tell us everything. Headlines featuring this article are likely to conjure images of active conservative Protestants, the ones who actually occupy pews on Sunday mornings and who, presumably, take to heart the pro-marriage messages of the movement. According to the logic of the article, it is the regularly involved conservative Protestants who should be most invested in promoting the “pro-marriage” norms that are paradoxically putting their marriages (and others’) at risk. But new data discussed below suggest just the opposite.

Figure 1 shows the proportion of ever-divorced young adults by religious affiliation and participation. These data are taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a nationally representative study of young Americans who were first surveyed as teens in 1994 and most recently surveyed again as young adults in 2008. The young adults represented in Figure 1 got married between Waves III (2001-2002) and Wave IV (2007-2008), and they are grouped by their religious affiliation and participation at Wave III, before they were married. These young adults were all married at age 25 or younger, statistically early marriages for their generation. Thus, those who subsequently divorced represent relatively short marriages and early divorces.

divorce rates by religious group

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) Waves III and IV.
*Statistically significant difference at the .05 level from Other Christian: Active in logistic regression models.
^Statistically significant difference at the .05 level from Non-Religious in logistic regression models.

The comparison groups in Figure 1 are designed to mirror those of the Glass and Levchak study, but they are divided into active (attending religious services two or more times a month) and nominal (attending less than two times a month) subgroups. As the figure shows, active conservative Protestants are statistically no more likely to have divorced in the first few years of marriage than their active peers from other Christian denominations, and both groups who attend church frequently are significantly less likely to have divorced than their non-religious peers. The group that stands out in Figure 1 is the nominal conservative Protestants, the most likely group to have divorced. Thus, in the exact group (early-marrying conservative Protestants) whose marriages Glass and Levchak would expect to falter, active conservative Protestants are above average in marital stability early in marriage, while nominal conservative Protestants fare worse than the non-religious.

Young Christians who attend church frequently are significantly less likely to have divorced early in marriage than their non-religious peers.

This evidence suggests that nominal, not active, conservative Protestants are driving some of the results from the Glass and Levchak study. It may be that nominal conservative Protestants absorb the marital norms associated with conservative Protestant beliefs and culture (especially in largely conservative Protestant communities) but lack the habits and social support structures that are cultivated by regular participation in religious services, and which are needed to observe these stricter norms. Why a lack of regular religious practice should create greater divorce risk among conservative Protestants than among their other Christian peers is worth further investigation.

Taken together, the additional considerations mentioned above along with the supplementary data, significantly qualify the main story of “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce.” While the article presents some provocative findings, worthy of attention and prompting further investigation, it shouldn’t be used to portray conservative Protestants as the unwitting enemies of marital stability. Instead, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce” gives further evidence of the difficulty of sustaining marriages in contemporary America, and illustrates how religious communities traditionally associated with promoting lasting marriages can become ineffective, or even counterproductive, especially for those adherents who become unmoored from regular religious practice.