Saturday, August 25, 2007

A New York Times article, facetiously titled "To Avoid Divorce, Move to Massachusetts," reveals that politically and socially conservative states such as Kentucky have higher divorce rates than the rest of the nation (10.8 divorces for every 1,000 married people), while liberal states such as Massachusetts have the lowest divorce rates nationally (5.7 divorces per 1,000 married people).

The article makes much of the fact that Massachusetts, with its low divorce rate is a state that has made same sex marriage legal, while Kentucky (in 2004) passed a constitutional amendment to bar not only same sex marriage, but also to bar any form of civil union that was substantially similar to marriage. The article points out that
As researchers have noted, the areas of the country where divorce rates are highest are also frequently the areas where many conservative Christians live.
Then goes on to note that:
Many experts believe the explanation to be more multidimensional, with high divorce rates tied to factors like younger age of marriage, less education and lower socioeconomic status.
As one of those "experts" I concur, that these important social and economic factors, are key to the differences in divorce between Kentucky and Massachusetts. Kentucky has lower education attainment, a lower standard of living, higher levels of poverty, and lower age at marriage than Massachusetts.

The article suggests, through the various experts cited, that the coincidence of conservative Christianity with certain patterns of education, standard of living and age at marriage and divorce rates is a geographical artifact and not a causal factor. However, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, did suggest a plausible causal explanation:
"If your family or religious culture urges you not to have sex before you get married," she said, "then one answer is to get married, and then you're more likely to divorce."
The data cited in the article are consistent with what I've been seeing over the past decade of writing about marriage and the family (textbook chapters), and not at all surprising. However, seeing it presented in this way, gave me a new idea. Perhaps it is the patterns of divorce that are causal in contributing to the rise and popularity of certain religious ideas among the general public.

High divorce rates may not cause people in a region to become conservative Christians, but they may cause conservative Christians in certain areas to latch on to certain political ideas -- such as anti-gay marriage -- as a result of fears about the stability of marriage. Fears that would certainly be more common and make more sense in high divorce regions.

Moreover, it would be to the advantage of those who benefit from the prevailing patterns of inequality, economy and education that people in high divorce areas be discouraged from seeking to change those things to lower divorce rates. Anti-gay marriage amendments don't threaten entrenched patterns of power and privilege the way programs to deal seriously with educational access, unemployment and low income do.


E. R. Dunhill said...

Interesting- I've read a little about similar conclusions from other studies. I'm curious as to the possible differences in the rate of marriage from one place to another, and how such a delta would affect the divorce rates.

smudge said...

Yes, those of us living in the despised, morally bankrupt Commonwealth of Massachusetts have been getting a good chuckle out of that article. Of course, we weren't looking at the sociological implications. We were just having fun doing our "Hate us, but we still rock" dance. And mooning Mitt Romney, of course.