Politics & Policy

Are Evangelicals Bad for Marriage?

“Red state” values supposedly increase divorce risk, but the least religious couples are equally vulnerable.

An April 2014 Urban Institute study predicts that if current marriage rates do not rebound, just 69 percent of Millennial women (and 65 percent of men) will marry by the age of 40. By contrast, in 1990, 91 percent of U.S.-born women had married by the age of 40.

Almost none of this retreat from marriage will be felt among college-educated white Americans. The majority of college-educated Millennials will marry and have their children in marriages that last until the death of one partner.

Meanwhile, the average American lives in a world where sex is plentiful but stable families are not, leading many a Millennial to conclude that there is little point in marriage at all. You can’t fail at what you don’t attempt.

Into this explosive disruption of the time-tested path to opportunity for America’s next generation comes a new marriage debate: Are evangelicals bad for marriage?

A few years ago, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn launched the concept of “red families” and “blue families.” The emergent secular blue-family model embraces contraception, abortion, premarital sex, and cohabitation as strategies to help young men and women delay marriage and childbirth while they pursue college diplomas and graduate degrees. These fortunate blues, however, eventually settle down and raise their 1.7 children in stable, affluent marriages. It is the way Yale and Harvard live now. 

Red families in Carbone and Cahn’s model are religious traditionalists who continue to try to link not only children and marriage but also sex and marriage. The red-family model abhors abortion, embraces abstinence education, worries about pushing contraception for unmarried teens (at least), and discourages divorce.

The blue-family model, Carbone and Cahn argue, is more successful at protecting marriage.

In the January issue of the American Journal of Sociology, Jennifer Glass and Phillip Levchak pick up on Carbone and Cahn’s new models to investigate empirically why divorce rates are higher in red states than in blue states. Conservative Protestant family values, they conclude, are bad for marriage:

The major pathway linking religious conservatism and divorce is the early cessation of education in favor of marriage and childbearing. Early childbearing among couples with relatively low levels of education, coupled with low rates of maternal employment, leads to financial difficulties that can seriously strain marital relationships. . . . The effects of large concentrations of conservative Protestants on aggregate divorce rates do not simply reflect the higher divorce risk of conservative Protestants themselves.

Moreover, conservative family values spill over to hurt non-conservatives: “The community norms and institutions structuring marriage and fertility that stem from the beliefs of conservative Protestants affect all youths irrespective of their personal religious affiliation, increasing divorce risk among all those in that environment,” Glass and Levchak conclude.

The unique culture created by conservative Protestant family values undermines marriage, or at least marital stability, by encouraging early family formation, less education, and more divorce.

Score one for the blue family.

Of course, as others have pointed out, Glass and Levchak’s study does not measure the effect of religious practice, only the effect of religious affiliation. When both spouses practice their faith together, it reduces the risk of divorce, even for those who form early marriages. Using Add-Health data, Charles E. Stokes, Amber Lapp, and David Lapp looked at divorce risk among religiously affiliated people who marry “early” (ages 18 to 26) and found that for both conservative Protestants and Catholics, church attendance (but not affiliation) dramatically reduces divorce. A little bit of religion hurts your marriage, they conclude, but a strong faith practice helps.

Glass and Levchak acknowledge that the connection between conservative Protestantism and divorce risk reverses in counties that are dominated by conservative Protestants (where they are two-thirds or more of the residents); they suggest that this preponderance of Protestants reduces the risk that conservative Protestant women will marry outside their faith (a particularly  divorce-prone pairing).

But I think their data are pointing as well to another truth: If you are going to use a family strategy that depends on norms pointing sexual desire towards marriage, then you need strong communities that share those norms to sustain it. Nominal labels (if you are Protestant in name only) and individual values won’t suffice to sustain red families. This dispute over communal norms is the heart of the old culture war.

Moreover, Glass and Levchak’s data show that the most secular part of society, the religiously unaffiliated, faces divorce risks at least as large as those faced by nominal conservative Protestants. If religious values are destroying marriage, why are the least religious so vulnerable? Why are Catholics and Mormons categorized with mainline Protestants in this study while “religious conservatism” is confined to conservative Protestants?

I think there are many things religious communities can learn from Glass and Levchak’s groundbreaking work. If it is true that the greater part of conservative Protestants’ divorce risk is a result of Protestants’ leaving school when they form families at a young age, then a renewed emphasis on higher education in evangelical circles could help.  Pastors might emphasize that’s it’s beneficial to marry within the faith, or at least note the high risks that come when conservative Protestant women are yoked to men who do not share their values. Then, too, here’s a thought: Conservative Protestant family values might reduce the rate of divorce if pastors did more to discourage divorce, using scriptural values.

But here’s another thought, for the wider American society, red and blue: If the less-educated non-practicing Millennials are doing the worst of all, perhaps we should work harder to avoid all-out culture war and look instead for ways red families and blue families can cooperate to strengthen family relationships for the common good, where possible.

There are not two family models in the United States, there are at least three: 1) the red-family model in which religious conservatives of all denominations seek to sustain theologically driven models connecting sex, love, marriage, and babies; 2) the secular blue-family model, which continues to connect marriage and childbearing on mostly practical grounds but embraces sexual freedom in theory and abortion in practice; and 3) the increasingly popular “detached” family model, in which young people engage in intermittent sexual dramas with no obvious end point. Women end up not only bowling alone but raising children alone.

In this last model, women have families. Men have porn, beer, and video games, a lifestyle that can be sustained by a part-time minimum-wage job, plus a room in your divorced mom’s basement.

Here Carbone and Cahn’s latest book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family, might help. Coming up with solutions to the collapse of wages among the less educated, especially less-educated men, might point us to a policy that red and blue families who care about marriage could both support.

— Maggie Gallagher is a fellow at the American Principles Project. You can read her work at MaggieGallagher.com.


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