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Y’all Want a Divorce? Blame the Church

I met a man in Nashville when I was 20 years old and fell in love immediately. By the second date, I knew I’d marry him if he asked me.  Within a few short weeks, he did just that — so spontaneously he didn’t even have a ring. Three months later, we were in France, buying flowers off the street from a vendor and getting married in the upstairs room of a restaurant.  We barely knew each other, and some of the ceremony was in French. We either got married or agreed to be Amway sales reps.

Our spontaneity, of course, was a recipe for disaster.  And, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau, I fit the mold. Southerners tend to get married — and divorced — more than their Northeastern counterparts. I even dropped out of college after getting married, which pretty much makes me a walking stereotype (though I am currently wearing shoes and not pregnant).

“There tend to be higher divorce rates in states where women marry young,” D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer for the Pew Research Center told CNN Living. “Education also may play a role. In general, less educated women marry at younger ages than college-educated women, and less educated couples have higher divorce rates.”

The report reveals:

Southern men and women had higher rates of divorce in 2009 than their counterparts in other parts of the country: 10.2 per 1,000 for men and 11.1 per 1,000 for women. . . . By comparison, men and women in the Northeast had the lowest rates of divorce, 7.2 and 7.5 per 1,000, which is also lower than the national divorce rate of 9.2 for men and 9.7 for women.

So, what is it about Southerners that makes us more likely to say both “I do” and “I quit”?

Christianity, of course.  At least that’s what Naomi Cahn, law professor at the George Washington University Law School, believes. Her reasoning goes like this: Christians stigmatize losing one’s virginity outside of marriage, which means people marry early before they succumb to pre-marital sex, attain a college education, and benefit from a good salary. 

“There’s a moral crisis in red states that’s produced by higher divorce rates and the disparity between parental values and behavior of young adults. There is enormous tension between moral values and actual practices,” she told CNN.

So, is she right? If the South could rid itself of that pesky “old time religion,” would we divorce less frequently?

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, provides some helpful facts. He reports that “Americans who attend religious services several times a month were about 35 percent less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.”

In other words, people who attend church regularly are less likely to get divorced. 

That means Christianity isn’t the problem; it’s the solution. In fact, Dr. Pat Fagan, director of the Center for Research on Marriage and Religion and senior fellow at the Marriage and Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., says that regular church attendance has many social benefits, including:

Lower divorce rates:

Lower cohabitation rates;

Lower rates of out-of-wedlock births;

Lower levels of teen sexual activity

But the question lingers. Why is there a higher rate of divorce in the South? Answers are speculative at best, but southerners are generally poorer and less educated; and they have a strong tradition of marrying young. All of these factors put strain on marriages.

Of course, I pretty much represent a culmination of all of the worst “marriage decisions” a Southerner could possibly make. So what happened after I married the guy my mother called a “rank stranger?” Well, fifteen years later, we’re still going strong. (He actually writes for NRO.) Although we’ve lived in the Northeast, we’re back in the rural South and raising three kids. 

And, yes, we drag them to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. 

— Nancy French lives in the mule capital of the world (Columbia, Tenn.) and wrote about northern perceptions of southerners in her book “Red State of Mind.”

Nancy French — Nancy French is a three-time New York Times best-selling author and a longtime contributor to National Review Online.

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