In a back room at the First Church of the Nazarene, eight couples--young and engaged--rise beside their metal chairs, lift their right hands and repeat their weekly pledge.
"I will never get divorced."
The tone is stout, almost soldierly. Aptly so, because their marriage-preparation class in northwest Oklahoma City takes place along the front lines of the battle against pervasive divorce.
Aside from the quickie-divorce mecca of Nevada, no region of the United States has a higher divorce rate than the Bible Belt. Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce. In a country where nearly half of all marriages break up, the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50% above the national average.
For Michelle Carroll and fiance David Kouts, two 22-year-olds taking lawyer Jim Priest's pre-marriage course, the statistics are sobering.
"It scares me personally, for our own marriage," says Carroll. "It makes me realize how much hard work there is to do."
No state has been more embarrassed by the divorce problem--or more willing to confront it--than Oklahoma. The state's civic leaders, so often outspoken in promoting family values, see an irony in the statistics but find no easy explanations.
Over the last few months, Gov. Frank Keating has pushed the issue high onto the public agenda, enlisting clergymen, academics, lawyers and psychologists in a high-profile campaign to reduce the divorce rate by a third within 10 years.
"Oklahomans can no longer take marriage for granted," says Jerry Regier, Keating's secretary for health and human services. "This is a problem that affects us all."
When the state's high divorce rate first made headlines a few years ago, "It hit me like a ton of bricks," says Anthony Jordan, executive director of Oklahoma's branch of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jordan, whose denomination is the largest in the state, is trying to mobilize his pastors and clergy of other faiths to marry in their churches only those couples who first take a marriage-preparation course. At present, according to state estimates, three-fourths of weddings take place in church.
Nationally, there were about 4.2 divorces for every thousand people in 1998, according to federal figures. The rate was 8.5 per thousand in Nevada, 6.4 in Tennessee, 6.1 in Arkansas, 6.0 in Alabama and Oklahoma, but less than 3.0 in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. Of all southeastern states, only South Carolina's rate of 3.8 was below the national average. (California's rate was not available.)
Why so many divorces in the Bible Belt? Experts cite low household incomes (Oklahoma ranks 46th and Arkansas 47th) and a tendency for couples to marry at a younger age than in many other states.
Those studying the issue also suggest that religion plays a role, though opinions differ on exactly how.
David Popenoe, co-director of National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, notes that some of the lowest divorce rates are in northeastern states with relatively high household incomes and large numbers of Roman Catholics, whose church doesn't recognize divorce.
Bible Belt states, in contrast, are dominated by fundamentalist Protestant denominations that proclaim the sanctity of marriage but generally do not want to estrange churchgoers who do divorce.
"I applaud the Catholics," says Jordan. "I don't think we as Protestant evangelists have done nearly as well preparing people for marriage. And in the name of being loving and accepting, we have not placed the stigma on divorce that we should have."
Some Oklahomans suggest the very nature of Bible Belt fundamentalism may contribute to marriage problems by offering guidelines that might not be useful for a troubled couple.
Fundamentalist churchgoers are often exposed to "fairy-tale conceptions of marriage," says the Rev. Robin Meyers, a Congregational minister in Oklahoma City. He describes himself as one of the few liberal clergymen in the nation's most conservative state.
"They have that whole dogma of 'This is right, this is wrong' and nothing in between," Meyers says. "They don't have the mental dexterity to make the adjustments to a less than perfect marriage."
Jordan disagrees emphatically.
"There may be a church here or there that takes a very caustic approach," he says. "But more and more of our churches are offering opportunities to strengthen marriage."
Due in part to Oklahoma's conservative religious values, relatively few young couples live together before marriage.
"There is very strong pressure: If you're going to have an intimate relationship, it has got to be in marriage," says Dr. Stewart Beasley, president of the Oklahoma Psychological Assn. "When you get that pushed down your throat, it doesn't give you a whole lot of options."
One option is early marriage, says Beasley, "and the younger they are, the less likely they'll make a success of it."
Some conservative churches teach that the husband is the spiritual head of the family, with the wife in a supportive role. The Southern Baptist Church amended its declaration of beliefs last year to assert that a wife should "submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."
"It's a very narrow view of what marriage is," Beasley says. "It puts a lot of women in a moral crisis."
In neighboring Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee has declared a "marital emergency" aimed at halving the divorce rate by 2010. But even though family breakups aggravate a wide range of social problems, few other governors or federal politicians have focused on divorce.
"It seems crazy to me that something as fundamental to society as marriage doesn't seem to be deserving of attention by government," says Tim Sullivan, who oversees family programs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa. "Yet nobody seems to want to talk about this except the Christian right wing."
Aware of such perceptions, the Keating administration says its anti-divorce initiative is no ideological crusade.
"We must not let marriage become a partisan issue or a battleground for conservatives and liberals," says Regier, a former juvenile justice official in the Reagan administration.
Churches will spearhead the Oklahoma initiative with their effort to promote marriage preparation, but the government will consider steps of its own. Among the possibilities: encouraging couples to accept mediation before considering divorce, and offering courses in public schools that would deal with values and relationships.
"Kids don't have a very realistic view of marriage," says Regier. "They have flawed models around them . . . . They're waiting for someone to show them the way."
He looks for a bright side to the unsettling statistics.
"Even with a very high divorce rate, people here tend to remarry," he says. "Our people believe in marriage very strongly, but we don't tend our marriages very well."
Oklahoma's first lady, Cathy Keating, is active in the anti-divorce campaign. She is hopeful that experts can devise a school curriculum that will promote stronger marriages without infringing on church and family prerogatives.
"It's not the government's business to tell people how to live their private lives or raise their children," she says. "I strongly believe in parental rights and responsibility, but not everybody has the skills to teach these things at home."
Cathy Keating has won admiration for stressing that her own 27-year marriage is less than perfect. "Ours is a work in progress," she says. "Our children have seen us fight. But I hope they've seen us fight fairly."
Like most states, Oklahoma sets up few legal barriers to divorce. District Judge Niles Jackson, a veteran of family-court cases, focuses on the other end of the process.
"I don't think it's too easy to get a divorce," he says. "It's too easy to get married. All you need is $20 and a blood test. We marry anyone who wants to."
Jackson reluctantly has married some couples who couldn't even speak the same language. He recalled one husband who depicted his marriage as doomed the day after the wedding.
"There seems to be a feeling that once you get into your first fight, it's not going to work out and the perfect person is waiting for you in your next marriage. There is no attitude of sticking with it and trying to work out the problems."
Jackson advocates premarital counseling for secular as well as church marriages, if only to ensure that couples have considered potentially divisive matters such as finances.
"You try to put some reality into the infatuation they have," he says. "If it stops half these people from getting married, great."
At the First Church of the Nazarene, Jim Priest isn't trying to stop any of his students in his seven-week course from getting married. But between the prayers that open and close each session, he seeks to arm them for the challenges ahead.
One recent class focused on communication--the damage that can be caused by poor listening habits or sarcastic tones. He summoned couples to the front of the room to engage in mock arguments.
"If you can communicate without biting each other's heads off, you can solve any problem," Priest told the class.
Earlier, at his law office, Priest reflected on the irony of a high divorce rate in Oklahoma--a state, he notes, where people are proud of their religious faith and of the community spirit that flourished so movingly after the Oklahoma City bombing.
"We're very community oriented," he said. "But we haven't necessarily embodied that in our personal relationships."
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From 'I Do' to 'I Don't'
Rankings of the 50 states by number of divorces per 1,000 people in 1998, calculated by the Associated Press based on U.S. government statistics. The national average was 4.2. (Figures for Texas are from 1997; figures for California, Colorado, Indiana and Louisiana were not available)
Ranking State Divorce Rate 1 Nevada 8.5 2 Tennessee 6.4 3 Arkansas 6.1 4 Alabama 6.0 5 Oklahoma 6.0 6 New Hampshire 5.9 7 Wyoming 5.9 8 Idaho 5.7 9 Kentucky 5.7 10 Arizona 5.5 11 Florida 5.4 12 Alaska 5.2 13 West Virginia 5.1 14 Washington 5.1 15 Texas 4.9 16 North Carolina 4.9 17 Missouri 4.7 18 Mississippi 4.7 19 Georgia 4.7 20 Oregon 4.6 21 New Mexico 4.6 22 Delaware 4.5 23 Virginia 4.4 24 Vermont 4.3 25 Utah 4.2 26 Maine 4.1 27 Ohio 4.1 28 Kansas 4.1 29 Hawaii 4.0 30 Michigan 4.0 31 Nebraska 3.8 32 South Carolina 3.8 33 Montana 3.8 34 South Dakota 3.5 35 Wisconsin 3.4 36 Illinois 3.4 37 Iowa 3.3 38 North Dakota 3.3 39 Minnesota 3.2 40 Pennsylvania 3.2 41 Rhode Island 3.2 42 Maryland 3.2 43 New Jersey 3.1 44 Connecticut 2.9 45 Massachusetts 2.7 46 New York 2.5
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau
National Center for Health Statistics