In Theory: On religion and the risk of divorce

Sociologists at the University of Texas and the University of Iowa write in the American Journal of Sociology that "Conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create .... increase divorce risk in the contemporary United States."

Others suggest that conservative Southern states have higher rates of divorce than the Northeast because the bluer region has lower rates of marriage. They further suggest that class is a big factor and that poverty contributes to family dysfunction.

Q: Is religion bad for marriage?

While the study controlled for factors such as income and education level, it did not make any distinction about a person's commitment to their faith. Rather, participants self identified their religious affiliation and were identified as "conservative Protestants" if they answered in the affirmative to questions such as: "Do you believe the Bible contains no errors?"

Using this criterion, there was no distinction made between "nominal Protestants" (those who identify themselves with a particular Protestant denomination) and "committed Protestants" (those who attend church regularly and engage in other religious practices such as Bible reading and prayer).

This would seem to be a rather glaring error in methodology given that earlier research indicates significant differences between divorce rates of nominal and committed Protestants. The article also failed to discuss the fact that the study also found that religiously unaffiliated persons had the highest rates of divorce, and counties with the most religiously unaffiliated persons had the highest rates of divorce.

Probably worst of all, the study authors attempt to explain the positive correlation with a series of conjectures about how teaching sexual abstinence before marriage increases early marriage, early parenting and subsequent divorce. These causative assumptions were not addressed by this study. As any psychology student completing their first course in statistics can tell you, correlations only indicate that two factors vary in the same direction, never that one factor causes another.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


You aren't going to find many clergy who will say that religion is bad for marriage! I certainly won't say that it is. Those who are religious, whether they are conservative or liberal, or someplace in the great middle, involve God in their most important choices, and marriage, of course, is one of the most important, if not the most important choice one makes. So the question almost doesn't make sense. How about this one: Is God bad for religion?

I will admit that some believers will stay in a bad marriage longer than a nonbeliever, perhaps, but that's only because the believer remembers his/her vows of "till death do us part." Also, I'll admit that some religious counselors encourage women to stay with battering husbands because they mistakenly believe that breaking a vow is somehow worse than breaking a woman's face. Those counselors, in my opinion, should be disbarred, or if that's not possible, drawn and quartered!

Seriously, love is of God, says the New Testament — but when we make mistakes, and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), it's time to repent of our error, cut bait, and move on. It simply cannot be the will of a loving God to condemn two people who no longer love each other to stay together. There's a country and western song called "Jackson", and in that song is the line, "We got married in a fever...."

Well, believers and non-believers alike have "got married in a fever", and it cannot be the will of the Heavenly Father (who is forgiving, remember?) to compel two of his children to suffer for the rest of their lives. So religion isn't bad for marriage, but bad religion certainly is.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


The actual claim here is that following conservative Christianity increases the risk of divorce. So what does the Bible teach? Abstinence. Many scoff at this, but the fact remains that the more young people practice it the better off they'll be with fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer abortions, fewer single parents in poverty and fewer sexually transmitted diseases. It is the 100% fool-proof solution to each of these problems. Only fools would deny that.

The Bible teaches faithfulness. And this is a bad thing? It would seem that lack of relational commitment and infidelity are greater threats to marriage than faithfulness. The Bible teaches self-sacrificial love for each other: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her" says Ephesians 5:25. How in the world is selfless giving bad for a marriage?

Critical, biased articles and skewed surveys are paper-thin excuses people use to reject the God they know is there and to follow their own willful, rebellious ways. It's grasping at straws. It's chasing the wind.

So why these survey results? It could very well be that in the South there is more cultural pressure to identify yourself as a Christian even if you don't follow Christian principles. That would skew the survey results. Success in conservative Christian marriages depends on how well we apply what the Bible teaches us. Failing to properly follow good advice doesn't make the advice bad, it just makes us bad followers. Jesus said, "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


Despite the study showing religion to have a negative marital impact, its authors point out other evidence that couples who attend church together are more likely to stay married. One bit of research data cannot be used to draw sweeping conclusions.

As tiles form a mosaic, we need to look at many studies to see the full picture. And proving cause is not the same as observing.

But why do we care about marital success anyway? Plenty of singles and unmarried couples can and do form healthy, happy households. But married couples provide a better life for children, as a rule, assuming that they aren't poor.

Seizing on the marriage part while ignoring the part about poverty, many conservatives and a few liberals tout programs to promote marriage. With nearly 40% of children now in single (almost always) female-headed households, mostly low-income, increasing marriage rates seems like a public-policy magic bullet.

It is especially appealing to religious fundamentalists and others on the right because stable marriage conforms to their cultural worldview. (Only between a man and a women, of course!)

Only problem is they have the cart before the horse. Here's a headline from last Sunday's New York Times Magazine: "Everyone in Washington agrees: Marriage cures poverty. It's too bad they're wrong."

Looking at lots of research, it is poverty which is bad for marriage (and children), and marriage doesn't alleviate being poor. Poor people marry less, divorce more and when they do marry don't get the same social and economic boost for their children.

Conservative cultural practices like marrying and having children young, educational avoidance, and limiting women's choices and roles make marriage harder because they make poverty more likely.

But all people at the lower end of the wage scale have been relentlessly battered in the workplace by globalization and technological change, left adrift by the declining fortunes of unions and by ineffective and uncaring government, realities which are nibbling away at the middle class too.

Couples counseling is the least of our worries.

Roberta Medford


The short answer is no. The truth is that religion strengthens marriage when husband and wife keep their love of God and one another at the heart of their relationship.

The Texas/Iowa study actually supports this idea. I contacted one of the researchers, University of Texas Professor Jennifer Glass, who was kind enough to address this question and forward a copy of the article. She noted that the study doesn't address the influence of religion per se, but examines cultural factors found among conservative Protestants in certain areas, primarily the South, where they make up a large percentage of the population.

"Religiosity in general, especially when shared between married partners, is protective against divorce," Glass said in an email. "It's the early family formation and truncated educational attainment of conservative Protestants that account for their increase in divorce probabilities."

In fact, the article notes that in counties with the highest percentage of conservative Protestants, where the risk of marriage outside the faith is lower, there was no increased danger of divorce. Presumably, church involvement also is higher in these areas.

The value of religion is supported in another study, this one by sociologist Charles Stokes, that found lower divorce rates among couples who attend church regularly. This fits with the LDS view that we strengthen our marriages though active faith that brings Christ's teachings into our homes.

In "A Proclamation on the Family" the church's First Presidency teach that we increase our prospects for a happy, enduring marriage when we rely on "faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion" and, of course, work. Those things reduce the risk that selfishness or despair will drive a wedge between husbands, wives and their children. They raise the likelihood of relationships that bring us joy and hope.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


I was greatly surprised to read that documented research from two reputable American universities suggests that the risk of divorce in the present-day United States is increased with the influence of conservative Protestant beliefs and the social institutions they create. Aren't these the same attitudes that are supposed to strengthen marriage and the family? What could have gone wrong?

There are many possible answers, of course; but I believe that it is far too simplistic to blame religion for all of these problems. Fundamentalist beliefs about marriage, sex and gender roles, if not supported by the larger community, do not seem to have as great an effect as they do when they remain unquestioned. In fact, according to further research, there are higher divorce rates among conservative Protestants in counties where a larger percentage of conservative Protestants live than in counties where more mainline Protestants are a majority. So community acceptance of these ideas appears to be an even greater factor than the beliefs themselves.

The conviction that women do not need to be highly educated or have careers, that sexual education is dangerous, that total sexual abstinence until marriage is the only allowable form of birth control, that early marriage is a positive thing, and that financial support by one parent is ideal are not just conservative Protestant beliefs. They are beliefs that appear to have had dangerous effects on the institution of marriage and family stability in our country today.

With these negative results in mind, perhaps we need to look more carefully at the suppositions above as they are being foisted on our young people by some people in our larger society. Half-truths are only effective when they remain unquestioned. To question truly can be an answer in religion or in life.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


The tenets of all major religions require followers to be faithful and respectful to their spouses, and they encourage the creation of a positive family nucleus based on moral values. How can these ideas be bad for marriage? The problem obviously does not lie in the religious beliefs, but in the lack of adherence to them. I would suggest that it is actually contemporary culture that is the primary culprit behind high divorce rates.

We live in an era where an incessant flow of Hollywood movies, TV shows, and popular music — along with constant access to social media and the Internet — is a central part of every young person's life. Much of this media bombardment contains messages which are actually very harmful to a positive relationship. Movies often depict fairy tale scenarios of matrimonial bliss that fail to mention the hard work and continuous effort necessary to maintain a healthy marriage. Popular music stars frequently glorify promiscuity and violence against women. And the Internet and social media can be gateways to infidelity and pornography that can poison any marriage.

For those who want to avoid divorce and create stronger bonds with their spouses, I suggest that they become more cognizant of their religious beliefs and follow the principles of their faith closely. It is the combination of spiritual adherence, continuous engagement and effort, and avoiding the negative influences of popular culture that will help to ensure a happy, healthy marriage.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center

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