More religiously conservative Protestants? More divorce, study finds

Religiously conservative Protestants have higher rates of divorce -- and it even spreads to other people living around them, according to a new study.
(Richard Derk/Los Angeles Times)

Divorce is higher among religiously conservative Protestants – and even drives up divorce rates for other people living around them, a new study finds.

The study, slated to be published in the American Journal of Sociology, tackles the “puzzling paradox” of why divorce is more common in religiously conservative “red” states. If religious conservatives believe firmly in the value of marriage, why is divorce especially high in places like Alabama and Arkansas?

To figure that out, researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Iowa analyzed county divorce statistics against information from an earlier study of religious congregations. They categorized Protestant denominations that believe the Bible is literally true as “conservative Protestants.”


Researchers discovered that higher divorce rates among conservative Protestants were tied to earlier marriages and childbearing – factors known to ramp up divorce. Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages, University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer Glass said.

But the study went a step further: Glass and another researcher also discovered that people living in areas with lots of conservative Protestants were at higher risk of getting divorced, even if they weren’t conservative Protestants themselves.

County by county, for every 1% increase in the share of conservative Protestants compared with mainline Protestants, the divorce rate increased 0.02%, the study found. Glass argued that community institutions in such areas might encourage early marriage, affecting divorce rates for everyone who lives there.

“Pharmacies might not give out emergency contraception. Schools might only teach abstinence education,” Glass added. On top of that, “if you live in a marriage market where everybody marries young, you postpone marriage at your own risk. The best catches … are going to go first.”

The study also found that it was not poverty nor higher rates of marriage, on the whole, that were driving up divorce in “red” counties, as others had theorized.

“It’s surprising,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “In some contexts in America today, religion is a buffer against divorce. But in the conservative Protestant context, this paper is showing us that it’s not.”


Wilcox added that the study also showed that more “secularism” – people not adhering to any religious tradition – was also linked to higher rates of divorce.

The nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families, where Glass is a senior scholar, provided a map to illustrate how divorce rates and populations of conservative Protestants overlap. “Young people of every religious belief -- or none -- are influenced by cultural climate,” it wrote in an announcement on the study.

Twitter: @latimesemily