Linking Religion, Divorce Rate Faulty
By Dr. Brent Barlow
The Deseret News recently published a New York Times News Service article titled "Divorce is Soaring in Bible Belt." The article noted attempts by various groups "to bring down a divorce rate that in Oklahoma, as in several other states in what is sometimes referred to as the Bible Belt, is among the highest in the country." The article elsewhere noted a troubling paradox. The divorce rate in much of the area where evangelical Christianity is particularly strong is roughly 50 percent above the national average.
From these and other insinuations in the article, readers might be drawn to the conclusion that religion is a major contributing factor to divorce in some areas of the United States. Similar implications have been made regarding divorce statistics and religion in Utah. Care should be exercised in making hasty assumptions.
Researchers have recently pointed out that divorce among a substantial number of evangelical Christians living in the Bible Belt might be attributed to low income rather than religious beliefs. This is particularly so when the couples are living on minimal incomes in economically depressed areas.
Marrying at a young age was also suggested to be a contributing factor to divorce in some of these areas. Any marriage will suffer, regardless of religious affiliation or lack of it, when couples marry young and the income approaches or is below the poverty line.
Divorce rates have been reported and compared on a state-by-state basis in the United States for the past five decades. Utah has had "a higher than average" divorce rate in all but three years, a trend often reported in the media, both local and national. Since about 70 percent of the residents of Utah are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, implications have been made that the divorce rate is high among Latter-day Saints.
Divorce rates reported nationally are usually based on the annual number of divorces per 1,000 people in any given state. These statistics are sometimes distorted because states such as Utah and some Bible Belt states have a higher percent of the population married. This is often so because of the beliefs of other religious denominations sanctioning marriage in these areas.
The fact is that the divorce rate in Utah has usually been closer to "average" than "above average." For example, if the average divorce rate for the nation was 4.5 per 1,000 population then Utah's divorce rate would be 4.6 or just one-tenth of a percent higher. And Utah's divorce rate is relatively low when viewed from geographical perspectives. Utah has consistently had the lowest divorce rate of the eight Intermountain states (Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.)
In addition, divorce rates are lowest in the eastern United States and highest in the Western states. Furthermore, divorce rates are lowest in the northern states and highest in the southern regions of the United States. These trends occur regardless of where religious denominations are concentrated.
If the United States were divided into four general geographical sections, Utah usually has the lowest divorce rate of any state in three of the four areas (Northwest, Southwest and Southeast). Only states in the northeast section of the United States, where a disproportionate number of states are concentrated and median income relatively high, have lower divorce rates.
Religion may sometimes be a contributing factor to divorce. But religious affiliation and church attendance more often stabilize marriages than weaken them. Jernian and Nock found in their analysis of a national sample of individuals "that those who attend church weekly, regardless of denomination, are slightly more than one-third, or 36 percent, less likely to divorce than those who never attend."
Articles such as the one distributed by the New York Times News Service do a great injustice by implying that religious affiliation or church attendance in any area, including states in the Bible Belt, is a major cause of divorce when just the opposite has been found to be true.
Brent A. Barlow of Orem is the chairman of the Governor's Commission on Marriage.