Home » Christian Higher Education » Conservative Protestants, Divorce, and Culture: Durkheim would be proud

Conservative Protestants, Divorce, and Culture: Durkheim would be proud

Red State MarriageSociologists made the news this week. Mostly we just do our research and our teaching, wondering if anybody notices. Then word comes out that a study will appear in this month’s American Journal of Sociology that raises questions about the connections between religious affiliation and divorce. The article, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak, examines patterns in county divorce rates as they were correlated with other factors.

Religion news outlets got on the story. The Religion News Service story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey did a very good job. The Huffington Post summarized the story, while seeming to gloat a little on red-state problems or support of abstinence programs. One of the clearest summaries is in a press release from the Council on Contemporary Families (operated by Stephanie Coontz, one of the best marriage experts in the country).

There was some spirited dialogue about the study on Facebook and Twitter and I shared what I could. But I realized that it was hard to evaluate the argument without seeing the actual article, which isn’t out yet. But the intrepid Director of the White Library at Spring Arbor, Robbie Bolton, found me a copy of a conference paper Glass and Levchak had done three years ago that looks to be a similar argument and is likely the initial version of what became the AJS paper.

It’s a very interesting paper (if you like ordinary least squares regression). It does a very nice review of the literature, looking at the dynamics impacting divorce decisions, conservative protestantism, early marriage, attitudes toward cohabitation, and so on.

Curiously, it seems that much of the push-back on the internet comes from observations in the lit review. At least one article states, “as the authors wrote in the paper“, which while technically true isn’t the point of their analysis. They site what Mark Regnerus calls the “evangelical anomaly”, in which conservative attitudes against premarital sex don’t impact sexual behavior, resulting in higher than average rates of both teen pregnancy and early marriage. They summarize research that posits a Southern Culture. They discuss the relationships between educational level, economic structure, and divorce. All of these are in their paper but the real focus in on how county patterns co-vary.

This is important sociologically — we must pay attention to units of analysis. You can’t use county level data to explain individual divorces or attitudes of local conservative protestant congregations. Anyone who has done either is using the study in ways that aren’t appropriate.

What Glass and Levchak are doing has a sociological history running back to Durkheim. In his classic study Suicide (1897), he examined how suicide rates vary by region in ways that co-varied with characteristics within the region (protestant vs catholic provinces in the classic example). Obviously, individual suicides don’t vary in the same way (he was quite dismissive of theories of abnormality to explain collective behavior). He suggested that what happens is that there is a general “social current” within a culture that intersects with individuals considering suicide. The result is a tremendous stability in suicide rates over time (not for individuals, of course, they don’t have an “over time”!).

It’s in this context that the Red State-Divorce connection should be read. Their results suggest that counties with higher percentages of the population affiliated with conservative protestant churches contrasted with mainline churches have higher rates of divorce than those counties with lower percentages of the same. (When unaffiliated percentages are compared to mainline, the impact on divorce is three times as high). They then control for standard variables like race, social class, and age of first marriage to see if the initial relationship was an artifact of something else. It persists throughout the analysis.

They had already demonstrated in the literature review that attendance in an evangelical church appears to operate as inoculation against divorce. This maybe be due to the social supports provided by the congregation and/or the social opprobrium against divorce. So they aren’t really arguing that conservative protestants are contributing to divorce. Their argument is more subtle than that.

The data seems to suggest that increased rates of divorce in the counties with higher percentages in conservative churches is due to the behaviors of the non-attending crowd. Theoretically, this would suggest that the churches were helping to shape the norms and values of the local culture (as they might have hoped). However, for those without social supports, the result of premarital sex and cohabitation is to push people into early marriage and early childbirth and avoiding higher education. This, in turn, contributes to one parent working at lower wage jobs. That, finally, contributes to marital dissolution.

Durkheim would love this on both counts — the congregation provides value reinforcement and the social currents impact individual behaviors, regardless of religious preference. The result of these social patterns is a divorce rate that is consistently different from those counties that have a lower percentage of adherents to evangelical religious groups.

But therein is a cautionary tale for the evangelical church. For all our desire to impact the broader culture so that Biblical values are represented, there is a probability that those attitudes will impact that culture in unanticipated ways. They may provide rationales for beliefs or behaviors that actually run counter to what we were trying to promote. As the values espoused become a part of the social currents, they impact behavior but with little theological content whatsoever. Perversely, the religious values get subsumed into the general civil religion of the society (Durkheim saw that one coming as well).

There’s also a cautionary tale for Christian universities here. While on the one hand, we’ve (thankfully) moved well beyond the old jokes about getting one’s MRS degree, the culture of a Christian university celebrates relationship. We teach courses in marriage and family, in relationship building, and have lots of social activities to bring people together. Of course the 60-40 gender split means that a significant number of individuals won’t be in relationship. For those that are, the lessons about abstinence are taken to heart but run up against lots of close interaction, plenty of free time, and freedom from supervision. It’s been a long-term fear of mine that we encourage young people to pair up and plan weddings long before they are ready. Better to marry than burn. Better to stay together than explain to everybody what went wrong. As emerging adults continue to delay marriage in general, our lessons on premarital sex may have more troubling consequences down the road.

We need to be aware of how our values are experienced by individuals. When we don’t provide the social support involving honest communication, we can become complicit in broader trends without intending to. In Moral Education (published in 1922 after his death), Durkheim suggested that morality involved discipline, attachment, and autonomy. The first keeps ego in check. The second connects us to the group. The third allows us to make moral choices.

While Glass and Levchak can’t get at these factors from their county-level demographic data, it’s good to keep in mind. All three factors are necessary to shape both individual and collective behavior.


3 Comments

  1. Mike Grimes says:

    Even being ignorant of the data, I wonder when I see studies like this, what criteria was used to categorize a church as a “conservative protestant church”. Further extrapolating, I can see where a “conservative protestant church” would be one that is more akin to a easily misunderstood “inspired set of rules” than a relationship with God. It it probably not a stretch to think that communities that guided by “rules” are more prone to violate those rules. So to some extent the discriminating factor is something other than being classified as a “conservative protestant church”.

    • The article itself provides very specific definitions for what they considered to be evangelical/conservative. Based on the research I’ve read over the years, it’s pretty much the same definitions most research organizations use.

      Your point about rules/norms seems quite reasonable especially for those on the periphery of the church. They’d feel the social pressure but not being “true believers” would not find the pressures as persuasive. Personally, I think the idea of looking at mental models or schemas makes a lot of sense, but it’s beyond the scope of the demographic analysis the authors are doing.

  2. […] where they grew up (I’ll unpack this on another day, but it speaks to the issues I raised in this post.) As David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point out in Prodigal Christianity, we must begin by outlining […]

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