Conservatism Can’t Save Marriage

The Huffington Post’s “Divorce” section announced an interesting new study by Professor Jennifer Glass called “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates,” which will be published later this month in the American Journal of Sociology.

Let me first say that I rarely agree with HuffPo bloggers on divorce issues, but I always enjoy reading them. The blog brings up timely issues that matter and is written well.

The researchers conducting the study sought out to understand why divorce rates are higher in areas that are politically conservative. This is an important issue, and as the article points out, this is counterintuitive. Or, at least, it’s counterintuitive at first blush.

This is the gist of the study according to HuffPo:

“It was previously thought that socio-economic hardships in the South were largely to blame for high divorce rates, however Glass and her fellow researchers concluded that the conservative religious culture is in fact a major contributing factor thanks to ‘the social institutions they create’ that ‘decrease marital stability.’

According to the blog, these marital-stability-decreasing institutions include “putting pressure on young people to marry sooner, frowning upon cohabitation before marriage, teaching abstinence-only sex education, and making access to resources like emergency contraception more difficult.” The blogger further summarized the findings:

“[T]he religious culture of the area permeated into the divorce rates of even the non-religious people who lived there. In other words, simply by living in counties which were dominated by conservative Protestantism, people were at a higher risk for getting divorced.”

I say this only appears counterintuitive at first blush because it should be pretty obvious that you can’t keep marriages together through conservative “institutions.” Well, perhaps you could in the past when the stigma of divorce was strong deterrent, but those days are gone.

If I’m reading the article correctly, the “problem” with conservative areas is that the societal barriers to marriage are too low. That is, it’s socially acceptable to get married young and not socially acceptable to live together before you get married. In that type of situation, a lot of people rush into marriage in order to conform.

This cultural and political situation is indeed problematic when the barriers to exit marriage are so low. If you’re pressured by society to get into a marriage but don’t have any pressure to stay married, you have a problem. And that is just the sort of problem we see in our beloved Arkansas, which regretfully boasts the second-highest divorce rate in the county.

And thus the problem is not that those areas with the highest divorce rates are too conservative; instead, these areas are not conservative enough. In the Bible belt, divorce is as much a given as marriage. This is the worst set-up, and, I think, far less desirable even than the situation you might find in other areas of the country where marriage is not a given. In those areas, then, people getting married are presumably a lot better prepared for marriage because it’s socially acceptable not to be married. 

But the divorce ship has sailed and is not coming back—the social acceptance surrounding divorce will only strengthen over time.

I think all this talk about social institutions and their effect on marriage misses the point. The problem with divorce rates is not social or cultural institutions; the problem is that marriage is a commitment and we all tend to run away from commitment. The solution to the divorce culture, then, is not becoming more conservative or less conservative. The solution is commitment.

Conservatism can’t save marriage—only personal commitment can.