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A recent study out of the University of Texas claims that couples in religiously conservative “red states” are more likely to divorce than couples in culturally liberal “blue states.”  The study’s authors speculate that negative cultural attitudes toward extramarital sex push red-state kids to get married younger than their blue-state peers, perhaps before they’re mature enough to commit fully to a lifelong relationship.

But an in-depth look at the numbers by writers from The Federalist shows that it’s not as simple as that.

Authors Charles Stokes, Amber Lapp, and David Lapp dug deeply into a number of studies that claim higher rates of divorce among Catholic and Evangelical Christians, as well as the Red State/Blue State study.  They found that while blue states boasted lower divorce rates overall than red states, that could be partly explained by the fact that fewer couples in blue states are choosing to marry at all, preferring cohabitation to legal commitment.  When those relationships end, they don’t count toward the divorce rate.

Meanwhile, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a federally-funded long-term study of young adults, showed that conservative Protestant couples who attended church frequently were actually 34 percent less likely to divorce than non-religious couples, and Catholic couples who attended church regularly were a stunning 76 percent less likely to divorce. 

The most devastating divorce statistics were actually found among those who identified as religious believers, but rarely attended church. 

“Here’s the key nuance: while religious affiliation makes no difference when it comes to divorce, religious attendance does. The ‘Red States, Blue States’ research fails to make this distinction,” wrote Stokes, Lapp, and Lapp.

“Nominally religious young adults are in a vulnerable position: they are religious enough to be pushed into early marriage, for instance, but, lacking the social support mediated by an in-the-flesh religious congregation, they don’t reap the benefits of involvement in a religious community,” the authors wrote. “Instead, religion may become a source of conflict.”

“In other words,” the authors added, “a little bit of religion can be a bad thing for marriage.”

The authors shared the story of Adam and Kayla, a young divorced couple who were studied as part of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.

Adam and Kayla married sooner than they would have liked because her parents strongly disapproved of them living together, and because their Baptist pastor refused to marry them unless they stopped cohabitating.  Soon after their hasty wedding, Kayla realized Adam had a drug problem – it had begun with his prescription medication, and then he was arrested for abusing heroin.  Not long after that, Kayla found a note from Adam to another woman that revealed he was having an affair.  “[J]ust like that, it was over,” the authors wrote.

Kayla says she now wonders if betraying her Baptist values could have saved her from her tumultuous marriage and divorce.  But Stokes, Lapp, and Lapp argue that it wasn’t her Baptist faith that was the problem – it was her failure to practice what she claimed to believe.

“[W]hile Kayla and Adam identify as Baptist, it’s not surprising that their religious affiliation did little to protect them from divorce,” the authors wrote. “Their actual church attendance was sporadic, and both expressed ambivalence about conservative religious beliefs, particularly those concerning sex and marriage. ‘I believe there’s a God. I believe in the Bible. I believe in the beliefs, but I don’t exactly walk every line that you’re supposed to walk,’ Kayla says.” 

Click “like” if you want to defend true marriage.

Stokes, Lapp, and Lapp say that rather than turning away from the church, Kayla and Adam might have been better off to seek its help.  They referenced another young subject of the Middle America Project, Gavin, 23, who credits his church family with having helped his marriage weather a difficult start. 

“When Gavin struggled to find work, a church friend who owned a painting business offered him a job,” the authors said. “When he was laid off during the recession, another church friend led him to a better job in the shipping and receiving department at a pharmaceutical company.”

“Gavin exhibits a double integration with his faith community,” the authors explained. “His supportive church network helps with marriage advice, theological reinforcement, and practical help like finding a job. And he has internalized the theology behind the conservative marriage norms—he believes that marriage is a reflection of Christ’s love for the Church, and that divorce is an ‘impossibility’ so long as he and his wife ‘put Christ first’—which gives him intrinsic motivation to follow a set of rules increasingly out of step with the wider culture.  So while a little bit of religion can be a bad thing for marriage, stories like Gavin’s help us to understand why the survey data shows that regular religious practice significantly reduces the risk of divorce.”

“In an era in which good marriages seem increasingly out of reach for working-class young adults, our findings about religious observance and early marriage offer a glimmer of hope,” the authors wrote. “Integration into supportive communities can help stabilize fragile young families. For working-class young adults who marry young, the difference between mere religious affiliation and deep involvement in the life of an actual congregation might be the difference between the death of a marriage and ‘til death do us part.’”

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