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A little religion

The problem with love and marriage in America’s Bible Belt

A little religion

(Krieg Barrie)

Here’s a provocative title: “Are Evangelicals Bad for Marriage?” In the article under the title, Maggie Gallagher commented on a cultural model developed by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn in their book, Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford, 2011). The authors’ premise is that liberal-leaning states have fewer teen mothers and lower divorce rates, while the more conservative states count more of both. Since the red states are more religious, this seems counterintuitive: Why is marriage less stable in the very region that’s so politically vocal about “traditional and family values”?

Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak (of the universities of Texas and Iowa respectively) suggested an answer in the American Journal of Sociology. “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce” concluded that “conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability through the promotion of practices [like discouraging cohabitation] that increase divorce risk.” As Michelle Goldberg pithily put it in The Nation, “Conservative family values don’t work to conserve actual families.”

Take the case of Kayla and Adam, a young Ohio couple whose pastor refused to marry them unless they stopped living together. They moved to separate dwellings and advanced their wedding date by one year. But soon after, Kayla discovered that Adam was abusing drugs, a problem that only got worse. When she found a love note addressed to another woman, the marriage was over. Their original plan of living together for a year before getting married—an accepted practice in secular America—would have alerted Kayla to Adam’s problems and forestalled the agony of divorce. It’s obvious to the academics that secular blue-state mores actually protect the institution of marriage better than those of religious red states.

But not so fast. The truth behind the headlines is that reports like Glass and Levchak’s don’t make a distinction between religious affiliation and religious practice. We’ve all heard that divorce is as common, or almost, among Christians as it is among secular couples, but that’s true only if all professing Christians are lumped together: those who talk the talk and those who walk it. Among self-identified Christians who marry early (between 18 and 26), evangelicals who attend church regularly are about half as likely to divorce as their professing peers. Faithfully attending Catholics are only about one-fourth as likely. The others know the words to “Amazing Grace” (first verse anyway) and claim to love Jesus while they neglect his body—and the community support a fledgling marriage needs.

In the heart of red-state America, where even towns of “Pop. 45” have at least one church and every city of 100,000 or more boasts a megachurch, an outsider might easily confuse affiliation with adherence. But if you live here, you may have a neighbor who can explain the basic gospel while a succession of live-in boyfriends take up residence in her house. The homeless men at the local shelter will readily pray with you and admit their sins, but won’t repent of them. “My mama reads the Bible all the time,” they say, while Mama enables the irresponsible behavior of her kids. “I believe in the beliefs, but I don’t exactly walk every line you’re supposed to walk,” admitted the aforementioned Kayla.

Just as “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (to quote the much-quoted Alexander Pope), a little religion is likewise perilous, creating a sense of sanctity in the absence of the real thing. “In my experience,” writes David French at National Review Online, “the casual Southern Christian has very high expectations for others’ behavior at the same time that they are quite forgiving of themselves.” That’s a universal human trait, “but it’s rendered far more destructive when sprinkled with selective Christianity. In fact, it’s hard to imagine an attitude better-calculated to lead to divorce.” 

Self-justification from the Bible is the worst kind; selective Christianity more damaging than rigorous humanism. It’s an all-or-nothing religion, a demanding religion, a countercultural religion, even in the “God-haunted” South. The only way to be in with Jesus is all in. 

Email jcheaney@wng.org

Comments

  • MamaC
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    Perennial, I agree that splitting up after cohabitation is very likely just as devastating as a divorce. My point was that they would not show up in statistics as a divorce if they had never married, thus showing a lower divorce rate even though actual "splits" might be as high or higher in those states.

  • nsmithcpa
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent."Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."  Matthew 11:20-24

  • perennial
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    I would think splitting up with someone after a year of cohabitation would be as nearly devastating as divorce after one year.  Perhaps just less messy, legally. And how damaging would it be to cohabitate with several partners until one is finally found who passes the test and is worth getting married to?

  • Christian_Prof
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    As someone who grew up in Wisconsin and has lived in the deep south for 8 years now, this is SPOT ON. I can talk about my faith publicly - most do - but I've not been very successful finding biblical churches who require accountability from the pastor on down and who serve the community. While I appreciate that it's ok down here to say "I believe in Genesis 1, and the Bible DOES inform certain areas of how we should live today" down here, there's also a lot of "us vs. THEM" in the south that IMO does not befit those saved by grace.

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    Well said, especially the last paragraph and sentence. 

  • MamaC
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    Could the "author's premise... that liberal-leaning states have fewer teen mothers and lower divorce rates" also be explained by higher abortion rates and lower marriage rates (cohabitation splits don't require divorce) in those states?Midwest Preacher, my pastor-husband has experienced several of those "we want to get married this Saturday" requests, but he always tells them that he requires 6 weeks of counseling. They invariably say, "No thanks!"

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    I am a semi-retired Christian minister and I no longer do weddings.  Not because of recent hostilities from certain groups but because of a strange idea in our area.  (Mid-West not South).  Young people and some older people have an idea that when they get the urge to get "hitched" they should "just go grab a preacher and make it legal".  These folks want a church wedding and a minister to officiate but they have no idea what they are getting into and their chances for success are very limited.  Add to this the tendency to want an extravagant "Hollywood" type wedding and you have the recipe for a very expensive mistake.  If Christ isn't in your heart and life it isn't really a Christian wedding.  

  • Peter Allen's picture
    Peter Allen
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:39 pm

    As a native Wisconsinite, living in the Memphis area this article hit me as spot on!  Virtually everyone in Memphis will tell you they have been "saved" at some point.  In addition there is a church on most every corner. Yet Memphis violent crime is second to only Detroit most years.  Back in Wisconsin you do not see many churches, and you best not tell folks you are  a Christian unless you walk the talk or they will call you on it, seriously!   Meanwhile there is a bar on every corner (that many faithful Catholics meet and socialize at after mass).  Folks will give you the shirt off your back should the need arise while they often leave the house unlocked without a care.  The point of the article is about FAITHFULNESS to your Lord.  That will always be the measure, not what you profess.  Profession means little.  "the only way to be with Jesus is all in"