U.S. divorce rates for various faith groups, age groups, & geographic areas
Divorce rates in the U.S.:
"There is consensus that the overall U.S. divorce rate had a brief spurt after WW2, followed by a decline, then started rising in the 1960s and even more quickly in the 1970s, then leveled off [in the] 1980s and [has since] declined slightly." 7 However, such gross statistics are misleading. There are a number of factors involved that obscure the real data:
The normal lifestyle of American young adults is to live together for a period of time in a type of informal trial marriage. These relationships frequently do not endure.
Couples enter into their first marriage at a older age than in the past.
A growing percentage of committed couples have decided to live in a common-law relationship rather than get married. This is particularly true among some elderly who fear reduction in government support payments.
The current U.S. divorce rate:
The media frequently reports that 50% of American marriages will end in divorce. This number appears to have been derived from very skimpy data related to a single county or state. However, it appears to be reasonably close to the probable value. The Americans for Divorce Reform estimates that "Probably, 40 or possibly even 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce if current trends continue. However, that is only a projection and a prediction." 7
Divorce rates among Christian groups:
The slogan: "The family that prays together, stays together" is well known. There has been much anecdotal evidence that has led to "unsubstantiated claims that the divorce rate for Christians who attended church regularly, pray together or who meet other conditions is only 1 or 2 percent". 8 Emphasis ours]. Dr. Tom Ellis, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention's Council on the Family said that for "...born-again Christian couples who marry...in the church after having received premarital counseling...and attend church regularly and pray daily together..." experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages -- or 0.00256 percent. 9
A recent study by the Barna Research Group throws extreme doubt on these estimates. Barna released the results of their poll about divorce on 1999-DEC-21. 1 They had interviewed 3,854 adults from the 48 contiguous states. The margin of error is ±2 percentage points. The survey found:
11% of the adult population is currently divorced.
25% of adults have had at least one divorce during their lifetime.
Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience.
George Barna, president and founder of Barna Research Group, commented:
"While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages."
According to the Dallas Morning News, a Dallas TX newspaper, the national study "raised eyebrows, sowed confusion, [and] even brought on a little holy anger." This caused George Barna to write a letter to his supporters, saying that he is standing by his data, even though it is upsetting. He said that "We rarely find substantial differences" between the moral behavior of Christians and non-Christians. Barna Project Director Meg Flammang said: "We would love to be able to report that Christians are living very distinct lives and impacting the community, but ... in the area of divorce rates they continue to be the same." Both statements seem to be projecting the belief that conservative Christians and liberal Christians have the same divorce rate. This disagrees with their own data.
The survey has come under some criticism:
David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University has said that the survey doesn't make sense. He based this belief on his assessment that Christians follow biblical models of the family, making a bond that "the secular world doesn't have...It just stands to reason that the bond of religion is protective of marriage, and I believe it is."
Tom Ellis of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests that the Barna poll is inaccurate because the people contacted may have called themselves born-again Christians, without having previously made a real commitment to God. He said: "We believe that there is something more to being a Christian...Just saying you are [a born-again] Christian is not going to guarantee that your marriage is going to stay together." 9
Some researchers have suggested that religion may have little or no effect on divorce rates. The apparently higher rate among born-again Christians, and lower rate among Atheists and Agnostics may be due to the influence of financial and/or educational factors.
One reason for the discrepancy of beliefs about divorce rates among born-again Christians may be that their churches are unaware of the true number of divorcing couples in their midst.
Many couples would find it difficult to continue attending services in the same congregation after their marital separation. Meeting at church would be awkward. So, they drop out.
Many probably find that the climate in their church is very negative towards divorcing couples. So, they move to other congregations that are either more accepting of divorce, or are unaware of their marital status.
Barna report: Variation in divorce rates among Christian faith groups:
Denomination (in order of decreasing divorce rate)
% who have been divorced
Non-denominational ** 34%
Mainline Protestants 25%
** Barna uses the term "non-denominational" to refer to Evangelical Christian congregations that are not affiliated with a specific denomination. The vast majority are fundamentalist in their theological beliefs. More info.
Barna's results verified findings of earlier polls: that conservative Protestant Christians, on average, have the highest divorce rate, while mainline Christians have a much lower rate. They found some new information as well: that atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all. George Barna commented that the results raise "questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families." The data challenge "the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage."
Donald Hughes, author of The Divorce Reality, said:
"In the churches, people have a superstitious view that Christianity will keep them from divorce, but they are subject to the same problems as everyone else, and they include a lack of relationship skills. ...Just being born again is not a rabbit's foot."
Hughes claim that 90% of divorces among born-again couples occur after they have been "saved."
Variation in divorce rates by religion:
Religion % have been divorced
Born-again Christians 27%
Other Christians 24%
Atheists, Agnostics 21%
Ron Barrier, Spokespersonn for American Atheists remarked on these findings with some rather caustic comments against organized religion. He said:
"These findings confirm what I have been saying these last five years. Since Atheist ethics are of a higher caliber than religious morals, it stands to reason that our families would be dedicated more to each other than to some invisible monitor in the sky. With Atheism, women and men are equally responsible for a healthy marriage. There is no room in Atheist ethics for the type of 'submissive' nonsense preached by Baptists and other Christian and/or Jewish groups. Atheists reject, and rightly so, the primitive patriarchal attitudes so prevalent in many religions with respect to marriage." 2
StopTheReligiousRight.org had some scathing comments as well:
"We hear an awful lot from conservatives in the Bible Belt and on the TV about how we all should be living. Certainly a culture that teaches the conservative religious values of the Christian right must have clean living written all over it. And lots of ripe fruit from their morally superior lives abounding."
"It doesn't. Far from it. People that talk the loudest may be the ones walking the slowest. Joining its history of Biblically correct bigotry and discrimination, it is an area with the highest divorce, murder, STD/HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, single parent homes, infant mortality, and obesity rates in the nation. As a region, the Bible Belt has the poorest health care systems and the lowest rates of high school graduation." 12
Variation in divorce rates by age:
Age group % have been divorced
Baby boomers (33 to 52 years of age) 34%
Builders (53 to 72 years of age) 37%
Seniors (above 72 years of age) 18%
Many seniors were married in the late 40's or early 50's at a time when divorce rates were much lower than they are today.
Variation in divorce rates by location:
The Barna Group study found:
Area % are or have been divorced
The Associated Press computed divorce statistics from data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health.4 They found that Nevada had the highest divorce rate, at 8.5 divorces per 1,000 people in 1998. Nevada has had a reputation as a quickie divorce location for decades. People from other states visited Nevada, fulfilled their residency requirements, got divorced and returned home single.
The data showed that the highest divorce rates were found in the Bible Belt. "Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce...the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average" of 4.2/1000 people.
11 southern states (AL, AR, AZ, FL, GA, MS, NC, NM, OK, SC and TX averaged 5.1/1000 people. (LA data is not available; TX data is for 1997).
Nine states in the Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT) averaged only 3.5/1000 people.
Some of the factors that contribute to a high divorce rate in the Bible Belt, relative to Northeastern states are:
More couples enter their first marriage at a younger age.
Average household incomes are lower (OK and AR rate 46th and 47th in the U.S.)
They have a lower percentage of Roman Catholics, a denomination that does not recognize divorce. Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Southern Baptist Convention in Oklahoma commented: "I applaud the Catholics," says Jordan. "I don't think we as Protestant evangelists have done nearly as well preparing people for marriage. And in the name of being loving and accepting, we have not placed the stigma on divorce that we should have."
Some factor in conservative Protestantism -- which is prevalent in the Bible Belt -- may causes a higher level of divorce.
Associated Press' confirmation of Barna's results:
The Associated Press analyzed divorce statistics from the US Census Bureau. They found that Massachusetts had the lowest divorce rate in the U.S. at 2.4 per 1,000 population. Texas had the highest rate at 4.1 per 1,000. They found that the highest divorce rates are found in the "Bible Belt."
According to the Boston Globe:
"The AP report stated that 'the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average of 4.2 per thousand people.' The 10 Southern states with some of the highest divorce rates were Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. By comparison nine states in the Northeast were among those with the lowest divorce rates: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont."
One reason for the higher divorce rates in the Bible Belt may be the lower percentage of Roman Catholics in the South. Their denomination does not recognize divorce. Other reasons could be related more to culture than religion:
Couples in the South enter their first marriages at a younger age.
Family incomes in the South are lower.
Educational attainment is lower in the South: One in three Massachusetts residents have completed college. while only 23% of Texans have. 11
Divorce among Protestant clergy:
A 1997-AUG survey by Barna among 601 senior Protestant pastors revealed that the vast majority are married (95%). Only 13% have ever gone through a divorce. This is about half of the rate among the general population. "Just 3% of all current senior pastors are divorced and have not remarried." 6
Divorce among members of the Unification Church:
Michael Inglis, a member of the Unification Church staff, reported on 2000-MAR-28 the results of a survey of some of the couples who were married in two mass marriage blessing ceremonies during 1982. One was in New York City and involved 2,075 couples; the other was in Seoul Korea and involved 6,000 couples. In most, the founder of the church, Reverend Moon, paired up the couples. Participants in the study were chosen from among those individuals who had worked in the U.S. If the 294 subjects, 48% were American citizens, 24% Japanese, 14% Europeans, and 14% other. Inglis found that:
82.6% were still married to their original partner.
17.4% were divorced from their original partner. 3
Data from the Unification Church compares very favorably with those from all other faith groups. This is in spite of the couples having known each other for a only a very short interval before marriage.
One factor that may have contributed to their marriage stability is that the couples averaged 2.52 children, compared with the American average of 1.6. A 1977 study showed that divorce in America is most common in families with large families and among those that are childless; a moderate number of children contributes to marital stability. 13 Another study in the same year stated that "divorce and separation rates are moderately lower for those who have children than for the childless." 14
Combating the high divorce rate:
In 1999, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) reported that in the U.S.:
Nationally, there were about 4.2 divorces for every thousand people in 1998.
The rate was 8.5 per thousand in Nevada, 6.4 in Tennessee, 6.1 in Arkansas, 6.0 in Alabama and Oklahoma.
Of southeastern states, only South Carolina's rate of 3.8 was below the national average.
By contrast, the divorce rate is less than 3.0 in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. 15
In the same year, Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas, declared a "marital emergency." His goal was to halve the divorce rate in his state by 2010, from 6.1 per 1,000 people per year to about 3. Frank Keating, governor of Oklahoma also initiated a campaign to reduce the divorce rate in his state by a third by 2009, from 6.0 to about 4. 4,5
By the end of 2001, Huckabee's program in Arkansas appeared to be a failure. The divorce rate had increased to 6.6 per 1,000 people per year. Arkansas state ranked 46th in the nation. By the end of 2004, the rate had dropped slightly to 6.3 -- still higher that the value when the program began.
By the end of 2001, Oklahoma's program appears to be a success. Their divorce rate was 3.4.
Some of the approaches being used by governments and religious groups to reduce the divorce rate are:
Pre-marital counseling for engaged couples. Some clergy now refuse to marry a couple unless they have completed such a course. The Roman Catholic church has done this for many years.
Encouraging couples to accept mediation before deciding to divorce.
Adding public school courses that discuss values and relationships.
Introducing covenant marriages which are more difficult to get into and more difficult to get out of, in comparison with regular marriages.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Christians are more likely to experience divorce than are non-Christians," Barna Research Group, 1999-DEC-21, at: http://www.barna.org/ Barna no longer has this report online. However, a review of the report is at: http://www.adherents.com/
AANews, Posting #699, issued by American Atheists on 2000-JAN-2.
Michael Inglis, "Survey of the Unification Church 1982 marriages," at: http://www.unification.net/
"Bible belt has nation's worse divorce rate," CNN.com, 1999-NOV-12. Online at: http://www.cnn.com/ (Cache copy as of 2000-FEB-11. The page has since expired.) A similar report is at: http://www.divorcereform.org/
David Crary, "Deep in the Bible Belt, a counterattack on the nation's worst divorce rate," Detroit News, 1999-NOV-11, at: http://detnews.com/
"Survey provides profile of Protestant Pastors," 1998-JAN-6, at: http://www.barna.org/
"Divorce statistics collection: Summary of findings so far," Americans for Divorce Reform, at: http://www.divorcereform.org/
"Fresh Thinking Needed on Divorce Issues," Jesus Journal, at: http://www.jesusjournal.com/
John Rossomando, "Born-Again Christians No More Immune to Divorce Than Others, Says Author," CNSNews, 2002-JAN-21, at: http://www.cnsnews.com/
Donald Hughes, "The Divorce Reality." 109 pages. This is an eBook written from a positive, conservative Christian. It can be purchased and then downloaded from Theatron Media at: www.Bookstore.TheatronMedia.com
William V. D'Antonio, "Walking the walk on family values," The Boston Globe, 2004-OCT-31, at: http://www.boston.com/
James Veverka, "The moral hypocrisy of the Bible Belt," Stop The Religious Right, undated, at: http://www.stopthereligiousright.org/
Arland Thornton, "Children and Marital Stability," Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 39, #3, 1977-AUG, Pages 531-539. Abstract at: http://www.eric.ed.gov/
Aandrew Cherlin, "The effect of children on marital dissolution," Demography©, Vol. 14, #3, 1977-AUG, Pages 265 to 272. Abstract at: http://links.jstor.org/
"Bible Belt Leads U.S. In Divorces," National Center for Policy Analysis, 1999-NOV-19, at: http://www.ncpa.org/
"U.S. state divorce rates...including 2004 data." Divorce Reform, at: http://www.divorcereform.org/