Conservative Christians of all types, evangelical as well as Catholic, tend to link their conservative brand of their religion with proper moral behavior. By far the most popular context is marriage: they claim that a good, solid marriage is only possible when people acknowledge conservative Christianity's claims about the nature of marriage and gender roles. So why is it that Christian marriages, and especially conservative Christian marriages, end in divorce more often than atheist marriages?
The Barna Research Group, an evangelical Christian organization that does surveys and research to better understand what Christians believe and how they behave, studied divorce rates in America in 1999 and found surprising evidence that divorce is far lower among atheists than among conservative Christians - exactly the opposite of what they were probably expecting.
11% of all American adults are divorced
25% of all American adults have had at least one divorce
27% of born-again Christians have had at least one divorce
24% of all non-born-again Christians have been divorced
21% of atheists have been divorced
21% of Catholics and Lutherans have been divorced
24% of Mormons have been divorced
25% of mainstream Protestants have been divorced
29% of Baptists have been divorced
24% of nondenominational, independent Protestants have been divorced
27% of people in the South and Midwest have been divorced
26% of people in the West have been divorced
19% of people in the Northwest and Northeast have been divorced
The highest divorce rates are 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. Nine states in the Northeast (Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Maryland) have the lowest divorce rates, averaging just 3.5/1000 people.
Barna isn't the only group to arrive at these numbers. Other researchers have also found that conservative Protestants get divorced more often than other groups, even more often than "mainline" Protestants. The fact that atheists and agnostics divorce less often than other religious groups was, however, surprising to many. Some have simply refused to believe it.
Credit should be given to George Barna, himself a conservative evangelical Christian, for at least trying to face up to these results and what they might mean: "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." According to Barna, his data raises "questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families" and challenge "the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage."
Born again adults who have been married are just as likely as non-born-again adults who have been married to eventually become divorced. Because the vast majority of born again marriages occurred after the partners had accepted Christ as their savior, it appears that their connection to Christ makes less difference in the durability of people's marriages than many people might expect. Faith has had a limited affect on people's behavior, whether related to moral convictions and practices, relational activities, lifestyle choices or economic practices.
Barna should, however, acknowledge that the divorce rates for conservative Christians are higher than for liberal Christians. He also doesn't take the further step of acknowledging that perhaps conservative Christianity and conservative religion in general are unable to provide a sound basis for marriage - that perhaps there are other, more secular foundations for marriage that conservative Christians are missing. What might they be? Well, an obvious possibility is treating women like fully autonomous equals in the relationship, something which conservative Christianity frequently denies.
The difference in divorce rates is particularly interesting given the fact that the Christians getting divorced in the highest numbers are among the same Christians who are most likely to raise an alarm about the state of marriage in society. They also tend to be the same Christians who want to deny gays the right to marry on the assumption that gay marriage is a "threat" to the institution of marriage. If marriage is in any danger in America, perhaps the threat comes from the unstable marriages of conservative Christians, not the relationships of gays or the marriages of godless atheists.