Can Conservative Protestantism Explain Regional Variations in Divorce Rates?

In an article to be published this month in the American Journal of Sociology, demographers Jennifer Glass (University of Texas) and Philip Levchak (University of Iowa) offer an answer to the question: "Why are divorce rates higher in religiously conservative “red” states and lower in less religiously conservative “blue” states? After all, most conservatives frown upon divorce, and religious commitment is believed to strengthen marriage, not erode it. Even so, religiously conservative states Alabama and Arkansas have the second and third highest divorce rates in the U.S., at 13 per 1000 people per year while New Jersey and Massachusetts, more liberal states, are two of the lowest at 6 and 7 per 1000 people per year."

Using county-level data, this study attempts to tease out the factors most strongly associated with divorce rates, and in the process it provides a more nuanced understanding of the paradox of high levels of religiosity and high divorce rates.

Scholars have proposed three explanations for the paradox: poverty (which tends to be concentrated in rural and Southern counties, and raises the risk of divorce); higher rates of marriage overall; or a regional culture that promotes inter-personal violence (which then leads to higher divorce rates).  Glass and Levchak found that these arguments are part of the story: in their data, "the high divorce rate among conservative religious groups is indeed explained in large part by the earlier ages at first marriage and first birth, and the lower educational attainment and lower incomes of conservative Protestant youth."

But they also found that people who live in conservative religious counties have a higher risk of divorce even when they are not affiliated with a conservative religious group. Glass and Levchak attribute this to "living in a cultural climate where most people expect to marry young and there is little support from schools or community institutions for young people to get more education and postpone marriage and children. Abstinence-only education, restrictions on the availability of birth control and abortion, support for marriage as the resolution of unexpected pregnancies, and distrust of secular education (especially higher education) among the populace in religiously conservative counties work to create an environment where young people of every religious belief – or none – tend not to pursue higher education or job training, and instead to engage in early marriage and child-bearing."

Read more: resources:
Marriage and Divorce (
Trends in Marriage Behavior (
Family Change 1950 to 1990 (
Marital Trends (

Frederique Laubepin

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