Why Do Red States Have Higher Divorce Rates?

Don’t shoot the messenger, but it looks like there are some strange statistics floating around about red states and divorces rates. Apparently, counties with the highest percentage of conservative Protestant adherence also have the highest rates of divorce in the country.

This is obviously odd. Conservative protestantism constantly harps about family values and the sacredness of marriage and all that. So why would red states have higher divorce rates? Well, let me first say that leftists have had a heyday with these statistics, as you would imagine. I read one article in particular, and I could almost hear the author breathing heavily in ecstatic joy while she lambasted fundamentalist culture as hypocritical and self-destructive.

Statistics don’t come with interpretations. And they can be deceptively collected, organized, or interpreted. In this case, I think the biggest deception is in the interpretation. Sadly, I think the statistics themselves are solid. So how have leftists interpreted the data? What do they think is the reason for high divorce rates in red states?

The main cause, according to the aforementioned author (and her colleagues), is an emphasis on abstinence that forces people to marry young. She wrote:

The blue state model—marriage is delayed; responsible premarital sex is approved—simply works better. That means emphasizing sex education and access to contraception and abortion while letting go of the fantasy of the male-breadwinner family. It means accepting that abstinence until marriage wouldn’t be a useful goal even [if] it was [sic] realistic. It means realizing, once and for all, that conservative family values don’t work to conserve actual families.

Hmmm. Well, isn’t that convenient? Because divorce rates in a particular area are nominally higher, that must mean that the professed values of that area are entirely flawed. Not exactly. Conservative family values are not the problem. Certain self-labelled conservatives are the problem. Because they obviously aren’t following conservative family values.

Arguing from divorce statistics, it becomes clear that waiting until after you are twenty-five to get married decreases the chances of divorce. But people who live together before getting married are forty percent more likely to get divorced. And couples with children are forty percent less likely to get divorced. So actual abstinence isn’t the problem. And access to birth control isn’t the problem either.

We live in a highly sexualized culture. Shotgun marriages are probably more common in red states, and I would imagine those marriages are tenuous at best. But conservative family values aren’t responsible for the promiscuity that leads to shotgun marriages. In fact, liberal values are responsible for that. It  seems ridiculous to blame conservative family values for the ills that have actually been created by not following conservative family values.

You can say that conservative family values are outdated, backward, naïve, or unrealistic. But they work when people actually follow them. Marriages between virgins overwhelmingly work out. According to The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, by John H. Gagnon, et al.:

For both genders, we find that virgins have dramatically more stable first marriages—the odds of separation for those who are virgins at marriage are only .63 as great for men and .76 as great for women as compared to non-virgins. The finding confirms the result reported by Kahn and London (1991) . . . —in multivariate analyses, those who are virgins at marriage have much lower rates of separation and divorce.


How might we interpret the finding that virgins exhibit substantially more stability in their marriages . . . ? . . . Those for whom sex is a particularly salient aspect of life are unlikely to be virgins at marriage . . . and they are also less likely, all things equal, to be sexually exclusive over the remainder of their life, with the result that divorce is a more likely outcome for them. This will yield the partial correlation that we see—those who are not virgins are more prone to divorce. . . . Those who value virginity and think nonmarital sex inappropriate also value the commitment to marriage and are disinclined, relatively, to divorce. So, again in this case, those who are virgins at marriage are those who go to greater lengths to avoid divorce.1


We live in a sex-obsessed culture. And this obsession has been bad for marriage, period. But this obsession cannot be blamed on conservative family values. Our leftist culture has captured the affections of the younger generation with a torrential onslaught of immoral and debasing filth (just check out the Grammys … if you dare). Children at younger and younger ages are being exposed to “sex-ed” and a media that has been inundated with sex.

But the blame must fall on fundamentalist culture as well. Conservative values don’t work halfway. People talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. For so long, there has been an overemphasis on lawless grace, and it shows. People say they believe things, but they don’t live these things on the day-to-day. Their religion is a Sunday affair, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the way they run their business, treat their families, or deal with their friends. That has to change. If fundamentalists are actually going to succeed in transmitting their values to their kids, they need to teach their kids what to love and how to love. Our young people can’t just be taught what to know. Their affections have to be engaged as well. So far, fundamentalists especially have not done a good job with this. And it shows. But I am not going to blame their values per se for this. I think their values are solid, and if these values were not being undermined by a debauched culture and a lawless church, things would be far different.

Anyway, be careful what you draw from statistics. Just remember what Mark Twain said in his taxonomy of lies.

  1. pp. 503–505 []