Divorce in the Bible Belt

Data from the 2010 Census has been flowing steadily for the last few months. Much of it has been the typical stuff—total population, redistricting issues resulting from population shifts, etc. Some of it is encouraging, but some not so much. CNN.com ran a story on a report released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau about marriage and divorce statistics, and the numbers are ugly. Here are a few snippets:

While the Bible Belt is known for its devotion to traditional values, Southerners don’t do so well on one key family value: They are more likely to get divorced than people living in the Northeast.

Southern men and women had higher rates of divorce in 2009 than their counterparts in other parts of the country: 10.2 per 1,000 for men and 11.1 per 1,000 for women, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.

By comparison, men and women in the Northeast had the lowest rates of divorce, 7.2 and 7.5 per 1,000, which is also lower than the national divorce rate of 9.2 for men and 9.7 for women.

For those of us who call the Bible Belt home and think all things Southern are superior (food, culture, people—can I get an “Amen”?!), these statistics probably seem shocking. In fact, I did not believe them, so I set out to disprove them. Unfortunately, they seem to be fairly accurate.

Of course, statistics can say what the researcher (or reporter) wants them to say, and there are a couple of key factors buried in these statistics that are glossed over in the article. First, Southerners marry at a much higher rate than those in the Northeast. When you have more people marrying, then you have more opportunity for divorce. Second, the South is not the overtly religious region it used to be. Places like Texas, Florida, and Tennessee have become the homes of transplants from other parts of the country that often do not share the “steeped-in-religiosity” tradition of the South. These people have come for the weather, jobs, or tax benefits, but they are not Southerners by birth (or as the bumper sticker reads: “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God!”). In fact, native-born Southerners often no longer hold the values their parents or grandparents did.

The other difficult part of reading these statistics as gospel truth is that they merely report a snapshot in time. They give the total number of divorces that occurred in 2009 per every 1,000 adults (age 15 and older) in the population at that time. What is not told in the initial numbers is how long those marriages lasted before divorce and the prospects of durability for new marriages in 2009 and forward. If you dig deeper into the Census Bureau report (and not reported in the news article), you see that the duration of current marriages for women in their first marriages is much higher across the South and Midwest than in the Northeast. Therefore, Southerners stay married longer despite the fact that they divorce at a higher rate.

So what does this say about the Bible Belt? First, I believe it demonstrates religion is oftentimes more of a cultural expectation than a personal conviction. While Southerners claim to be religious, it does not always translate into how they live their lives—especially their marriages. Second, we see that marriage is in a precarious state everywhere—not just the “liberal” Northeast and West Coast. While marriage is more of a social norm in the South, it does not make it any easier to have a good marriage that lasts. Finally, the churches in the Bible Belt must not rest on their laurels of cultural significance to influence marriage. Instead, the churches need to fight to protect the marriages of the people in their congregations. Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:22–33). How can we clearly communicate the love Christ has for the church if our marriages are falling apart?

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Katia Hetter, “What’s Fueling Bible Belt divorces,” CNN.com, August 25, 2011.

Diana B. Elliott and Tavia Simmons, “Marital Events of Americans: 2009,” United States Census Bureau, August 2011.

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