Dissecting big Christian divorce myth

Raise your hand -- or click "comment" -- if you have read a news report claiming that Christians in this supposedly God-fearing nation get divorced at the same rate as everybody else? Raise you other hand if you have heard this statement made in a pulpit. Yes, raising both hands makes it hard to type. Religion News Service has a news feature out this week that dissects that statement and reaches an interesting conclusion. When it comes to acting out the doctrines of their faith, tot all Christians (or other believers, it is safe to assume) are created equal.

Here's the bottom line in this story by veteran reporter Adelle Banks: "Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to remain wed." And the foggy fact that frequently gets quoted?

"It's a useful myth," said Bradley Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist who recently wrote "Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites ... and Other Lies You've Been Told." ...

The various findings on religion and divorce hinge on what kind of Christians are being discussed.

Wright combed through the General Social Survey, a vast demographic study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and found that Christians, like adherents of other religions, have a divorce rate of about 42 percent. The rate among religiously unaffiliated Americans is 50 percent.

When Wright examined the statistics on evangelicals, he found worship attendance has a big influence on the numbers. Six in 10 evangelicals who never attend had been divorced or separated, compared to just 38 percent of weekly attendees.

Read on, if you care about accurate coverage of these kinds of issues in mainstream religion coverage.

What this reminds me of, frankly, is the whole "pew gap" issue that has been coming up in U.S. elections in recent decades. You know, those exit poll numbers and surveys that show that the best way to predict how most Americans will vote is not whether they are Catholics, Jews, evangelicals or whatever. The key is HOW OFTEN they attend worship services and other religious activities.

Here is what that looks like in this report by Banks (who is, I should note, a friend of mine and a long-time lecturer here at the Washington Journalism Center):

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, agrees there's been some confusion.

"You do hear, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, that Christians are no different from anyone else when it comes to divorce and that is not true if you are focusing on Christians who are regular church attendees," he said.

Wilcox's analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households has found that Americans who attend religious services several times a month were about 35 percent less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation. Nominal conservative Protestants, on the other hand, were 20 percent more likely to divorce than the religiously unaffiliated.

This reminds me of one other issue that surfaces on this here weblog year after year -- the question of whether there is such a thing as a "Catholic voter." You may recall that, according to savvy priests I have interviewed through the years, there are actually at least four kinds of Catholics who vote and they most certainly do not vote alike.

That grid (with political language intact) looks like this:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be one of those all-important "undecided voters" camps, depending on what's happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Lean to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The "sweats the details" Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, ignore the political language in that. Would there be a difference in divorce rates in these four camps? How about in similar camps among, oh, Southern Baptists?

Now, in the past I have asked if it is possible to create a similar typology for Jews in America. After reading this Banks report, I wonder if -- with church attendance as the key -- you could do one for liberal Christians, for conservatives, for "emerging" believers, etc., etc. In other word, this fine little story makes a crucial point and it could inspire many, many more questions and, thus, news stories. Carry on.

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