News travels fast. Sometimes. In 1999, The Associated Press reported on Bible Belt states battling the highest divorce rates in the nation.
As religion editor of The Oklahoman in 2002, I wrote a series of stories on Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating’s effort to reduce my home state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate.
Nearly a decade later, CNN became the latest to report that — surprise, surprise — D-I-V-O-R-C-E is a problem in the red states.
Just last week, I referenced Oklahoma's high divorce rate again in analyzing coverage of a federal judge striking down the Sooner State's ban on same-sex marriage. However, I added:
But lest anyone jump to the easy conclusion that there’s no difference between people sitting in the pews and everyone else when it comes to divorce, be sure to read Religion Newswriters Association president Bob Smietana’s recent Facts & Trends piece on “bad stats.”
So why do I bring up all of the above one more time?
Because the Los Angeles Times just published a story on a new study examining the issue:
Divorce is higher among religiously conservative Protestants – and even drives up divorce rates for other people living around them, a new study finds.
The study, slated to be published in the American Journal of Sociology, tackles the “puzzling paradox” of why divorce is more common in religiously conservative “red” states. If religious conservatives believe firmly in the value of marriage, why is divorce especially high in places like Alabama and Arkansas?
To figure that out, researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Iowa analyzed county divorce statistics against information from an earlier study of religious congregations. They categorized Protestant denominations that believe the Bible is literally true as "conservative Protestants."
Researchers discovered that higher divorce rates among conservative Protestants were tied to earlier marriages and childbearing – factors known to ramp up divorce. Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages, University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer Glass said.
Unfortunately, the Times story is shallow (less than 500 words) and relies on stereotypes:
County by county, for every 1% increase in the share of conservative Protestants compared with mainline Protestants, the divorce rate increased 0.02%, the study found. Glass argued that community institutions in such areas might encourage early marriage, affecting divorce rates for everyone who lives there.
“Pharmacies might not give out emergency contraception. Schools might only teach abstinence education,” Glass added. On top of that, “if you live in a marriage market where everybody marries young, you postpone marriage at your own risk. The best catches … are going to go first.”
No, the Times doesn't provide any concrete examples of counties where real evidence suggests those "might" factors are at play. Nor does the newspaper quote any actual religious leaders or ordinary church members — married or divorced — in those overly generalized bastions of conservative Protestantism.
The Times also fails to explore the potential factor of race. Blacks have higher rates of divorce than whites. And as tmatt has noted, there is more racial diversity in conservative pews — especially among charismatics and Pentecostals — than in mainline churches.
So we're left — not for the first time — with a cotton-candy headline ("More religiously conservative Protestants? More divorce, study finds") and a story that lacks any real meat.