Why Red, “Family Values” States Lead the US in Divorces

gop - kicked 1Had it up to your ears with the holier-than-thou morality bombs that cultural conservatives lob over their protectionist fortresses in the culture wars?  Turns out the red states have one less leg to stand on:  new research surfaces stats that show a much stronger tendency for divorce in the states with the highest tendency to dictate correct “family values” to everyone else.

In Which Is the Party of Family Values?, Slate states, “The right likes to portray itself as the guardian of American families, but the reality is that stable-two parent families are more common in ‘the liberal bicoastal, predominantly Democratic places that cultural conservatives love to hate,’ than they are in what Sarah Palin would call the ‘real America’ “.

Turns out those crazy Massachusetts liberals have the lowest divorce rate in the country and six of the seven states with the highest divorce rate in the country voted Dubya/his boss in 2004 and oldie/hottie in 2008.  Seems like marital disaster follows the most preachy.  In their undying quest to focus on the family as early as they can reproduce, red state traditionalists have created the perfect storm.

As Jonathan Rauch in National Journal Magazine puts it, “In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families”.  To unpack that statement, he looks at the ideas put forward by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone (family law professors at George Washington University and the University of Missouri (Kansas City) respectively) in their book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture.

The crux of the thinking is this: Conservative cultural and religious crusaders on the right link sex, marriage and procreation in one troublesome lump.  As soon as you emerge from childhood your mentors start making suggestions regarding (obviously) opposite-sex partners which you are encouraged to court for an appropriately short time before tying the knot, banging like goats and producing spawn that, fed the right steak, potatoes and corn bread, will hopefully repeat the cycle.

This all sounds like a great idea as you pass the turkey at Thanksgiving but it makes for a horrible reality when you look at the results of applying cultural standards from a long-gone era to the complexity of the modern cultural landscape.  Liberal or conservative, kids freak; and, in a conservative culture that stresses abstinence over protection, pregnancies occur, especially when you are on the Right side of Roe v. Wade. Back in the day you could afford to get married in-or-right-after-high-school-young because of butterfly love or because someone had gotten knocked up.  Today that is a terrible idea because it is much less possible to bring home bread for two (much less three or four) people on a high school diploma. But tradition rules in red states, early marriages abound and the combined stresses of youth, poverty and offspring often result in divorce.

On the other side of the culture wars are those pesky leftists with their irresponsible sexual mores, over-the-hill singles and baby-killer doctors.  The right sees them as the bane of family stability and values-based living.  Rather than stress sexual abstinence before marriage, the message from these bleeding heart liberals, is: “Have all the nookie you want but whatever you do, stay sheathed and don’t get pregnant and certainly don’t have a child until after college and a stable income.”  Although it flies in the face of traditional morality, according to Cahn and Carbone, this kind of life advice is statistically more likely to achieve the ideal of a stable, two-parent household.

So what to make of all this?  Cahn and Carbone’s statistics seem to say that moral traditionalism has failed in producing stable families.  Should pre-marital sexual abstinence and other conservative values be discarded? Should blue states now take the moral high ground and should Hollywood be allowed to dictate its own morals more than it already does?  As convenient as that would be, Rauch admits, “Whether Cahn and Carbone are right will take time and subsequent scholarship to learn”.  In the meantime a nonpartisan and fairer approach might be to abandon attempts to establish a hierarchy of cultures and instead focus on common ground.  Sexual morality is open to a variety of interpretations but surely protection is a good thing to stress across the board.  Life preparation over early marriage is another idea that makes as much sense in Oklahoma as it does in New York.  And before children come into the picture, invest in a college fund.



Bjorn Karlman

40 thoughts on “Why Red, “Family Values” States Lead the US in Divorces”

  1. Let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. That “Red states” have allegedly failed miserably at their “abstinence only” education does not therefore mean that a proper teaching of “abstinence only” education is not possible. To get a little religious here, teaching abstinence only education without a proper understanding of the gospel is bound to fail miserably.

    Also, I wonder what the cohabitation rates are in blue states vis-a-vis red states. Could it be that divorce rates are lower in blue states because there is a smaller sampling – ie, more people cohabit and thus do not get married to begin with?

  2. Shawn, so what you would like to see taught in schools is not only abstinence but also the gospel? Is this in the state school system? (Along with Intelligent Design?)

    I believe that it is a huge shame that at a time when human knowledge is growing to such amazing heights (in science) and we are figuring out better ways to live a happier life (e.g. have kids later), there are such strong regressive forces in place which wish to stop the children from being educated in the ‘best practice’ we as humans know!!

    Re Cohabitation, I would say yes, it is likely that in the blue states there are higher cohabitation rates. I am sure however that the stats will have been worked out as a proportion, so by wokring out divorces as proportion of total marriages so this will not affect the quoted ‘divorce rate’. (Also, cohabitation would seem to be a better solution than early marriage)

  3. Shawn,
    about your last point, I don’t know specifically, but it is unlikely the case due to a higher population density in blue states (i.e. NYC and California). That thought did cross my mind, however.

  4. Marek,

    No, I am definitely not advocating the teaching of the Gospel in public schools. In fact, I recognize that this is a challenge in advocating abstinence only education in public schools – you cannot couple it with the Gospel and, therefore, the power to live an abstinent life is not present along with the abstinence only message.

    So, in some ways, I am merely thinking out loud and see that we are between a rock and a hard place. As a Christian, I believe that abstinence only education in light of the Gospel is the only thing that can really solve this problem. But I recognize that this cannot be fully taught in public schools. At the same time, I do not think we should just concede that morality is a lost cause in the public arena either.

    As to your claim that cohabitation would be a better solution than early marriage, I am not sure that we have to choose between the “lesser of two evils.” Are those our only two options??

  5. I agree that there needs to be a more mindful approach to the subject, but both sides need to acknowledge the consequences in their manner of thinking.

    I think what is happening now is a prevailing belief that an individual can do whatever they want because our technology has minimized the risk of negative consequences. I believe that promiscuity can be damaging not only to one’s health but also to one’s self-perception, which is why proper “abstinence only” education is still needed.

    However, burying your head in the sand wont help either. I blame the red-state predicament on bad theology and traditionalism. If a child grows up being told by the church one thing, but constantly sees something else, then the discordance leads to unpredictable behavior. A sound spiritual life is core, but unfortunately, much of Christianity has become merely cultural, focusing on political issues and “correctness” rather than on what’s important, and therefore is only skin deep. Churches do need to get real, not only socially, but Biblically as well.

    Though I do not advocate such a “blue-state” lifestyle, and neither should the church or any Christian organization, the reality of the situation is that young people all to often cannot handle having their brains bathed in hormones, and they react accordingly when the opportunity presents itself. Or if it doesn’t (excuse the pun) they take matters into their own hands.

    Getting back to religion, I know what has helped for me is that Adventist theology does not have a “once-saved-always-saved” way of viewing things…that, and my mom promised to kill any of us in cold blood if we broke “the order.” I believe that cheap grace theology, which is prevalent in mainstream Protestantism found in red states, can and does lead to reckless behavior. Without understanding the need for daily renewal and constant at-one-ment with God, any Christian not only becomes vulnerable to sin, but misses the opportunity for a daily heart/mind changing experience… therefore hormones win….

  6. Shawn, you make a compelling case AGAINST the teaching of abstinence only education. I can only assume, as a Seventh-day Adventist minister with a particular understanding of eschatology, that you certainly don’t believe a sound rendering of the gospel in public schools would be appropriate… How then could I, or you, or any Adventist, in good conscience, support the teaching of abstinence only education if its effectiveness is contingent upon it being taught within the context of a Biblical perspective?

  7. Wow. That is some pretty chilling stuff. Your family-values mother killing you in cold blood for acting out on your most natural desire.

    And this combined with a stricter view of ‘grace’, is the solution. I.e. more guilt. The more guilt you threaten people with the better they will resist their natural primordial urges.

    Why did God create us with such an overwhelming desire to procreate, when he then requires us to not act out on these desires? The results I can see coming from this are poeple suffering from feelings of confusion and being unfulfilled, oh and overwhelming guilt if they do go ahead. So: negative emotions. That’s a bit mean for a loving God, no?

  8. There is no doubt this is true. When Democrats get their females pregnant, they just run away. Republicans are more likely to get married in the first place.

  9. um… my mom would never kill me. that was a joke…. but seriously, life is about discipline and control. apply this concept to something more broad, like the environment. We are consumers by nature, but over consumption is killing us. Human sexuality is natural, but over indulgence can lead to the degradation of it and the value of human relationships.

    As far as negative emotions, I agree that it is harmful to suppress feelings and that guilt is not at all what God wants us to experience. That is why he wants to work within us and change our hearts so that we will be transformed and live a life that is healthy and fulfilling.

  10. I wasn’t intending to throw out any babies. I am not about promoting a hierarchy kids. I AM against naivete on either side however. The abstinence only crowd demonstrates its naivete in their reluctance to talk about and distribute protection in schools. Unrealistic and insulting to a general sense of responsibility.

  11. “I believe that it is a huge shame that at a time when human knowledge is growing to such amazing heights ” – we may be exiting the postmodern era but I am product of disillusioned ones and I have about as much faith in the heights of human knowledge as I do in ecclesiastical grandstanding.

  12. Shawn, as much as I respect faith I think the abstinence only approach is not pragmatic at all. Surely mature faith calls for realism.

  13. What do you mean by proper abstinence only education… it sounds entirely doomed for failure because it ignores the fact that 80% or more of kids will never listen to it.

  14. yeah, I think we need to move away from a faith that is based largely on guilt. It defines too much of the evangelical experience for sure. I am bored of this intellectual laziness and I feel we should be motivated more by positive possibility than the prospect of a pissed deity.

  15. “life is about discipline and control”… how puritanical of you:) I am all for over indulgence of human sexuality.

  16. Quite. And it doesn’t even make sense in a Biblical context. It’s entirely impractical. I am fine with those that give it preferential treatment but abstinence only education seems to be in denial of the fact that you have to provide a safe alternative to kids that do not share your world view. It subscribes to overly simplistic “either or” thinking and it is therefore bankrupt

  17. don’t see a link in Rauch’s article so check out Cahn and Carbone’s book, Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, from Oxford University Press

  18. It was just a joke, but probably true if I had to guess. Out of wedlock births are higher among the uneducated, racial minorities, and low income people. Those groups are also more likely to vote Democrat.

  19. sure, within the confines of marriage, some indulgence is great. But of course its good to get out of the house once in awhile.

  20. My view on the ‘postmodern era’ and the general phenomenon of postmodernism is that it is a sort of intelectual masturbation game played and thoroughly enjoyed by a group of academic individuals, however any products or discoveries this may have produced have at no point had any relevance to anything in the real world. Please prove me wrong, I’d love for there to be some substance in it, but I just haven’t found any yet.

    Regarding human knowledge, I can’t put it as well as Michael Specter does here: http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_specter_the_danger_of_science_denial.html

    again, let me know your thoughts!

  21. discipline and control does not equal fear. In no way am I evoking the kind of imagery found in sinners in the hands of an angry God. I think it is highly reactionary for people to say you fear punishment when one advocates a Christian lifestyle. What I am trying to say, and perhaps I am not doing it effectively, is that I truly believe an individual is more than just physical. We are much more complex and therefore require a deeper more holistic approach to matters such as this, especially in the realm of human relationships. Of course the state can and should only teach kids about the pill and how to put a condom on a banana, but I think outside of that, there is a much better way that will teach children responsibility which surpasses physical consequences. And as I stated earlier, most religion fails because it cannot seem to get past political issues and sensationalism. God calls for a deeper consideration and mindful approach to spiritual issues. He also asks for us to dialogue with Him… free from fear of consequences. Taking a Bill Maher approach to religion is just ignorant.

  22. I don’t disagree that the state should provide solid sex ed in school. If they did not, then the state better have a kick-ass welfare program to deal with the consequences.

  23. Thanks for the TED talk… I like Gary Vaynerchuk’s stuff as well…

    As for postmodernism on a raw, intellectual level I think you are right that it is the territory of an academic elite. However, look at this dictionary definition of pmism:

    a late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art.”

    I think this general distrust has been around ever since the World Wars – especially in Europe.

    I am listening to Specter as a I write this. I think he has a fair point in that you should not deny facts. On a raw, pragmatic level, I think he is right. But in a grander sense I am hesitant to speak of progress as our greatest scientific breakthroughs often just lead to our greatest displays of inhumane genocide.

  24. I always love when the masturbation thing comes up. I’ve heard both sides of that one and every joke in the book. I find it hilarious that people actually take a religious stand on that one. As for Christian teaching on sexuality and Christian sexual repression, I think there is a lot to critique and a lot to respect in confining sex to the marital context. A lot to critique in that the practice seems to accompany irresponsibly early marriages and therefore a lot of rushed and hormone-driven thinking. A lot to respect in that people that pull it off and translate it into lifelong monogamy and fidelity are, in my book, likely to live less complicated and more stable family lives.

  25. I don’t think you can say it is bigoted…no more than this post suggesting the opposite.

  26. One suggests Democrats are morally inferior, the other suggests Republicans are morally inferior. That is pretty standard pettiness, and if it is bigotry, it’s a two way street.

  27. I just noticed…isn’t this blog promoting violence? The picture of the jackass kicking the elephant seems to do just that. lol. Seriously, have you heard this nonsense by some commentators saying Palin and Beck are inciting violence? If they are, they are piss poor at it. The people against SB1070 seem to be much better at it because the third world rabble down here in Phoenix resorted to violence pretty quickly after the national clamor started.

  28. pointing out irony in the fact that there is a higher divorce rate among a demographic which propagates the moral high ground is no where near the same as lumping minorities together and saying “Democrats get their females pregnant, they just run away.”

  29. But if it is true, then it doesn’t matter if it is offensive. People in glass houses…

    Also, I have never heard anyone say that Republicans are less likely to get divorced before. If a person did, it is a stupid thing to say and a pointless thing to say. I think this moral high ground argument is often a “thou doth protest too much” situation. Republicans talk about family values because they think it is important, not because they think they are better people. Also Democrats play the moral high ground card just as much, just on different issues. For instance, like the fact that Obama said we are our brothers keeper, but has a literal brother living in a mud hut on $1 a day. It is a human thing, not a Republican thing.

  30. I know that this is an old blog, but you might want to check out the book, Unhooked, by Laura Sessions Stepp. It gives another look at this idea that we need to give in to our sexual needs no matter the costs. It also gives a female perspective on this.

    This blog annoyed me and I can’t put my finger on why. I have been teaching for 6 years in the public schools. I recently started to teach at a “new” public school in Massachusetts. This past year a 9th grade class looked out their window to see a senior and a girl getting it on in the parking lot of the school. (Any work done in that class?) A year ago, a teacher was walking into the school and spotted a girl giving a guy a well… in the parking lot of the school. My students walk around with stickers they got at a health fair that says “put it on” in the shape of a condom.

    While I agree that abstinence only shouldn’t be the only thing taught, I also think that at least abstinence only makes sex special. It teaches kids to make their first time (and every time) be special and important. Yes, a definite backlash is that many of those same kids marry someone too young and are unprepared for the consequences of marriage. I am sorry to see this happen. I don’t really have the answers for that except a requirement of a long marriage counseling sessions? I wonder, though, how many partners they have when they get divorced? How many STDs are present?

    I guess what annoyed me is that I see the other side. The side where sex (or some version of it) is the only way to get that cute guy in Algebra. At least a hundred years ago, these women would have been paid for what they are now giving away for free.

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