Debunking the Christian Divorce Rate Myth
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
It’s the kind of statistic that for years has left pastors shaking their heads and atheists grinning. It’s also the kind that opponents of Christianity often tout when the church takes a lead role in issues like the Marriage Protection Amendment. But the problem, or in this case, the praise is that the statistic — “Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as the world” — simply isn’t so.
The rumor likely began around 2004, when well-known pollster George Barna reported that the divorce rate among “born again Christians” was 35 percent, the exact same as among those who did not identify as such. Picked up by other authors, the statistic spread.
But sociologist Bradley Wright, a professor at the University of Connecticut, began digging into marriage data and came up with a very different conclusion.
“When I first heard of these statistics, I had trouble believing them because I was aware of how much emphasis the Christian church put on marriage. Surely this teaching and training had to have some effect?” wrote Wright in a 2006 blog post. “At a personal level, I count the instruction and support received from Christian friends as a major reason that I’m still married, and I’ve seen the same with others.”
Wright did his own research using the General Social Survey; a huge study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and found that folks who identify as Christians but rarely attend church have a divorce rate of 60 percent compared to 38 percent among people who attend church regularly. More generally, he found that Christians, similar to adherents of other traditional faiths, have a divorce rate of 42 percent compared with 50 percent among those without a religious affiliation.
And his is not the only research that is showing a link between strong faith and increased marriage stability.
University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, concluded that “active conservative Protestants” who regularly attend church are 35 percent less likely to divorce than are those with no faith affiliation. He used the National Survey of Families and Households to make his analysis.
Further, the Oklahoma Marriage Study, led by sociologist Scott Stanley of the University of Denver, also found lower risk of divorce among active believers.
“Whether young or old, male or female, low-income or not, those who said that they were more religious reported higher average levels of commitment to their partners, higher levels of marital satisfaction, less thinking and talking about divorce and lower levels of negative interaction. These patterns held true when controlling for such important variables as income, education, and age at first marriage,” Stanly reported.
“We’re so glad to see this misleading statement about divorce among Christians debunked and hope that potential husbands and wives both inside and outside the church pay close attention to what these studies truly show as to what makes the difference in the divorce rate,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “The factor is religious commitment and active faith, not whether or not your name is somewhere on a church roster or whether you simply ‘identify’ as a Christian.”
Glenn Stanton, the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been writing articles to spread the truth about the lower divorce rate among practicing Christians.
“Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes — attend church nearly every week, read their Bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples — enjoy significantly lower divorce rates that mere church members, the general public and unbelievers,” Stanton wrote in the Baptist Press early this year.
At issue in Barna’s studies is how he defined “Christian” and to what other groups he compared the “Christian” divorce rate. Apparently, his study compared what he termed “born-again” Christians — those who described their faith in terms of “personal commitment,” “accept as savior” and other evangelical, born-again language to three other groups, which included self-identified Christians who do not describe their faith with those terms, members of other, non-Christian religions and people of no religious beliefs.
Because his second group would have included many Catholics and mainline Protestants, Wright points out that Barna was, in many ways, “comparing Christians against Christians.” No wonder the rates were similar.
Beyond the studies’ conclusions, Dr. Creech pointed out that divorce rates are still too high among Christians and urged married couples as well as those considering marriage to rely on God’s Word for direction and keep their relationship with Christ first.
“If believers follow God’s plan for marriage, practice their faith together, and agree from the start that divorce is not an option, their marriage will be blessed,” he said. “Certainly, it won’t be free from struggles; everyone goes through hard times – everyone. But when it comes to marriage, just like any other issue, God’s word can be trusted.”