Research disputes ‘facts’ on Christian divorces

March 14, 2011

It's been proclaimed from pulpits and blogs for years: Christians
divorce as much as everyone else in America. But some scholars and
family activists are questioning the oft-cited statistics, saying
Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to remain wed.

"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.
"If a pastor wants to preach about how Christians should take their
marriages more seriously, he or she can trot out this statistic to get
them to listen to him or her."

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 ten evangelicals who never attend had
been divorced or separated, compared to just 38 percent of weekly
attendees.

Wright questions the approach of the Barna Group,
evangelical pollsters based in Ventura, California. Barna's latest
published divorce statistics say one-third of all adults, including
"non-evangelical born-again Christians," have ended a marriage.

Barna's
statistics are tied to its highly specific—and
controversial—definitions of born-again Christians and evangelicals. For
instance, Barna labels Christians "born-again" if they have made a
personal commitment to Jesus and believe they will go to heaven because
they have accepted him as their savior. Barna's evangelicals, on the
other hand, are those who fit the born-again definition but also meet
seven other conditions, including sharing their beliefs with
non-Christians and agreeing that the Bible is completely accurate.

David
Kinnaman, president of the Barna outfit, said the statistical
differences reflect varied approaches, noting that Wright looks more at
attendance while his group's research dwells on theological commitments.
"We've tried to measure it based on theological perspective, not merely
[people's] church attendance or whether they call themselves Catholic
or mainline," Kinnaman said.

Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family
wrote a recent Baptist Press column highlighting Wright's interpretation
of the state of divorce for Christians. "The divorce rates of Christian
believers are not identical to the general population—not even close,"
he wrote. "Being a committed, faithful believer makes a measurable
difference in marriage."

Brad Wilcox, director of the National
Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, agrees that 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. But
nominal conservative Protestants were 20 percent more likely to divorce
than the religiously unaffiliated, he said. —RNS