U.S. divorce rates for various faith
groups, age groups, & geographic areas
Divorce rates in the U.S.:
"There is consensus that the overall U.S. divorce rate had a brief
spurt after WW2, followed by a decline, then started rising in the 1960s and
even more quickly in the 1970s, then leveled off [in the] 1980s and [has since]
declined slightly."7However, such gross
statistics are misleading. There are a number of factors involved that obscure
the real data:
The normal lifestyle of American young adults is to live together
for a period of time in a type of informal trial marriage. These
relationships frequently do not endure.
Couples enter into their first marriage at a older age than in the
A growing percentage of committed couples have decided to live
in a common-law relationship rather than get married. This is particularly true
among some elderly who fear reduction in government support payments.
The current U.S. divorce rate:
The media frequently reports that 50% of American marriages will end in
divorce. This number appears to have been derived from very skimpy data
related to a single county or state. However, it appears to be reasonably
close to the probable value. The Americans for Divorce Reform estimates
that "Probably, 40 or possibly even 50 percent of marriages will
end in divorce if current trends continue. However, that is only a
projection and a prediction." 7
The slogan: "The family that prays together, stays together" is
well known. There has been much anecdotal evidence that has led to "unsubstantiated
claims that the divorce rate for Christians who attended church regularly, pray
together or who meet other conditions is only 1 or 2 percent". 8 Emphasis ours]. Dr. Tom Ellis, chairman of the Southern
Baptist Convention's Council on the Family said that for "...born-again
Christian couples who marry...in the church after having received premarital
counseling...and attend church regularly and pray daily together..."
experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages -- or 0.00256 percent.
A recent study by the Barna Research Group throws extreme doubt on these
estimates. Barna released the results of their poll about divorce on
1999-DEC-21.1 They had interviewed 3,854 adults from the 48
contiguous states. The margin of error is ~+mn~2 percentage points. The survey found:
11% of the adult population is currently divorced.
25% of adults have had at least one divorce during their lifetime.
Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than
for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and
George Barna, president and founder of Barna Research Group, commented:
"While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are
more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in
place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those
individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith
provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also
raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to
families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband
and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community
challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing
support for marriages."
According to the Dallas Morning News, a Dallas TX newspaper, the
national study "raised eyebrows, sowed confusion, [and] even
brought on a little holy anger." This caused George Barna
to write a letter to his supporters, saying that he is standing by his
data, even though it is upsetting. He said that "We rarely find
substantial differences" between the moral behavior of Christians
and non-Christians. Barna Project Director Meg Flammang said: "We
would love to be able to report that Christians are living very distinct
lives and impacting the community, but ... in the area of divorce rates
they continue to be the same." Both statements seem to be
projecting the belief that conservative Christians and liberal Christians
have the same divorce rate. This disagrees with their own data.
The survey has come under some criticism:
David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers
University has said that the survey doesn't make sense. He based this
belief on his assessment that Christians follow biblical models of the
family, making a bond that "the secular world doesn't have...It
just stands to reason that the bond of religion is protective of marriage,
and I believe it is."
Tom Ellis of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests that
the Barna poll is inaccurate because the people contacted may have
called themselves born-again Christians, without having previously made
a real commitment to God. He said: "We believe that there is
something more to being a Christian...Just saying you are [a born-again] Christian is
not going to guarantee that your marriage is going to stay together."
Some researchers have suggested that religion may have little or no
effect on divorce rates. The apparently higher rate among born-again
Christians, and lower rate among Atheists and Agnostics may be due to
the influence of financial and/or educational factors.
One reason for the discrepancy of beliefs about divorce rates among
born-again Christians may be that their churches are unaware of the true
number of divorcing couples in their midst.
Many couples would find it difficult to continue attending services
in the same congregation after their marital separation. Meeting at
church would be awkward. So, they drop out.
Many probably find that the climate in their church is very negative
towards divorcing couples. So, they move to other congregations that are
either more accepting of divorce, or are unaware of their marital
Barna report: Variation in divorce rates among Christian faith groups:
Denomination (in order of decreasing divorce rate)
% who have been divorced
** Barna uses the term "non-denominational" to refer to Evangelical Christian
congregations that are not affiliated with a specific denomination. The vast
majority are fundamentalist in their theological beliefs.
Barna's results verified findings of
earlier polls: that conservative Protestant Christians, on average, have the
highest divorce rate, while mainline Christians have a much lower rate. They found some
new information as well: that atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce
rate of all. George Barna commented that the results raise "questions regarding the
effectiveness of how churches minister to families." The data challenge
"the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for
Donald Hughes, author of The Divorce Reality, said:
churches, people have a superstitious view that Christianity will keep them from
divorce, but they are subject to the same problems as everyone else, and they
include a lack of relationship skills. ...Just being born again is not a
Hughes claim that 90% of divorces among born-again couples
occur after they have been "saved."
Variation in divorce rates by religion:
% have been divorced
Ron Barrier, Spokespersonn for American Atheists remarked on these findings
with some rather caustic comments against organized religion. He said:
"These findings confirm what I have been saying these last five
years. Since Atheist ethics are of a higher caliber than religious morals,
it stands to reason that our families would be dedicated more to each other
than to some invisible monitor in the sky. With Atheism, women and men
are equally responsible for a healthy marriage. There is no room in
Atheist ethics for the type of 'submissive' nonsense preached by Baptists
and other Christian and/or Jewish groups. Atheists reject, and rightly
so, the primitive patriarchal attitudes so prevalent in many religions with
respect to marriage." 2
StopTheReligiousRight.org had some scathing
comments as well:
"We hear an awful lot from conservatives in the
Bible Belt and on the TV about how we all should be living. Certainly a
culture that teaches the conservative religious values of the Christian
right must have clean living written all over it. And lots of ripe fruit
from their morally superior lives abounding."
"It doesn't. Far from it. People that talk the loudest may be the ones
walking the slowest. Joining its history of Biblically correct bigotry and
discrimination, it is an area with the highest divorce, murder,
STD/HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, single parent homes, infant mortality, and
obesity rates in the nation. As a region, the Bible Belt has the poorest
health care systems and the lowest rates of high school graduation." 12
Variation in divorce rates by age:
% have been divorced
Baby boomers (33 to 52 years of age)
Builders (53 to 72 years of age)
Seniors (above 72 years of age)
Many seniors were married in the late 40's or early 50's at a time when
divorce rates were much lower than they are today.
Variation in divorce rates by location:
The Barna Group study found:
% are or have been divorced
The Associated Press computed divorce statistics from data supplied by
the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health.4They found that Nevada had the highest divorce rate, at 8.5 divorces per
1,000 people in 1998. Nevada has had a reputation as a quickie divorce location
for decades. People from other states visited Nevada, fulfilled their residency
requirements, got divorced and returned home single.
The data showed that the highest divorce rates were found in the Bible
Belt. "Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five
in frequency of divorce...the divorce rates in these
conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average"
of 4.2/1000 people.
11 southern states (AL, AR, AZ, FL, GA, MS, NC, NM, OK, SC and TX
averaged 5.1/1000 people. (LA data is not available; TX data is for
Nine states in the Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT)
averaged only 3.5/1000 people.
Some of the factors that contribute to a high divorce rate in the Bible Belt,
relative to Northeastern states are:
More couples enter their first marriage at a younger age.
Average household incomes are lower (OK and AR rate 46th and 47th
in the U.S.)
They have a lower percentage of Roman Catholics, a denomination that does
not recognize divorce. Anthony Jordan, executive director of the
Southern Baptist Convention in Oklahoma commented: "I applaud the
Catholics," says Jordan. "I don't think we as Protestant
evangelists have done nearly as well preparing people for marriage. And in
the name of being loving and accepting, we have not placed the stigma on divorce
that we should have."
Some factor in conservative Protestantism -- which is prevalent in
the Bible Belt -- may causes a higher level of divorce.
Associated Press' confirmation of Barna's results:
The Associated Press analyzed divorce statistics from the US Census Bureau.
They found that Massachusetts had the lowest divorce rate in the U.S. at 2.4 per
1,000 population. Texas had the highest rate at 4.1 per 1,000. They found that
the highest divorce rates are found in the "Bible Belt."
According to the Boston Globe:
"The AP report stated that 'the divorce rates in these conservative
states are roughly 50 percent above the national average of 4.2 per thousand
people.' The 10 Southern states with some of the highest divorce rates were
Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina,
Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. By comparison nine states in the
Northeast were among those with the lowest divorce rates: Connecticut,
Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania,
Rhode Island, and Vermont."
One reason for the higher divorce rates in the Bible Belt may be the lower
percentage of Roman Catholics in the South. Their denomination does not
recognize divorce. Other reasons could be related more to culture than religion:
Couples in the South enter their first marriages at a younger age.
Family incomes in the South are lower.
Educational attainment is lower in the South: One in three Massachusetts
residents have completed college. while only 23% of Texans have. 11
Divorce among Protestant clergy:
A 1997-AUG survey by Barna among 601 senior Protestant pastors revealed that
the vast majority are married (95%). Only 13% have ever gone through a divorce.
This is about half of the rate among the general population. "Just 3% of
all current senior pastors are divorced and have not remarried." 6
Divorce among members of the Unification Church:
Michael Inglis, a member of the Unification Church staff, reported on
2000-MAR-28 the results of a
survey of some of the couples who were married in two mass marriage
blessing ceremonies during 1982. One was in New York City and involved
2,075 couples; the other was in Seoul Korea and involved 6,000 couples. In
most, the founder of the church, Reverend Moon, paired up the
couples. Participants in the study were chosen from among those
individuals who had worked in the U.S. If the 294 subjects, 48% were
American citizens, 24% Japanese, 14% Europeans, and 14% other. Inglis
82.6% were still married to their original partner.
17.4% were divorced from their original partner. 3
Data from the Unification Church compares very favorably with those
from all other faith groups. This is in spite of the couples having known each other for a
only a very short interval
One factor that may have contributed to their marriage stability is that the
couples averaged 2.52 children, compared with the American average of 1.6. A
1977 study showed that divorce in America is most common in families with large
families and among those that are childless; a moderate number of children
contributes to marital stability. 13
Another study in the same year stated that "divorce and separation rates are
moderately lower for those who have children than for the childless." 14
Combating the high divorce rate:
In 1999, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) reported that
in the U.S.:
Nationally, there were about 4.2 divorces for every thousand people in
The rate was 8.5 per thousand in Nevada, 6.4 in Tennessee, 6.1 in
Arkansas, 6.0 in Alabama and Oklahoma.
Of southeastern states, only South Carolina's rate of 3.8 was below the
By contrast, the divorce rate is less than 3.0 in Connecticut,
Massachusetts and New York. 15
In the same year, Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas, declared a "marital emergency."
His goal was to halve the divorce rate in his state by 2010, from 6.1 per 1,000
people per year to
about 3. Frank Keating, governor of Oklahoma also initiated a campaign to reduce
the divorce rate in his state by a third by 2009, from 6.0 to about 4. 4,5
By the end of 2001, Huckabee's program in Arkansas
appeared to be a failure. The divorce rate had increased to 6.6 per 1,000 people
per year. Arkansas state ranked 46th in the nation. By the end of 2004, the rate
had dropped slightly to 6.3 -- still higher that the value when the program
By the end of 2001, Oklahoma's program appears to
be a success. Their divorce rate was 3.4.
Some of the approaches being used by governments and religious groups to
reduce the divorce rate are:
Pre-marital counseling for engaged couples. Some clergy now refuse to
marry a couple unless they have completed such a course. The
church has done this for many years.
Encouraging couples to accept mediation before deciding to divorce.
Adding public school courses that discuss values and relationships.
Introducing covenant marriages which are
more difficult to get into and more difficult to get out of, in
comparison with regular marriages.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Christians are more likely to experience divorce than are
non-Christians," Barna Research Group, 1999-DEC-21, at: http://www.barna.org/
Barna no longer has this report online. However, a review of the report is at:
AANews, Posting #699, issued by American Atheists on 2000-JAN-2.
John Rossomando, "Born-Again Christians No More Immune to Divorce Than
Others, Says Author," CNSNews, 2002-JAN-21, at:
Donald Hughes, "The Divorce Reality." 109 pages. This is an eBook
written from a positive, conservative Christian. It can be purchased and then downloaded from Theatron Media at:
William V. D'Antonio, "Walking the walk on family values," The Boston Globe,