Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Divorced From Reality?

Does it really matter?

Does it matter if the divorce rate between Christians and the unchurched is about the same?

Because that's what many people think.  Churched people divorce at approximately the same rate as unchurched folks.  The implication being that either religion doesn't do much to help marriages, or that the divorce rate really isn't all that bad to begin with.

Of course, it could also mean that America's evangelicals have significantly succumbed to carnal perversions of the covenant of marriage.  But we don't like to think about that.

However you look at it, though, the Christian values advocacy group Focus on the Family doesn't like it.  Not just divorce, of course, but they also don't like people assuming that Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians.  For the second time in a year, Focus on the Family's Glenn Stanton has had the same article appear on Crosswalk.com in which he tries to argue that the Christian divorce rate is a "myth" when compared with the secular world. In other words, Stanton claims that new studies debunk the popular notion that Christians divorce at the same rate as the unchurched.

Unfortunately, Stanton's argument contains some serious fallacies, about which I blogged last year when I first saw his article on Crosswalk.  Since that time, a couple hundred readers of the article have agreed with him, which only lends credibility to the secular community's suspicions about us evangelicals and our cognitive abilities.  While I suppose it would be nice if the Christian divorce rate was much lower than the secular divorce rate, does it really matter if it isn't?  And if you're going to try and make the case that it is, then shouldn't you base your claims on better data and research than Stanton does?

Can a Myth Disprove a Myth?

Entitled "The Christian Divorce Rate Myth," Stanton's article appears to make one key assumption that ends up undermining his whole argument.  He seems to believe that America's divorce rate hovers around 50%, which is another widely-held statistic about divorce and marriage in the United States.

However, that statistic is indeed a myth.  Contrary to popular opinion, our country's actual divorce rate has never been definitively quantified. The United States Census and the National Center for Health Statistics have both pegged our divorce rate at approximately 50% ever since 1980, but that figure has been widely disputed. For one thing, the Census cuts off their calculations for people aged 65 years and over, eliminating the count of people who, say, divorce during retirement. Experts have also questioned whether the inclusion by the Census of remarriage by divorcees actually skews the percentage upwards, since it puts remarriage back on the same playing field as first-time marriages.

Perhaps a more conservative estimate comes from the legal advocacy group Americans for Divorce Reform, which says America's divorce rate hovers around 38%.

Other experts have pegged it anywhere between 30 and 40%. In 1999, Barna Research Group, generally considered to be a mathematically-astute polling company sympathetic to Christian values, put the national divorce rate at about 30%.  So for the national divorce rate, let's average everything out and, all things considered, say the rate is 35%. Still a sobering percentage, of course, but not as sensational as 50% for the country as a whole.

Which brings us to churched folk. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, Barna found that divorce rates in churches ranged from 34% for people attending non-denominational churches, to 21% for Lutherans, the most fidelity-prone of Christians. But this was in 1999.

In 2008, Barna did another study, which found divorce rates between churched and unchurched people to be roughly equivalent: 33% for unchurched, 32% for churched. Which, factoring in the margin for error, makes the the difference statistically irrelevant.

So yes, Christians really do divorce at about the same rate as unchurched people.  Sad, but true.  But, not even realizing he hasn't proven that a myth exists, Stanton manages to make the numbers sound even worse.

"Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explains from his analysis of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, that 60 percent of these have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced."


Which part of this is good news? Can a churched divorce rate of 38% (even higher than my calculation) debunk the Christian divorce rate "myth?"

Several factors with this scenario seem incongruous. In addition to his data negatively exceeding even standard assumptions, one of Stanton's references is a 2002 family study from Oklahoma, of all places. Not exactly a state known for being representative of the country - or evangelicalism - as a whole.

How significant is Dr. Wright's qualification that people who "identify as Christians but rarely attend church" have a 60% divorce rate? What about Catholics, Jews, Muslims, or atheists? Here's where the lack of diversity in Oklahoma really makes me suspicious.

In addition, how disturbing is Stanton's suggestion that a 38% divorce rate among Christians is something we should cheer? He actually seems relieved that the rate is nearly 40% for regular churchgoers, at least according to the studies he's referenced.

Most importantly, however, Stanton quotes scholars who are trying to qualify spiritual growth, a futile task for anybody who understands that only God knows our hearts. Surely relying on personal professions of church membership and attendance, Bible readership, home group participation, praying, and other "faith" metrics represents an unreliable way to determine spirituality.

Besides, the world around us just looks at people who walk through church doors; they don't run algorithms of spirituality on all of us. If they have friends who go to church getting a divorce, whether it's fair or not, the message they get is "church was no help for them."

While it is likely true that the more time married people spend in faith metrics, the least likely they are to divorce, aren't we still left with an inability to quantify that spirituality?

This is one of the many times where I wouldn't mind being proven wrong!  But alas, and I say this with utmost respect to Stanton and the work that Focus on the Family has done over the years to buttress the institution of marriage, nothing in Stanton's article proves me wrong.

Reality Matters

But does it matter?  Does it matter that I'm right and that Stanton isn't?  Does it matter that, yes, Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as unchurched people?

Yes, I think it matters significantly that the latter is taking place.  Christians should not be marginalizing the covenant of marriage like we've been doing.  It's a travesty and a horrible testimony.  And it makes us poor stewards of an institution for which we're trying to prevent homosexuals from becoming legally eligible.

In terms of the former; that matters, too.  Not as significantly as our mockery of marriage, but it still matters.  What Stanton does in his sloppy analysis of spurious data in relation to a question that, by itself, isn't all that significant, is weaken the authority and integrity by which evangelicals broach a wide spectrum of social doctrines in American society.

There are far more critical claims to be making about how sin is perverting our lives than whether Christians and non-Christians do or don't divorce at the same rate.  But by dawdling over comparatively trivial matters like Stanton does undermines the legitimacy of groups like Focus on the Family in the scientific community, our social services industry, the secular media, and even our political spectrum.  If you're not making valid claims with relevant data, and you're not drawing the proper correlations, and you're swaying opinion on fuzzy logic, then you're no better than the world in its efforts to convince us that sin doesn't matter.  That divorce can even improve some relationships.  That marriage is an outmoded institution that the government should control instead of the church universal.  You know... small little diversions like these.

Maybe I'm the one who's out of touch here.  Maybe I should be glad that "only" 38% of Christians are divorced.  But wouldn't that be an even worse reaction to Stanton's claims?  Why give the body of Christ the impression that we should feel good about a percentage like that?

Holiness - that's what we need.  Holiness, integrity, and a baseline that is set on God, not on this world.  Which is more important:  the divorce rate between Christians and the world, or the divorce rate between Christians and what God expects from our observance of His marriage covenant?

No matter how you slice it, there's nothing to cheer about Stanton's article.  Until divorce becomes starkly uncommon among people of faith, we've got a lot more work to do than worry about comparisons.

After all, even if we get down into the single digits for a Christian divorce rate, it will still be too high for God's standard.

And isn't that the only one that counts?

PS -
Please excuse me while I crow, but if you've read my thoughts on increasing taxes for top income earners, now known as the Buffett Rule, you'll recall that although I didn't really oppose the idea, I didn't think it would actually raise that much additional tax revenue.  Well, apparently I was right:  today we learned that the Buffett Rule would probably bring in only $31 billion extra over ten years.  And here I've been, claiming not to be an economics expert!

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