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Christian divorce rates disputed

Published: Friday, March 4 2011 7:51 p.m. MST

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The Barna Research Group created quite a stir with a report in 2000 that "Born Again Christians" have about the same divorce rate as the general population and that atheists and agnostics have a lower divorce rate.

But statistics can only measure what they can measure and many questions are hard to quantify.

For example, what percentage of Christians choose marriage versus living together and how does that compare to atheists? If atheists do not get married as often, how would that affect divorce rates?

And then there is the question that asks if religious people put too many expectations on marriage. "I think in many ways Christian marriage is harder," said Gary Thomas in an article quoted on adherents.com. Thomas is the author of "Sacred Marriage" and was the director of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality in Bellingham, Wash: "We're expected to forgive. We're expected to give of ourselves. Paul tells husbands that they ought to have the mind of a martyr."

Now Glenn T. Stanton, the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., calls the claim that Christians have the same divorce rate as the general public inaccurate.

"Based on the best data available, the divorce rate among Christians is significantly lower than the general population," Stanton wrote in the Baptist Press.

"The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice," Stanton wrote. "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 than mere church members, the general public and unbelievers."

Here are the statistics Stanton quotes:

— 60 percent of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend have been divorced.

— 38 percent of those who attend church regularly have been divorced.

— Active conservative Protestants who regularly attend church are 35 percent less likely to divorce compared to those who have no affiliation.

— Nominally attending conservative Protestants are 20 percent more likely to divorce than secular Americans.

Stanton concludes: "The divorce rates of Christian believers are not identical to the general population — not even close. Being a committed, faithful believer makes a measurable difference in marriage. … Faith does matter and the leading sociologists of family and religion tell us so."

So all is nice and well?

Not really.

As Gene Veith expresses on his blog "Cranach: The Blog of Veith," just because people who practice Christianity have a lower divorce rate doesn't mean there isn't a problem: "Thirty-eight percent? That's lots better than 60 percent, but still shockingly high, especially among the more devout believers. 35 percent less likely to get a divorce? One would think it should be greater than that.At any rate, the bottom line seems to be that the more seriously couples take their faith, the less likely they are to get a divorce. That seems like a self-evident truth, but it appears there is also evidence for it."

Statistics for divorce among Mormons are also varied. The Mormon Channel podcast, "Mormon Identity: Episode 20: Emotional Health of Latter-day Saints," had a discussion between Robert Millet and Daniel Judd about divorce. They referred to study in the 1980s that found, for marriages in LDS Temples, the divorce rate was six percent. That six percent rate was not limited to approved "temple divorces," according to Judd. "The six percent I quoted was a combined statistic for LDS men and women, once sealed in the temple who had ever had a civil divorce." He found that "the divorce rate is five times higher for those that marry outside the temple than it is for those who are sealed within."

In the Mormon Channel podcast, Judd said the current rate is about 20 percent for Mormons as a whole.

An article in the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism by Stephen J. Bahr found that: "The divorce rate is lower among Latter-day Saints than among Protestants, 'other,' and 'none,' but higher than among Catholics or Jews … Eighteen percent of Mormons report that they have been separated or divorced, compared with only 11 percent of Catholics and 10 percent of Jews."

But is the rate of broken marriages historically higher across the board? As one commenter pointed out in an online discussion about Stanton's article, marriages used to break up without getting divorces. Spouses would just move away from each other, creating a de facto divorce without actually getting divorced. As divorces became easier, these divorce substitutes became unecessary and the rates climbed.

Regardless of the numbers, however, divorce continues to be a widely discussed topic and one that has serious social consequences. For example, recent articles in the Deseret News found that "Sons of divorced parents are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts," "the recession has both stressed and strengthened marriages," "divorces occur needlessly because couples have not learned skills that can be taught and applied to save marriages," and "As traditional family declines, global concern mounts."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com Twitter: twitter.com/degroote

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