(Photo: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)
New data shows that U.S. divorce rates are higher in Southern states such as Alabama, Kentucky, and Texas. This information is important to church leaders since these states are located in what is traditionally known as the "Bible Belt." However, these same leaders squabble over whether or not Christians are truly part of America's growing divorce problem.
Data from the U.S. Census shows the divorce rate among both men and women in the South hovers over the national average. In the South, the divorce rate is 10.2 divorces per 1,000 men aged 15 or older and 11.1 divorces per 1,000 women.
The national divorce rate rests at 9.2 divorces per 1,000 men and 9.7 divorces per 1,000 women. The Northeast region boasts the lowest divorce rate at 7.2 divorces per 1,000 men and 7.5 per women. But the region also has the lowest number of marriage as well.
Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma - states traditionally known for their conservatism - are experiencing divorce rates between 11 and 13.5 divorces per 1,000 for both men and women.
Arizona has the highest rate of divorce in the nation among women, 16.2 divorces per 1,000 women. Arkansas holds the highest divorce rate in the nation among men, 13.5 per 1,000.
Dwayne Hastings, vice president of communications for the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission, said of the data, "Couples are entering into the marriage relationship without an idea, a real solid idea of what they are getting into," he described.
He continued, "They're not entering into [marriage] with Christ as the center."
The church is not immune to the divorce rate, Hastings emphasized.
"Unfortunately, it's like a lot of issues across the board that ... immoral behavior is practiced by, sometimes at equal numbers...those inside the church [compared to] those outside the church."
Numbers released by Barna Group in 2001 seems to support Hastings’ notion.
The group reports that 33 percent of all born-again Christians who have been married have gone through divorce compared to 34 percent of non-born-again adults.
However, Focus on the Family's Family Formation Studies Director, Glenn Stanton, believes a differentiation must be made between those who are truly practicing their faith and those that are simply affiliated with a church.
"Church affiliation means nothing," said Stanton. Rather he says actively praying together and reading the Bible together makes all the difference in the world.
As for the notion that the Bible Belt is contributing to the high divorce rate, he says statistics point more toward the failed marriages of what he calls "the mobile home belt."
He uses that term loosely to refer to Southern marriages where the spouses were married despite being in their teens, irregularly employed and having co-habitated prior to being wed. Stanton warns of the dire effects co-habitation can have on marriage in his upcoming book, The Ring Makes all the Difference.
"The research shows that the ideal marriage age is about from 22 years old to about 25 years old," he explained. Marriage after 25, he says, is not harmful, but waiting does not necessarily equal a stronger marriage. However marriage before age 20, he warns, does not allow spouses to mature.
Hastings argues that age is irrelevant.
"I don't think physiological age has much to do with long viability of a marriage," he stated. "Our culture would think the more older [sic] person is the more mature person, but that may or may not be true."
Hastings, who says he is "middle-aged," also noted, "[In] my grandparent's generation, people were forced to be more mature earlier because [that was] just society at that time."
Stanton, now 49, married his wife, then 18, at age 20. He acknowledges, "Those marrying at 20 or before are not destined to divorce, but they are [now] significantly more likely to divorce."
Those who marry in their teens likely have not attended college or even finished high school, he notes. Therefore in young marriages, youth and poverty are tied together.
Stanton says of marriage after college, "Nobody is absolutely mature when they marry but you're just in a better place."
While the South has as a high divorce rate, its marriage rate is also higher than the national average.
In the South there are 20.3 married men per 1,000 men and 18.6 married women per 1,000 women. The national average is 19.1 marriages per 1,000 men and 17.6 per 1,000 women.
Stanton says there is a "silver lining" in the data.
For Christians, Stanton and Hastings both agree the key to a divorce-proof marriage is strong faith.
"[If you are] going into marriage with expectations that are faulty, then the marriage is going to fail, no matter the age," said Hastings. "If they go into a marriage without the appreciation and the understanding that Christ must be the center of the marriage – they're not coming together for their own sake, but for the furthering of his kingdom, for Christ's sake – then their marriage, it seems to be more likely to be weak and to fail."
The similar Barna poll confirms that while 33 percent of born-again Christians who were married have also been divorced, evangelicals are among the groups least likely to divorce, 26 percent, next to upscale adults (22 percent) and Asians (20 percent).