A study saying that born-again Christians divorce more often than non-Christians has raised eyebrows, sowed confusion, even brought on a little holy anger. So much, in fact, that the study's author, evangelical George Barna, put out a special letter to "our partners in ministry" trying to calm their fury and let his fellow believers know that he was standing by his stats no matter how distasteful they might be.
The Barna Research Group's national study showed that members of nondenominational churches divorce 34 percent of the time in contrast to 25 percent for the general population. Nondenominational churches would include large numbers of Bible churches and other conservative evangelicals. Baptists had the highest rate of the major denominations: 29 percent. Born-again Christians' rate was 27 percent. To make matters even more distressing for believers, atheists/agnostics had the lowest rate of divorce 21 percent.
You might wait, however, before quoting those findings at your next dinner party. One of the country's most eminent scholars of American divorce says the study's conclusions just don't stand up to other studies and common sense.
Even when religion gives up unyielding opposition to divorce, "it supports belief in family, a belief in children and in the Bible," said Dr. David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. "You also have 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." But Mr. Barna's numbers appear to say something otherwise about some of the country's most fervent Christians. His letter addressed those Christians' most common defenses, point by point, and the cross-tabulations of his study responded to many of the scholarly objections.
He rejected the idea that large numbers of divorced Christians left their marriages before they converted. He also found no reason in his 3,854-person national survey to believe that large numbers of Christian marriages broke up because the Christian partner was "unequally yoked" with a non-Christian.
He doesn't buy that Christians divorced more often because they married their romantic partners rather than merely living with them. He doesn't have co-habitation data, but, Mr. Barna said, "of more than 70 other moral behaviors we study, when we compare Christians to non-Christians we rarely find substantial differences and we have no reason to believe co-habitation would veer from that pattern." Mr. Barna explained that his study shows a 25 percent overall divorce rate rather than the commonly cited 50 percent, because the 50 percent rate is derived by dividing the number of marriages by the number of divorces each year. Dr. Popenoe says an individual's chances of divorce over a lifetime are 40 to 50 percent, but 25 percent would be about the number of people who are now or have ever been divorced.
In the six months since the Barna study was released, it has also drawn attacks from academic scholars who suggested that his study might measure differences in economic status, educational level and age of marriage rather than religious conviction. People who marry late, earn high incomes and are well-educated have lower divorce rates, studies show.
But Mr. Barna said that according to his numbers, divorce rates do not seem related to educational achievement or income. His study did not look at age of marriage. What about geographic region, his critics ask? Since nondenominational Protestant and Baptist churches are often located in the South, maybe Barna was merely reporting Southern divorce rates. A recent state-by-state analysis of divorce rates by The Associated Press showed that some Bible Belt states had far more breakups than other states.
But there again, Mr. Barna was ready. His stats showed that divorce was a bit higher in the South but also in the Midwest, both 27 percent, and in the West, 26 percent.
Some have suggested that the Barna group surveyed a small group of strange people. Not so, the researchers reply. Barna surveys went to a randomly picked group of 3,854 people, enough for conclusions to be valid. Surveyors used regional quotas and did multiple callbacks. Their statistics have an error rate of plus or minus 2 percent with a confidence level of 95 percent. But sociological studies have one more hurdle to jump before serious researchers quote them. They must be backed by other studies. And this study isn't bolstered by others conducted in the 1980s, said Dr. Popenoe, a sociologist. "In general, studies show people who are religious tend to have lower divorce rates, especially if both husband and wife are religious," he said.
Dr. Larry C. Ingram also questioned the Barna numbers and had a caution. "I think we ought to replicate this finding before we panic," said Dr. Ingram, who wrote the entry on Baptists for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society.
There might be one more reason to question Mr. Barna's survey and many other studies of religious people the hazards of self-identification.
Bill Johnson certainly doesn't deny that Christians are getting divorced. He's divorced himself. He and his second wife, Donna, co-teach Rebuilders, Prestonwood Baptist's ministry to remarried couples. Some people in the class have been married two and three times.
But Mr. Johnson is also a therapist and federal probation officer. His work experience has caused him to note that it's awfully popular to be Baptist. "When I interview criminals going into prison or coming out of prison, most of them are Baptists," he said, laughing. "Everybody seems to be a Baptist, even if they're not religious or Christian." Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman thinks Mr. Johnson has a point.
What does it mean when someone claims to be a Christian, she asks? "In this country, the vast majority of people define themselves as Christians," said Dr. Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "People have a particular denomination with which they identify. That does not mean that they go to church or that they even know anything about that denomination." Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and nondenominational churches cover a wide spectrum of beliefs.
Other breakdowns in the Barna study also raise questions of semantics, say scholars.
The study shows that Catholics have a lower than average rate of divorce, 21 percent.
Some people speculated that Catholics don't divorce as much as other Christians because their church has held the line against divorce, forbidding it absolutely.
But Dr. Ammerman demurs. "There are huge numbers of Catholics in recent years who've had marriages annulled," she said, noting that they would never call themselves divorced because "they've gone to great trouble to stay in good standing with the church." As for the statistic on agnostics and atheists, that's a group that's hard to measure because it's so small, said Dr. Popenoe. "Statistically, they're only 5 percent of the population," he said, "and I suspect that's a very highly educated group," which means it would have a lower rate of divorce, according to other studies.
But not everybody is willing to reject the Barna statistics out of hand. Some people see them reflected in daily experience.
Dallas therapist and Southwestern Seminary graduate Dr. Roy Austin believes that some more mainline Christians with an active faith might very well have a better chance at lifelong marriages than some people who follow fundamentalist theology. "I'm not supporting those statistics," he said, referring to the Barna study. But what Dr. Austin calls "magical thinking" is often a factor among evangelical and fundamentalist couples he counsels, he said, and that leaves them less prepared for the rigors of marriage. "The atheist doesn't believe in God and so doesn't depend on God to save or fix a marriage. It's just 'the two of us,' and that takes the magic aspect out of it," he said.
At the same time, his 25 years of counseling shows that religious people can have an advantage in marriage. "If religion is not used as a magic pill but as a source of spiritual and moral strength and guidance, then it can be a major contributing factor to preserving marriage," he said.
But many fundamentalist or evangelical couples base their marriages on "very irrational and unrealistic principles," he said. "They say, 'Put God first in your marriage' whatever that means to them 'be faithful in church, be a good Christian, pray a lot, attend church, and God will work everything out for you.' Then they find out that's a lot of hogwash." He's also seen problems when some fundamentalist men, in leading the household, become "cruel dictators" who "expect their wives to become servants." Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage and director of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality in Bellingham, Wash., believes that men should head the family, but that means they ought to be servant-leaders. "I think in many ways Christian marriage is harder," he said. "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." A possible problem he sees is what he calls "the myth of the evangelical husband." "This is a husband who is expected to make enough money that his wife can stay home, who goes to Promise Keepers and dates his wife every week and dates his kids every week and takes his kids out every month to talk about abstinence and men get tired," Mr. Thomas said.
But that's no excuse for divorce. Christians should use marriage to seek "holiness, not happiness," he said. Mr. Thomas believes that the Christian church contributes to divorce by being too tolerant. "We have bent over backwards not to be judgmental," he said. That's a mistake, in Mr. Thomas' opinion. He believes that Christians need to think of their marriage as a chance to serve Christ. "A Christian who gets divorced puts their happiness before their devotion to Christ."
Christine Wicker, a former Religion staff writer, is a free-lance writer in Milwaukee.