Want to stay married?

Move to Massachusetts

The Democrats will convene in Boston late this month to officially pronounce John Kerry their man-who-would-be-president. The party’s national convention is sure to spotlight not just the senator from Massachusetts, but the politics of his home state and perhaps the wider “liberal” Northeast. In 1988, the first President Bush waged a winning rhetorical campaign against his Democratic rival, “the Massachusetts liberal,” then-governor Michael Dukakis. In those days, Republicans were fond of branding Massachusetts as “Taxachusetts.” This year, partisans of the second President Bush may favor the taunt that the Bay State, which recently legalized same-sex marriage, should now be called “the Gay State.”

These are anxious times for defenders of traditional family norms, and Massachusetts is serving as a national magnet for profamily angst. During the ill-fated struggle to keep marriage licenses out of homosexual hands, a cavalry of family-values advocates, hailing from organizations with constituencies chiefly in the South, camped out in Boston and demonstrated at the statehouse. Many will return for the July 26-29 Democratic National Convention, undoubtedly hoping to highlight the contrast between Kerry and George W. Bush, between the (divorced) liberal from a presumably antifamily state and the Texas champion of time-honored values.

There is at least one thing askew in this picture. By arguably the leading measure of family vitality, Massachusetts repeatedly ranks at the top of the nation. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, it has the lowest divorce rate among the fifty states. To find the most profligate rates of marital breakdown, one must look first to the southern Bible Belt, as is made clear in periodic tabulations by the U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics. Of the other regions, the West-including the traditional divorce mecca, Nevada-is more divorce-prone than the Midwest.

The divorce gap between the states has become a public curiosity in recent years. News headlines have restyled the Bible Belt as the “Divorce Belt,” though the articles usually cast dim light on reasons for this North-South divide. The statistics are sheer fun for liberal ironists, who can amuse themselves with the idea that self-avowed atheists are statistically less likely to throw in the marital towel than Baptist fundamentalists who take their vows before God. And these divorce facts have made for entertaining argument in the debate about gay marriage. A witty if not so enlightening exchange took place between (gay) conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan and Stanley Kurtz, contributing editor at National Review.

During a debate that seesawed in print and online for months, Sullivan played with Kurtz’s contention that gay marriage will wreck marriage altogether-an argument that Kurtz propped up with Scandinavian data indicating “marriage has virtually disappeared in the most gay-marriage friendly districts of Norway” (Kurtz’s words).

“Take two states with very different cultural attitudes toward gay equality, Massachusetts and Texas,” Sullivan rejoined in his blog The Daily Dish (“Norwegian Death-Match,” February 3, www.andrewsullivan.com). “In antigay Texas, the divorce rate is 4.1 per thousand people; and the percent of people unmarried is 32.4 percent. In pro-gay Massachusetts, the divorce rate is 2.4 per thousand and the percent unmarried is 26.8 percent. By Kurtz’s Norwegian logic, if you want to save marriage, adopt Massachusetts values, not Texan ones. I think it’s more complicated than that.” (Sullivan could have chosen more alarming contrasts to Massachusetts, like Arkansas and Wyoming, where divorce rates average seven per thousand residents, a few points above the national average.)

Jousting back, Kurtz purported to set the record straight on why liberal Massachusetts would be far less divorce-happy than conservative Texas. After mentioning what he saw as incidental factors having to do with income and education levels, he wrote: “But probably the most interesting and important factor at play in the Massachusetts/Texas contrast is the strong presence of Roman Catholics in Massachusetts. Catholics tend to divorce at significantly lower rates than other religious groups. The public in Massachusetts is split on gay marriage, and the large Catholic population generally opposes it. So Sullivan is actually holding up the marital behavior of Catholic opponents of gay marriage as a model” (“Death Blow to Marriage,” February 5, www.nationalreview.com).

The notion that moral relativists in New York are more faithful to their marriage vows than religious fundamentalists in Alabama will not be an easy swallow for some. Neither will the idea that Mississippi merely preaches what Massachusetts practices, or that families more likely to pray together are not necessarily more likely to stay together. Kurtz and others have sought refuge in their belief that the demographic mystery can be explained by the “strong presence” of right-minded Catholics in the Northeast. It is true that Catholics usually come out ahead in these matrimonial scorings, but not by much. In a 2001 survey by the Barna Research Group, 29 percent of Catholics reported having been divorced and remarried, compared with 32 percent of Protestants and 34 percent of all adults (the margin of error was two percentage points).

A shortage of self-identified Catholics is not the reason why Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi regularly rack up divorce rates twice those of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. The best explanation is surprisingly straightforward and uncontroversial among people who study the social patterns. Northeasterners tend to have relatively high levels of household income and education, and these two social advantages are strongly associated with family stability. Northeasterners also tend to put off marriage until a later age, a habit likewise associated with lower divorce rates-and higher socioeconomic status. “These [markers] also happen to be the same characteristics that correlate with liberalism, which is why the low divorce rate in Massachusetts has to do with the fact that Massachusetts is the most liberal state in the union,” says David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey. (“Social rootedness” is also often mentioned as discouraging divorce in places like New England, where people tend to be less transient.)

Just why a janitor might be likelier to fail at marriage than an engineer is a tougher question. Popenoe reasons that the better-off are more successful in marriage because they are more successful in life, and that this probably explains more about the divorce disparities than the economic travails of struggling families. One could peel back his argument and ask why people with resources are better at keeping their families intact, why working-class couples are less able to work it out, why marital chaos and child poverty are close cousins.

Gleaning insights about human behavior from aggregate social data is a dicey undertaking, and when it comes to divorce data, official collections and correlations are somewhat crude and sporadic. The economics of marital dysfunction is especially confounding: divorce is at once a scourge of the less affluent and a creature of modern affluent society (Popenoe and his colleague Barbara Dafoe Whitehead would underline the latter point). All the same, the steady link between marital implosion and economic insecurity cannot be explained away.

Do these empirical realities shed light on current campaigns to rescue the American family? If nothing else, they certainly invite questions about the politics of conservative organizations like the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, both of which will encamp in Boston later this month. Not unreasonably, these groups are dedicated to promoting wholesome values derived from religious wisdom, yet the evidence suggests that these values alone are not enough to save marriages and shore up families. Perhaps the family-values coalition should be as preoccupied with finding solutions to child poverty as they are with nailing the Ten Commandments to every courthouse door.

If conservatives have often closed their eyes to the role of economic hardship in family breakdown, liberals have generally been slow to acknowledge the massively documented role of family breakdown in economic hardship. What would be ideal is a profamily alignment that aspired to both a broad moral consensus in America and a more equitable sharing of social goods, such as livable wages. Unfortunately, neither the Democratic convention in Boston nor the Republican convention five weeks later in New York is likely to showcase such a refashioned family agenda.

Published in the 2004-07-16 issue: 

William Bole is a journalist and co-author, with Bob Abernethy, of The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.

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