In August of this year, the US Census Bureau released a report on divorce rates in the different states of America. It was widely reported in the media that people were more likely to divorce in the Bible Belt states than in the liberal northeast.
At the time I accepted the statistics. I believed that people in the northeast were less likely to marry as teenagers and more likely to have higher incomes and higher education and that this explained the difference.
Anyway, some on the left had a field day using statistics about higher divorce rates in the Bible Belt. Here's an example:
...perhaps conservative Christianity and conservative religion in general are unable to provide a sound basis for marriage — that perhaps there are other, more secular foundations for marriage that conservative Christians are missing. What might they be? Well, an obvious possibility is treating women like fully autonomous equals in the relationship, something which conservative Christianity frequently denies.
But then I came across another statistic, namely that 28% of those divorced identified as conservative, 33% as moderate and 37% as liberal. It didn't make sense. If those in the liberal states have the lowest rate of divorce, then why do those who identify as liberal have a much higher rate of divorce?
So I went back to the original source. And to my surprise I found that the divorce statistics had been misrepresented in most of the mainstream media. It turns out that what was being compared was the number of divorces per 1000 people in each state rather than the number of divorces per 1000 married couples:
Rates throughout this report count the marital events reported in the past 12 months per 1,000 men or women in the population 15 and older. (p.2)
That wouldn't be significant if roughly the same number of people got married in each US state. But that's not the case. There is a much lower rate of marriage in the liberal north-east of the US:
...the states with the lowest marriage rates for men in 2009 tended to be in the Northeast. Maine and New Jersey were among the states with low marriage rates with 13.5 and 14.8 marriages per 1,000 men. Maine and New Jersey also had low marriage rates per 1,000 women, with 12.2 and 13.3 marriages, respectively. (p.4)
...Twelve of the thirteen states where men had marriage rates below the U.S. average were located east of the Mississippi River. (p.5)
In comparison, a state like Wyoming had a marriage rate of 28.7 - that's more than double the rate in Maine.
So you might expect states with a higher rate of marriage to also have a higher rate of divorce. And that's how a representative of the Census Bureau explained the statistics:
Divorce rates tend to be higher in the South because marriage rates are also higher in the South," said Diana Elliott, a family demographer at the Census Bureau. "In contrast, in the Northeast, first marriages tend to be delayed and the marriage rates are lower, meaning there are also fewer divorces."
That is the key quote. The demographer responsible for the statistics is explaining in the plainest of English why the divorce rate is lower in the north-east. It is because in the liberal north-east people are less likely to be married in the first place.