The Future of Marriage: Part III

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

Divorce is quite often painful, expensive and humbling. But is it a moral issue? And if so, is it morally acceptable? Sixty-three percent of Americans say it is acceptable. And considering the diversity of American opinions on most issues, a May 2002 Gallup poll* shows surprising conformity regarding the morality of divorce.

Very few Americans think divorce is morally wrong. In fact, in all the demographic subgroups that Gallup surveys, none contain a majority who say they think divorce is immoral. But the distribution of opinions does shed some light on social partisans.

More women than men file for divorce, but women are as likely as men to morally accept divorce -- 62% versus 63%, respectively. If you guessed that younger adults are the least likely to object to divorce on moral grounds, you would be right -- for the most part. Sixty-seven percent of Americans between age 18 and 29 think divorce is morally acceptable, as do 61% of 30- to 49-year-olds. However, 70% of 50- to 64-year-olds find divorce morally acceptable, but then acceptance levels slide to 54% for people aged 65 and older. The disparity between 50- to 64-year-olds and those 65 and older may seem surprising on the surface, but actually seem consistent with the divorce trend in the United States: 50- to 64-year-olds were coming of age in the 1960s and '70s, when divorce rates were rising swiftly.

Impolite Topics of Conversation -- Religion, Politics and Divorce

Republicans and conservatives are more likely to think divorce is wrong than are Democrats and liberals. Divorce is least morally acceptable among those living in the Midwest (60%) and South (53%). That may come as no surprise to many; however, a 1999 study of 3,854 people in 48 states, conducted by the Barna Research Group, found that the Midwest and South also lead the nation in divorce rates. According to the Barna study, 27% of Southerners and Midwesterners have been divorced, compared to 26% of Westerners and 19% of Northeasterners.

The rates of, and opinions on, divorce among Christians are a morass of contradictions. Common sense suggests that the most religiously conservative would accept divorce the least -- and Gallup's results suggest this is true. Only 41% of those who attend church on a weekly basis say divorce is acceptable, compared with 64% of those who attend church nearly weekly or monthly, and 77% of those who seldom or never attend church.

According to Barna, the people who are least likely to divorce are atheists, agnostics, Lutherans and Roman Catholics (the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize divorce). Each of these groups has a divorce rate of 21%. However, Catholics are slightly more likely than Protestants to say divorce is morally acceptable (66% versus 61%). Twenty-nine percent of Protestants think divorce is morally wrong – coincidentally, their divorce rate is also 25%.

The controversial results of the Barna study found that conservative Christian faiths (defined by Barna as "born-again") have the highest divorce rate -- 27%. When looking at specific Christian denominations, Baptists (27%) are the most likely to divorce. Nonetheless, according to Gallup, self-described members of the religious right are the most likely of all subgroups to say divorce is morally wrong -- 43%.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 6-9, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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