Bible Belt Couples 'Put Asunder' More, Despite New Efforts (was Re: patriarchy redux?)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Tue May 29 16:48:52 PDT 2001

>latest fun fact I've heard from the marriage front
>is more divorce in states w/more christian

***** The New York Times May 21, 2001, Monday, Late Edition - Final Correction Appended SECTION: Section A; Page 1; Column 6; National Desk HEADLINE: Bible Belt Couples 'Put Asunder' More, Despite New Efforts BYLINE: By BLAINE HARDEN DATELINE: OKLAHOMA CITY, May 18

The governor grumbles about how it is easier for Oklahomans to get out of a marriage than a Tupperware contract. The head of the Southern Baptist church complains that pastors are afraid to look love-besotted parishioners in the eye and tell them that they are too immature for marriage.

A posse of public health nurses, social workers, pastors and extension agents has been deputized to bring down a divorce rate that in Oklahoma, as in several states across the Bible Belt, is among the highest in the country.

The governor, the Baptist leadership and the antidivorce foot soldiers are collectively struggling to avert collisions between naive notions of wedded bliss and the reality of marriage.

That is the sort of collision that crumpled the first marriage of Cathryn Hinderliter, a preacher's daughter from Tulsa. She was raised to believe that God, her parents and the State of Oklahoma wanted her married. When the first man asked, she said yes.

"I had this vision that this is just what people do: Get married, have kids and Christ comes back," she said. "No one asked me, 'Are you sure this is what you want?' The day I got married, my mother came to me and tried to give me the sex talk. I said, 'Lady, go home and get my slip.' "

She and her first husband had a 20-minute prewedding talk with their minister at East Tulsa Christian Church.

"Our pastor said, 'I am really happy for you guys,' " she recalled. "He mentioned a couple of books to read. I never cracked them. It was a joke."

The marriage ended after five years and one child when she ran off to California, where she had an affair.

"Subconsciously, I knew that that was a biblical reason for divorce," she said. "One that my husband couldn't deny. One that my parents couldn't deny."

It has been about four years since politicians here and in several other states began to acknowledge a troubling paradox: The divorce rate in many parts of the Bible Belt is roughly 50 percent above the national average.

In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, declared a "marital emergency" in 1999 and vowed to halve the divorce rate by 2010. He signed a covenant marriage law last month that allows couples to choose a marital contract that, in most cases, would require a two-year waiting period before a divorce becomes final. Louisiana has enacted similar laws, as has Arizona.

Here in Oklahoma, Gov. Frank Keating, also a Republican, diagnosed divorce as a principal cause of poverty in his state. He started a much-publicized, multipronged campaign, paid for with $10 million in federal welfare money, to cut the divorce rate by one-third in 10 years.

The Oklahoma Legislature, controlled by Democrats, has all but killed the governor's proposals for covenant marriage and the removal of mutual incompatibility as grounds for divorce. But it has passed several of his other proposals, measures that call for creating a statewide network for premarital education and for training secular and religious marriage counselors.

"Seventy percent of our people go to church once a week or more," Mr. Keating said in an interview. "These divorce statistics are a scalding indictment of what isn't being said behind the pulpit."

The Rev. Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention in Oklahoma, could not agree more.

"We are responsible," he said. "We are good in helping young people plan a wedding, but not in planning a marriage. And in our desire to be compassionate to those who are going through a divorce, the church has watered down a strong message in regard to the ills and sins of divorce."

About three-quarters of Oklahomans are married in church, according to state estimates. By far the largest church in the state is the Southern Baptist Convention, with about half of the churchgoing population.

Despite the efforts of the last several years, the institution of marriage by some measures is losing ground. The census found that in the 1990's, the number of unmarried couples living together jumped by 97 percent in Oklahoma, 125 percent in Arkansas and 123 percent in Tennessee. These increases in the buckle of the Bible Belt are well above the 72 percent increase in unmarried couples that the census found in the nation as a whole.

For the first time, the census showed that married couples with children made up less than a quarter of the American population (23.5 percent). In Oklahoma, the percentage of such nuclear families was even lower (23.2 percent).

"Those numbers are a total reflection of marriage as an institution that is losing its appeal," said Jerry Regier, Oklahoma's secretary of health and human services and the governor's point man for defending divorce. "Our society has been overwhelmed by divorce."

An Economic Issue

Demographers say alarm bells ringing in the Bible Belt in the last several years are about 20 years late.

"There is no new emergency, no new crisis," said Dr. Robert Schoen, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University and a specialist in the demography of marriage.

The rate of failed marriages doubled from the early 1960's to 1980, reaching a point where about 43 percent of marriages ended in divorce, Dr. Schoen said. Since then, the rate has leveled off at a historically high plateau. In Oklahoma, as in many states, government figures have since shown a slight decline in the divorce rate, measured as a percentage of the total population. The number of divorces per 1,000 Oklahomans fell to 6.5 in 1998, from 7.7 in 1990. The national average in 1996 was 4.3 divorces per 1,000 people.

"There is no divorce emergency in the sense that divorce rates are going up," said Dr. Andrew J. Cherlin, a family demographer who is a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "I think what is going on in Oklahoma is part of the aftershocks to the divorce revolution."

Among those aftershocks is a strong national consensus that the social ills caused by divorce are costing federal and state governments huge amounts of money.

"We know what the cause of poverty is in this country and, like it or not, it's divorce and nonwedlock childbearing," said Dr. Steve Nock, a family demographer and professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

"We know that for every three divorces, one family ends up below the poverty line," Dr. Nock said. "The average woman with dependent children who ends up in poverty stays poor for eight months. The federal government pays for part of that, but states pay the balance. Divorce, by itself, is a major economic issue."

Shepherding a Lost Flock

About 300 ministers met here this week at Oklahoma Christian University for a marriage-saving seminar. Most of them were from small Protestant churches in rural areas, and many said they were in desperate need of advice.

"Divorce has almost become the norm, and we have come to accept it," said the Rev. Duane Schroeder, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Enid, a town in northwest Oklahoma. "Just about every couple that comes to me -- I'd say about 90 percent -- is living together. It's as if they don't know it is wrong."

Several of the ministers acknowledged in interviews that they had been passive observers as divorce gathered momentum in their congregations. A few said they had encouraged young people to "fix" the sin of premarital sex by marrying.

"There is a tidal wave of divorce to deal with," said the Rev. Larry Henderson, pastor of a small evangelical church in Mooreland, Okla., a town of about 1,200 people. "The saddest thing is that people are not getting married anymore."

Les and Leslie Parrott, marriage experts imported by the governor from Seattle Pacific University, presided over the seminar. Hired as the state's first "scholars in residence" on marriage, the couple has crisscrossed Oklahoma in the last year, training state employees and ministers in the craft of marriage counseling.

Most of their advice directs counselors to attack myths that hobble marriages from the start -- myths like, "My spouse will make me whole."

"If you believe somebody else can complete you, you are setting yourself up for serious heartbreak," Les Parrott, a professor of clinical psychology, told the ministers to tell couples considering marriage.

After the seminar, the Parrotts said that many of the premarital myths that needed shattering in Oklahoma grew out of "naive and unrealistic" assumptions held by young people who were intoxicated by love and cosseted by a culture that delights in weddings but tolerates divorce.

"Young people tell us that if they are in love and God is with them, then that's all they need," said Leslie Parrott, a marriage and family therapist. "Later, if they are not happy, they say, 'God wants me to get a divorce.' There is very little appreciation that marriage requires hard work and communication skills. They have been shown by the example of friends and family that when things go bad, you just get divorced."

Second Time Around

After the collapse of her first marriage in 1987, Cathryn Hinderliter, who is now 40, became poor and cautious.

She found a job as a medical secretary. With her daughter, Sara, she moved into an apartment in Oklahoma City that cost $199 a month. Every two weeks, after cashing her paycheck and paying her bills, she had $35 left over for food and gasoline, she remembers. She did not go on food stamps, she said, but did declare bankruptcy in 1992.

She also decided to have nothing to do with marriage, unless a suitor committed up front to "an incredible amount of work."

She knew Mark Hinderliter, a divorced engineer, for three years before she dared date him. They did not live together during their year of courtship, she said, and did not even kiss until they had attended a marriage-and-family seminar. After drifting away from their Christian roots, they say they have renewed their commitment to God, but do not expect him to keep their marriage together. That's their job.

"The biggest lesson I have learned is don't walk into marriage with a handed-down faith and bunch of dogma," said Mr. Hinderliter, 36.

Ms. Hinderliter's parents, too, say they have learned from her painful divorce.

"We assumed that she was ready," said the Rev. Jack Foreman, Ms. Hinderliter's father, who is a professor of deaf education at Tulsa State University. "In retrospect, we should have asked some hard questions."

The East Tulsa Christian Church has begun to ask hard questions. It refuses to marry any couple that declines premarital counseling. It demands that couples who are living together move to separate residences for six months before they can be married in the church.

Besides Sara, now 17, Mark and Cathryn Hinderliter have a daughter, Greta, who is 3. The couple agree that their marriage is working. Still, they have problems, and Ms. Hinderliter has insisted on working them out in sessions with a marriage counselor, who is also an evangelical Christian.

"How do you do this right?" she said. "Well, basically, I think you just communicate until your knuckles bleed."

CORRECTION-DATE: May 24, 2001, Thursday

CORRECTION: A front-page article on Monday about the high divorce rate in the Bible Belt referred imprecisely to the Southern Baptist jurisdiction of the Rev. Anthony Jordan, who said pastors were afraid to tell love struck parishioners that they were too immature for marriage. As executive director of the Baptist General Convention in Oklahoma -- the state organization of the Southern Baptist Convention -- he does not head the denomination. It has a president, but member churches are autonomous.

Chart: "The New Covenant" Not only are the divorce rates high across the Bible Belt, but in the last 10 years more people have chosen to live together without being married.

Divorces Rate per 1,000 population in 1998

Map of the United States showing the rate per 1,000 population in 1998.

Unmarried Partner of the head of a household

Arkansas 1990: 17,992 2000: 40,543 -- +125%

Tennessee 1990: 42,103 2000: 93,948 -- +123

Oklahoma 1990: 27,001 2000: 53,307 -- +97

United States 1990: 3,187,772 2000: 5,475,768 -- +72

(Sources: National Center for Health Statistics, Census Bureaua)(pg. A14) *****


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