Southern governors declare war on divorce

But their methods ignore social science, solutions and their neediest constituents.

Published January 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"Deee Ayye Veee Ohhaarrrh Ceyee Eee." Who knew that the twang in Tammy Wynette's lament was so darned prophetic? Her ode to marital woe topped the charts in 1968; a few decades later, the Bible Belt states are topping the national charts in divorce.

In fact, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, four of the five states with the highest resident divorce rates in the country are in the Deep South, where families pray together but, apparently, can't stay together.

Metropolitan states like Massachusetts and New York, supposed havens of marital dysfunction, actually have comparatively low divorce rates. Instead, marriage is failing in what should be its natural habitat, the land of fire, brimstone and the sky-blue tuxedo.

At the top of the Big D list, with the highest resident divorce rates in the U.S., are Arkansas and Oklahoma. The governors of both, mortified by the unholy distinction, have vowed to tackle the problem head-on. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has declared "a marital emergency," pledging to cut his state's divorce rate in half within 10 years. His neighbor to the west, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, has created the "Oklahoma Marriage Policy" with the goal to cut his state's rate by a third in the same period.

Bold words and impressive goals -- but hardly surprising coming from a pair of Republicans. Family values are, after all, the coin of the conservative realm. And who is going to complain? Reducing divorce puts lawyers out of work, cuts court caseloads and makes a really great sound bite. Heck, even the Devil's own Democrats could get on the bandwagon.

Except that this bandwagon has limited seating.

Keating and Huckabee, pure as their intentions may seem, have responded to their states' marital emergencies by championing the pet projects of campaign contributors while ignoring legitimate social science and viable solutions to divorce, not to mention the needs of their most troubled constituents. And while they refer to the predicament as a crisis, they have used the situation as little more than an opportunity to engage in standard-issue moralistic posturing.

They've even tried to (gasp!) add more government to people's private lives with Covenant Marriage Bills that would revive the concept of "fault" in divorce and make adultery an actionable cause in filing for divorce.

In declaring war on divorce, the Arkansas and Oklahoma governors have ignored all the primary, and soundly researched, causes of marital strife. They have not asked insurance companies to cover marriage counseling for parents, nor have they found ways to give stretched-thin families more child-care options. They have not created no-cost marriage workshops or financial workshops in economically-depressed areas, despite the fact that the two states are at the bottom of the list for U.S. median incomes and financial trouble is a primary cause of divorce in this country.

Instead, Keating and Huckabee have chosen to "promote and honor marriage." Perhaps they've forgotten that this is not the same thing as reducing divorce. Maybe they just hope no one will notice.

Unfortunately, the divorce issue isn't the only state problem that Keating and Huckabee have attempted to solve through a decidedly indirect route. To them, teen pregnancy isn't an issue -- but reducing out-of-wedlock births is. Instead of educating teens in the depressing outcomes for children born to under-educated, unemployed and often single young mothers in disadvantaged areas, the Oklahoma Marriage Project Web site has called for premarital chastity and "character-building" curricula in schools.

The message for the troubled teenage mom in this approach is clear -- and ludicrous: She can solve all her problems by walking down the aisle with the dropout Piggly-Wiggly bag boy who knocked her up.

Marriage as a morally correct panacea for all social and personal ills is the philosophical crux of the marriage movement. The idea here is that if Connie and Dwayne would just tie the knot, they'd raise median incomes, improve life expectancies and virtually eliminate child abuse -- even if Connie is on crystal meth and Dwayne resolves conflicts with a baseball bat. (According to its governor, Oklahoma has a "methamphetamine epidemic.")

The ideal of universal marriage is so seductive that the governors can't wait to roll up their sleeves and get their states' most intractable social problems married off. (Don't forget the federal cash incentives offered to states for reducing abortion and births out of wedlock, along with big welfare reform points for reducing the number of single mothers on the dole.) And how do they plan to do it?

By putting young lovers through a really tough questionnaire and making them keep their hands to themselves.

The prime beneficiary of these nuptial crusades is Mike McManus, former syndicated newspaper columnist and founder-director of Marriage Savers, a campaign to eliminate divorce through premarital chastity. Govs. Huckabee and Keating have anointed McManus as the point man in their war on divorce, showering him with praise, lining him up for speaking engagements and recommending that every religious leader in their states study (read: buy) his book, videotapes and workshop manuals. (The state of Wisconsin threatens to go further by hiring Marriage Savers with the $100,000 it has set aside for its marriage program.)

Marriage Savers goes into cities around the nation to form "Community Marriage Covenants" with religious leaders. These pastors pledge not to marry anyone who has not undergone "premarital preparation." The preparation can take whatever form the church or temple chooses, but the formula proposed by McManus assigns couples to marriage mentors who help them evaluate their relationships. These mentors are couples who've been happily married for more than 15 years (or who have been remarried for more than five years). They administer premarital questionnaires in order to spark discussions about conflicts that a promised couple is likely to face.

Sex is definitely on the agenda. For this thorny issue, McManus' own church offers intendeds an "Optional Premarital Sexual Covenant" because "the Marriage Saver answer for the unmarried is chastity." Moreover, says McManus, "Our church will not knowingly marry anyone who is living together."

If unmarried couples are tempted to extend their "physical activity" beyond "French kissing," the fiancé is supposed to call his mentor, like an Alcoholics Anonymous member who has wandered into a bar. If the male in question is unwilling to call his mentor, his fiancée is directed to call her female mentor for help in preserving herself for the honeymoon.

According to McManus, Marriage Savers is not a scientifically based campaign, but it works. "All the cities I work with decrease their divorce numbers," he proclaims at appearances, in his literature and in an interview with Salon Mothers Who Think. To bolster this claim, the most prominent success story on the Marriage Savers Web site states that "Marriage Savers' churches" were responsible for reducing the number of divorces in two suburban Kansas City counties, Johnson and Wyandotte.

McManus cites court records to say that "the number of divorces in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties fell from 1,530 in 1995, the year before the Community Marriage Covenant was adopted, to only 1,001 in 1997, the year after. In two years the divorce rate plunged by more than a third!"

A check with the Kansas authorities significantly changes this perception. Johnson County's divorce numbers did indeed continue to decline in 1998; but the divorce rate in Wyandotte County soared 60 percentage points. Not surprisingly, this figure is missing from McManus' Web site and he claimed to be shocked and disappointed by the fact when asked about it.

According to McManus, "Marriage is the natural state for adults." Scientists disagree with this observation, but McManus tends to dismiss studies performed by social scientists, reiterating his mantra that "what I do works."

The office that formulated the Oklahoma Marriage Policy relies heavily on research cited by the National Marriage Project (NMP), a nonprofit organization that promotes the "revitalization" of marriage. Founders of the NMP, David Popenoe, a professor at Rutgers University, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, an award-winning journalist, are the authors of "Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation," a paper that cites any number of footnoted studies, surveys and impressive-sounding journals.

The problem is that Popenoe and Whitehead (author of the notorious Atlantic Monthly article "Dan Quayle Was Right," which supported the then-vice president's denigration of single motherhood) have twisted the findings of these sources to fashion a reactionary take on marriage and divorce.

What young adults need to know, according to Popenoe and Whitehead, is that cohabitation puts couples at increased risk for divorce if they marry. Unfortunately, neither the sociological literature nor Popenoe's own professional colleagues support this position.

For example, professors James Sweet and Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin, who wrote the academic paper that found a correlation between cohabitation and future divorce say that Popenoe and Whitehead have made "selective and inappropriate use" of their findings. Marital therapy researcher Andrew Christensen of UCLA says Popenoe and Whitehad have published "a classic error -- interpreting correlation as causation."

Most important is the simple fact that divorce rates have leveled off even as cohabitation rates have skyrocketed. If the Popenoe and Whitehead conclusion were correct, both cohabitation and divorce numbers would rise together.

To clarify the issue of cohabitation, Christensen cites well-documented sociological literature that proves "there is a huge component of self-selection" for less permanence among cohabitors, meaning that people who choose to live together often don't want permanent romantic arrangements. In fact, a sociological study published in the Journal of Family Issues in 1993 uses empirical evidence to conclude that couples who cohabit in preparation for marriage are no more likely to divorce than those who do not live together before the wedding.

While the National Marriage Project's Web sites and pamphlets are festooned with the logo for Rutgers University, where Popenoe is a professor and a former dean, it doesn't take a Ph.D. or full access to the sociological literature to poke holes in the report. Dorian Solot, co-founder of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a support resource for cohabitors, does an admirable job of it.

On her (equally biased) Web site, Solot publishes "Ten Problems (Plus One Bonus Problem) With the National Marriage Project's Cohabitation Report." Five of those 10 are misrepresentations of academic papers or convenient exclusions of contradictory research well known in the field.

Solot may have her own ax to grind, but at least she gets her facts straight, according to four sociology professors who reviewed her article. (They are Bumpass, Wendy Manning of Bowling Green University, Pepper Schwartz of the University of Washington and Christensen of UCLA.)

In particular, Bumpass adds, "The literature that Popenoe and Whitehead cite in support of their point doesn't support it whatsoever -- in fact, the key article they cite reaches the opposite conclusion." (For the record, that report -- "Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Dissolution: A Matter of Self-Selection?" by Lillard, Brien and Waite -- appeared in Demography magazine in 1995.)

Popenoe and Whitehead say the report demonstrates that "even when this selection effect is carefully controlled statistically, a negative effect of cohabitation on later marriage stability still remains." However, Bumpass notes that the Lillard study actually states, "Correction for selectivity completely eliminates the effect of prior cohabitation on marital dissolution." In other words, if they handed in their paper to sociology 101, Popenoe and Whitehead would flunk.

"Most of this [report by the National Marriage Project] is ideology," says Schwartz. "It is speechmaking that appeals to people's hopes rather than any scientific research." Bumpass goes further, saying, "Moral advocacy is important, but it must not misrepresent science. In general, Popenoe is a well-respected professional. He has written some very useful articles and books. He has just let his zeal in this matter carry him away."

The Oklahoma Marriage Policy relies, almost exclusively, on ideological literature. The only impartial document is the CDC report on divorce rates. The rest of the supporting literature is published by Marriage Savers, the National Marriage Project, the Council on Families in America, the Heritage Foundation and the National Fatherhood Initiative -- all of them funded in part by the arch-conservative Scaife Family Foundation.

All told, the Scaife Family Foundation paid $400,000 to these five organizations in 1998. According to McManus in his 1998 annual report, Scaife saved Marriage Savers from the brink of dissolution with its first grant.

The Scaife Family Foundation's founder, Richard Mellon Scaife, is a well-known Pittsburgh philanthropist who has given over $340 million to conservative organizations. These contributions include $330,000 to an organization that investigated Vince Foster's suicide, as well as a grant for the academic chair that Kenneth Starr had counted on taking at Pepperdine University when the Whitewater investigation ended.

What does this have to do with the Oklahoma Marriage Policy? The Scaife Foundation's contributions, taken together, leave the Oklahoma governor's office open to the appearance that its policy can be bought -- especially when one notes that R.M. Scaife of Pittsburgh is listed as having made the maximum personal contribution of $5,000 to Oklahoma Gov. Keating's last campaign. (Campaign contribution information was not available on Gov. Huckabee.)

Surely, some of the five organizations in question on the Oklahoma Marriage Policy's bibliography will be able to point out liberal as well as conservative contributors, but the cluster of Scaife-supported authors on a government policy gives the impression that Keating and his team are either unconcerned with maintaining even the appearance of impartiality -- or woefully ignorant of research on marriage and relationships as a field of study.

When asked about the absence of non-ideological guidance on the Oklahoma Marriage Policy, its author, Jerry Reiger, says, "We are hoping for as broad an impact -- and input -- as we can find. It's not a matter of exclusion so much as not being aware." But who should make an effort to become aware of marital outcomes research, if not the author of a policy aimed at cutting divorce?

In the Oklahoma Marriage Policy, Reiger and Keating use the aforementioned ideological documents to lend currency to their program, yet they have not bothered to notice that there are several professional, peer-reviewed journals prominently featured in the footnotes of those very articles. What would it have taken Reiger to buy the latest copy of Sociology or the Journal on Marriage and the Family? (The answer: $19.)

Sociologists have agreed for some time that the older and better-educated that a bride and groom are when they marry, the less chance they will divorce. Unfortunately, none of the marriage advocates funneling their efforts into Oklahoma or Arkansas public policy addresses either the age of the couples or their education. Instead, they substitute "marriage education" for higher education, as if a preparatory course in marriage can substitute for one in nursing, engineering or HTML programming.

"Notice the timing," says professor Tom Bradbury of UCLA, who has spent a lifetime studying the efficacy of marital interventions like therapy and workshops. "Has the scientific community come out en masse to ask Congress to back its consensus [on preventing divorce]? No."

The "marriage movement" is being fueled by organizations with specific social agendas (like the Scaife Family Foundation, Marriage Savers, the Heritage Foundation, the National Marriage Project and the National Fatherhood Initiative) as well as the entrepreneurs they promote, who've formed "marriage education" programs to profit from people's (justifiable) fear of divorce.

Nevertheless, says Bradbury, "If these untried programs are funded, and if, or rather when, they fail, it's the scientific community which will suffer because the bad research being used to back entrepreneurial claims will have eroded legislative and public confidence in the future effort to prevent divorce."

It turns out that divorce rates in Oklahoma and Arkansas have been high for years, as they have been throughout the South. The CDC last sounded the alarm on this issue in 1995. On the first page of its most recent report, CDC researchers note that the disparity between North and South "has been persistent but narrowing over time."

Somehow, when asked about the CDC's findings, Jerry Reiger, Oklahoma's Cabinet secretary for health and human services and author of the Oklahoma Marriage Policy, and Chris Pyle, Arkansas director of family policy, knew nothing of the historical North-South divorce disparity, nor of its decline -- despite the fact that both use the CDC report in their policies. Perhaps they didn't read it after all.

Simply put, this key element of the CDC's report means that if every state south of the Mason-Dixon line did nothing about divorce over the next 10 years, their divorce rates will probably continue to decline as the baby boomers age. Or more cynically, Govs. Keating and Huckabee can initiate any program they want and still take credit for the sweep of history.

In all the sociological literature, there is no magic bullet for marital strife. There is some very promising work, especially that of John Gottman, psychology professor at the University of Washington, whom entrepreneurs like those hired in Oklahoma seem to crib at every opportunity. But marital interventions have a short half-life. Depending on whose study you cite, couples that undertake marital therapy and any number of marital workshops have the same divorce rates as the rest of us.

Clearly, no one has the answer, but the race to solve marital woes should not become divorced from reality. Certainly we have more important issues -- poverty, child abuse, homelessness -- to deal with.

By Lisa Moricoli Latham

Lisa Moricoli Latham is a freelance writer in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in various publications, from DUCKMAN to the New York Times.

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