Mixed Religious Traditions and Divorce Rates

Naomi Schaefer Riley, in ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America (OUP, 2013), tells us that 45 percent of all marriages in the US are between people of different religious traditions. (As The CARA Report Fall 2013 reports.) And how does the divorce rate compare for marriages of various religious combinations? Not what you might have expected.

When two “Nones” marry, the divorce rate is 44%. But when a None marries a Mainline Protestant, the divorce rate shoots up to 63%. So a None does better marrying a fellow None.

When two Catholics marry, the divorce rate is 29% – happily, lower than one might have expected. Two Evanglical Protestants, 32%. Two Mainline Protestants, 42%.

But stay with the 29% rate for a Catholic-Catholic marriage. When a Catholic marries a None, the divorce rate goes down to 26%. But when a Catholic marries a Mainline Protestant, the divorce rate drops further, to 24%.

Not sure where to go with this. Pastoral counsel for an engaged Catholic can hardly be, “I’m concerned that you’re marrying a fellow Catholic – do you realize that your risk of divorce is higher than if you would go find a None or a Mainline Protestant to marry?”!

Here are the divorce rates for various combinations, from highest to lowest.

Mainline Prot / None: 63%
vangelical Prot / None: 61%
None / None: 44%
Mainline Prot / Mainline Prot: 42%
Catholic / Evangelical Prot: 40%
Evangelical Prot/Evangelical Prot: 32%
Catholic / Catholic: 29%
Catholic / None: 26%
Catholic / Mainline Prot: 24%

It seems that the presence of one None in a mixed combination gives the highest chance of divorce (check the first three entries)… except when the None marries a Catholic (near the low end of the chart). The presence of one Catholic in a mixed combo tends to pull the divorce rate downward.

Writing from Minnesota, where we’re surrounded on all sides by Lutherans, I guess I’m happy that the divorce rate for Catholic / Mainline Protestant marriages is relatively low.



  1. An interesting follow-up would be to learn what religion is being practiced by these couples a few years down the line, and in what religion they are raising their children.

  2. When two people marry the person with the lesser religiosity generally converts to the person’s religion with the higher religiosity
    So think of religion here in the narrow sense of belief in the permanence of marriage. This is stronger among Catholics (29% divorce rate), than Evangelical Protestants (32% divorce rate) and Mainline Protestants (42%) and Nones (44%).
    When a Catholic marries a Mainline Protestant or a None with weaker marriage beliefs, the Mainline Protestant and None tends to convert to the stronger Catholic belief in the permanency of marriage and the marriage becomes stronger.
    When a Catholic marries an Evangelical Protestant, it may often happen that the Catholic converts to Evangelicalism and loses their Catholic inhibitions about divorce.
    In intergenerational religious transmission, parents are generally successful in transmitting their faith if they model it and offer it freely to their offspring but DO NOT IMPOSE their beliefs; that backfires
    My hunch is that in the case where a Catholic marries a Catholic sometimes one party tries to impose rather than offer the permanence of marriage values and it backfires, whereas in the case of a Catholic marrying a None and Mainline that rarely happens.
    In the case of a Catholic marriage to an Evangelical, there are probably a lot of opportunities for attempts to impose strong beliefs about religion on the other party, and therefore these marriages more often fail because of religious conflicts than among Catholics with fellow Catholics, Mainline Protestants or Nones.
    Evangelicals marrying one another have strong beliefs in marriage and similar beliefs, but again like Catholics in some cases one party who use religion values in a coercive way and the marriage will fall apart.
    In the case of Nones marrying Nones, and Mainline Protestants marrying Mainline Protestants there is little potential for religious conflict but less shared values in the permanency of marriage.
    Finally in the case of Mailine Protestant and Evangelicals…

  3. Finally in the case of Mailine Protestant and Evangelicals there is a strong possibility of religious conflict, i.e. of the religious person trying to get the none religious person to be religious.
    My hypothesis is that Catholics have a lower divorce rate because we both strongly value the permanence of marriage as a good thing and hence offer it to one another and to non-Catholics as a positive good rather than impose it upon them. We Catholics are pretty tolerant people.
    Today the comments did not allow editing. Sorry that I was unable to clean this up.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #3:
      Incidentally if my hypothesis that lower Catholic divorce rates are a result of BOTH a strong value in the permanence of marriage probably maintained mostly by our symbol system, AND a great tolerance for others who may not completely share that symbol system is correct, it has implications for the upcoming Synods.
      Relaxing the discipline in regard to remarriage (i.e. tolerance) may not be incompatible with the maintenance of a strong symbol system about marriage.
      In fact Catholic might maintain the lower divorce rate and be even more attractive partners in marriage if we not only had strong values about the permanence of marriage but very good ways of handling divorce and remarriage in very tolerant and merciful ways. Divorces are not good things but for the sake of all the wounded parties they should be done with all the mercy that we can pull together.

  4. I have found a significant difference in the divorce rate when two Catholics who are practicing their faith enter a sacramental marriage. I can count on two hands the couples who fit that description whose marriages failed. The reason they stand out is that unlike other marriage failures (which may be more anonymous) these stand out to the point of giving scandal. I expect this may explain the lower rate among two “nones” who marry. Perhaps both are unencumbered by the failure to live up to any religious teachings.

  5. Very interesting. 29%, 26%, and 24% are so close that they may not be different in a statistically significant sense. Is there any word on the standard errors of those estimates?

  6. Rakosky # 11 But Evangelicals are a complex issue.

    Study: Conservative Protestants’ divorce rates spread to their red state neighbors


    “Conservative Protestant community norms and the institutions they create seem to increase divorce risk,” researchers say in the study. For example, those who are struggling in their marriage may feel discouraged to find help in communities where marriage is idealized or marital failure is viewed as shameful, the researchers suggest.

    “Generally, religion, religious belief and religious activities are thought to strengthen marriages,” said co-author Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It appears that the cessation of education, early marriage and early parenthood, you’re set up for relationship conflict, financial stress and dissolution.”

    The issue is very complex.

    Conservative Evangelical Red States encourage early marriage and abstinence before marriage. But the result is often conception before marriage, cessation of education, and then divorce.

    The Blue State pattern favors more education, later marriage which results in lower divorce rates. Essentially young people need to get their act together before getting married and then having chldren. However the Blue State pattern is also supported by contraception and abortion.

    Mormons encourage early marriage but they also are stronger on the social supports for those marriages.

    Bottom line: yes promote strong marriage values but accompany them with personal development and community support, and mercy when dealing with issues such as contraception and abortion.

    And do not fail to take into account the surrounding culture. In the competitive early marriage market of the Red States young people have strong social pressures to marry early because desirable partners are getting married.

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