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Saturday, December 04, 2004

A view of the US from across the pond...and some interesting statistics.

Comment: Andrew Sullivan: Where the Bible bashers are sinful and the liberals pure

When America sat down last week for its annual rite of national Thanksgiving, some would argue that two different nations celebrated: upright, moral, traditional red America and the dissolute, liberal blue states clustered on the periphery of the heartland. The truth is much more complicated and interesting.

Take two iconic states: Texas and Massachusetts. In some ways they were the two states competing in the last election. One is the home of Harvard, gay marriage, high taxes and social permissiveness.

The other is Bush country, solidly Republican, traditional and gun-toting. Massachusetts voted for John Kerry over George W Bush 62% to 37%; Texas voted for Bush over Kerry 61% to 38%.
Ask yourself a simple question: which state has the highest divorce rate? Marriage was a key issue in the last election, with Massachusetts’ gay marriages becoming a symbol of alleged blue state decadence and moral decay. But in fact Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the country at 2.4 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants. Texas, which until recently made private gay sex a crime, has a divorce rate of 4.1.


A fluke? Not at all. The states with the highest divorce rates are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. The states with the lowest divorce rates are: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Every one of the high divorce rate states went for Bush. Every one of the low divorce rate states went for Kerry. The Bible Belt divorce rate is roughly 50% higher than the national average.
Some of this discrepancy can be accounted for by the fact that couples tend to marry younger in the Bible Belt and many do not have the maturity to know what they are getting into. There is some correlation, too, between rates of college education and stable marriages, with the Bible Belt lagging behind a highly educated state such as Massachusetts.


The irony still holds, however. Those parts of America that most fiercely uphold what they believe are traditional values are not those parts where traditional values are healthiest. Hypocrisy? Perhaps. A more insightful explanation is that socially troubled communities cling to absolutes in the abstract because they cannot live up to them in practice.


Doesn’t being born again help to bring down divorce rates? Jesus was clear about divorce, declaring it a sin unless adultery was involved. A recent study found no measurable difference in divorce rates between those who are “born again” and those who are not; 29% of Baptists have been divorced, compared with 21% of Catholics. Moreover, a staggering 23% of married born agains have been divorced twice or more.


Teenage births? Again, the contrast is striking. In a state such as Texas where the religious right is strong and the rhetoric against teenage sex is gale-force strong, teen births as a percentage of all births are 16.1%. In liberal, secular Massachusetts they are 7.4%, less than half.


Marriage itself is less popular in Texas than in Massachusetts. In Texas the proportion of people unmarried is 32.4%; in Massachusetts it is 26.8%. So even with a higher marriage rate, Massachusetts has a divorce rate almost half of its “conservative” rival.


Take abortion. America is one of the few western countries where the legality of abortion is still ferociously disputed. It is a country where the religious right is arguably the strongest single voting bloc and in which abortion is a constant feature of cultural politics.


Compare it with a country such as Holland, perhaps the epitome of social liberalism. Which country has the highest rate of abortion? It is not even close. America has a rate of 21 abortions per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44. Holland has a rate of 6.8. Americans, in other words, have three times as many abortions as the Dutch. Remind me again: which country is the most socially conservative?

Even a cursory look at the leading members of the forces of social conservatism in America reveals the same pattern. Rush Limbaugh, the top conservative talk-radio host, has had three divorces and an addiction to painkillers. Bill O’Reilly, the most popular conservative television personality, just settled a sex harassment suit that indicated a highly active adulterous sex life. Bill Bennett, guru of the social right, was for many years a gambling addict. Bob Barr, the conservative Georgian congressman who wrote the Defense of Marriage Act, has had three wives. The states that register the highest ratings for Desperate Housewives, the hot new television show, are Bush states.

The complicated truth is that America is a divided and conflicted country. But it is a grotesque exaggeration to say that the split is geographical or correlated with Democrat and Republican states. Many of America’s biggest “sinners” are those most intent on upholding virtue. It may be partly because they know sin close up that they want to prevent its occurrence among others.

Some of those states that have the most liberal legal climate — the northeast and parts of the upper Midwest — are also in practice among the most socially conservative. To ascribe all this to “hypocrisy” seems to me too crude an explanation. America is simply a far more complicated and diverse place than crude red and blue divisions can explain.

The spasms of moralism that have punctuated American history from the Puritans all the way through prohibition and now the backlash against gay marriage are not a war of one part of the country against another. They are a war within the souls of all Americans.

Within many a red state voter there is a blue state lifestyle. And within many a blue state liberal there is a surprisingly resilient streak of moralism. It is this internal conflict that makes America such a vibrant and compelling place.

The conflict exists perhaps most powerfully within the Republican states themselves as they grapple with the “sin” of their own practices and the high standards of their own aspirations. It is worth remembering that Bill Clinton was a product of a Republican state and that for more than half his life Bush was a dissolute wastrel from a Democrat-state family.

These contradictions are not the exceptions. They are the American rule. If you love this tortured and fascinating country they are one more reason to be thankful that it still exists


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