Republicans Have Happier Marriages. How Should Democrats React?

08/26/2015 02:03 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2016

The past few years have seen the political segmentation of America extending to scholarly debates about the family. Do children and adults do better in "red families" or "blue families?" In their widely praised 2010 book Red Families V. Blue Families, legal scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone contend that blue families are stronger and more stable. This had been the longstanding belief in both the media and the academy, which both typically pointed to the low divorce rate in liberal states like Massachusetts. But the story is more complicated. There are also many red states, like the one I work in, Utah, which have high marriage rates and low divorce rates. In fact, the states with the lowest rates of two-parent families tend to be those that are neither all red nor all blue, but somewhere in the middle.

Of course, there's a ton of political diversity in both the reddest and the bluest states, so it makes sense to further narrow the focus. At the county level, red areas seem to enjoy a modest advantage when it comes to marriage and the likelihood of growing up in a two-parent family. What about looking at individuals? University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox recently conducted such an inquiry. I can't say that it made me happy when we learned that Republicans have happier marriages than Democrats by a margin of about seven percentage points.

As a liberal, what can I take away from this finding? First, I observe that the difference Wilcox and I describe isn't large: 67 percent of republicans say they are happy in their marriages, versus 60 percent of democrats (and 60 percent of independents). Therefore the majority of all married Americans are happy in their relationships. Second, all but three percentage points of that difference can be explained by two factors, race and church attendance. Whites have markedly happier marriages than do African-Americans, and the former are far more likely to be Republicans than are the latter. Second, Republicans go to church more than do Democrats, and regular church attendance--and it doesn't matter what church it is--yields a whole host of benefits for one's relationship. The upshot is that political party in and of itself doesn't really have an appreciable effect on marital quality (that three percent difference isn't even statistically meaningful).

As a liberal, I'm left to think about race and church attendance. America has a sorry legacy of slavery and discrimination that to this day has adverse effects on African Americans and their relationships (and these effects are net of socioeconomic differences between whites and blacks). As for church attendance, my forthcoming book with Wilcox sheds more light here. Many of the benefits of going to church regularly can be explained by its civic dimensions: just participating with many of your friends in uplifting and institutionalized routines turns out to be great for your relationship, whether you're married or just living together. Organized religion is the most common expression of this civic engagement in modern America, but it's not the only one. For instance, the non-religious Sunday Assembly has received some noteworthy attention in the past year.

So relax, Democrats. Republicans aren't really having better marriages because of their political beliefs or their neighborhood culture. Instead, much of the answer lies in two institutions, race and religion, that are even more fundamental to American society.