Why The Religious Right Never Talks About Divorce

Via Al Mohler we get this fascinating study by Mark A. Smith of the University of Washington in "Political Science Quarterly" entitled "Religion, Divorce, and the Missing Culture War in America" [PDF].

In it, Smith examines why Religious Right groups who spend all of their time talking about family values and the sanctity of marriage seem to give only lip-service, at best, to fighting divorce, despite the fact that it is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible. The Right may mentione it, generally when bemoaning the deteriorating culture, but they invest little to no effort in actually trying to change the laws to make it more difficult to obtain a divorce.

Smith notes that neither Jerry Falwell with his Moral Majority nor Pat Robertson with his Christian Coalition paid much attention to the issue; a trend which continues today with the Family Research Council: 

The FRC regularly sends email alerts to its members and supporters in an attempt to inform, persuade, and reinforce their attitudes and beliefs about matters of interest to the group. In 2006 and 2007, the FRC dispatched hundreds of these, most of which contained three paragraph-length items. Surprisingly for an organization that structures its activities around marriage and the family, only 8 of the 1,366 items centered on divorce. In the context of its total volume of communication with members and supporters, the FRC rarely broached the topic of divorce. The organization has stated that “we will not relent in our insistence to reform divorce laws,” but that abstract support has
not been matched by a sustained commitment to spending time or resources on the issue.

Perhaps the FRCʼs emails do not accurately reflect its priorities, meaning that analyzing a different facet of the groupʼs activities would yield a different answer. Accordingly, it will be useful to examine the messages the FRC expresses when it broadcasts its views through the mass media. As part of a larger strategy to influence both the mass public and political leaders, the FRCʼs staff regularly write editorials and attempt to publish them in leading news outlets. During 2006 and 2007, the staff succeeded in placing editorials on topics falling within the organizationʼs mission, including abstinence programs in schools, gay rights and hate crimes, abortion laws in the states, and judicial activism regarding online pornography. Yet FRC staff also published editorials that criticized wasteful government spending, warned against universal health care, and challenged the science behind global warming. Certainly no one could deny that government spending, health care, and global warming are important subjects for American citizens and political leaders to consider. For an organization whose self-definition holds that it “champions marriage and the family,” however,
these issues are considerably removed from its core mission.

The FRC has stated that constraints of budget, time, and staff prevent it from engaging questions surrounding same-sex marriage and heterosexual divorce at the same time, but it managed to allocate its scarce resources to addressing many other issues of current interest. Even if one could justify on practical or biblical grounds prioritizing gay marriage over divorce, such a view could hardly justify pushing divorce all the way to the bottom of the pecking order, below issues with only a tenuous connection to marriage and the family. Of course, a comprehensive search of all of the FRCʼs communications with members, the media, and government officials from 1983 to the present would probably uncover sporadic advocacy for changing public policy regarding divorce. Such a finding would not undermine the conclusion drawn here, namely that the subject occupies a low spot on the groupʼs priority list. Indeed, in the statement from its Web site quoted above, the FRC conceded that it spends little time on divorce.

Smith notes that FRC's lack of focus on divorce is especially odd given that FRC President Tony Perkins authored the nationʼs first covenant marriage bill back when he was a state legislator in Louisiana. 

But Smith also notes that there is very little chance that FRC or any other Religious Right group is going to "move beyond just saying that they endorse divorce reform and actually turn that abstract support into concrete action" because Americans so widely accept divorce to such an extent that even a significant portion of the Religious Right's base would oppose such efforts:

Needless to say, it is not a winning strategy for mobilization to tell your potential constituents that they have committed immoral acts that you are attempting to restrict through governmental regulations. Without an organized and vocal constituency making positions on divorce a litmus test for political support, it is difficult to imagine how the issue could join the ongoing culture war.