OKLAHOMA CITY — In a back room at the First Church of the Nazarene, eight couples--young and engaged--rise beside their metal chairs, lift their right hands and repeat their weekly pledge.
"I will never get divorced."
The tone is stout, almost soldierly. Aptly so, because their marriage-preparation class in northwest Oklahoma City takes place along the front lines of the battle against pervasive divorce.
Aside from the quickie-divorce mecca of Nevada, no region of the United States has a higher divorce rate than the Bible Belt. Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce. In a country where nearly half of all marriages break up, the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50% above the national average.
For Michelle Carroll and fiance David Kouts, two 22-year-olds taking lawyer Jim Priest's pre-marriage course, the statistics are sobering.
"It scares me personally, for our own marriage," says Carroll. "It makes me realize how much hard work there is to do."
No state has been more embarrassed by the divorce problem--or more willing to confront it--than Oklahoma. The state's civic leaders, so often outspoken in promoting family values, see an irony in the statistics but find no easy explanations.
Over the last few months, Gov. Frank Keating has pushed the issue high onto the public agenda, enlisting clergymen, academics, lawyers and psychologists in a high-profile campaign to reduce the divorce rate by a third within 10 years.
"Oklahomans can no longer take marriage for granted," says Jerry Regier, Keating's secretary for health and human services. "This is a problem that affects us all."
When the state's high divorce rate first made headlines a few years ago, "It hit me like a ton of bricks," says Anthony Jordan, executive director of Oklahoma's branch of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jordan, whose denomination is the largest in the state, is trying to mobilize his pastors and clergy of other faiths to marry in their churches only those couples who first take a marriage-preparation course. At present, according to state estimates, three-fourths of weddings take place in church.
Nationally, there were about 4.2 divorces for every thousand people in 1998, according to federal figures. The rate was 8.5 per thousand in Nevada, 6.4 in Tennessee, 6.1 in Arkansas, 6.0 in Alabama and Oklahoma, but less than 3.0 in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. Of all southeastern states, only South Carolina's rate of 3.8 was below the national average. (California's rate was not available.)
Why so many divorces in the Bible Belt? Experts cite low household incomes (Oklahoma ranks 46th and Arkansas 47th) and a tendency for couples to marry at a younger age than in many other states.
Those studying the issue also suggest that religion plays a role, though opinions differ on exactly how.
David Popenoe, co-director of National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, notes that some of the lowest divorce rates are in northeastern states with relatively high household incomes and large numbers of Roman Catholics, whose church doesn't recognize divorce.
Bible Belt states, in contrast, are dominated by fundamentalist Protestant denominations that proclaim the sanctity of marriage but generally do not want to estrange churchgoers who do divorce.
"I applaud the Catholics," says Jordan. "I don't think we as Protestant evangelists have done nearly as well preparing people for marriage. And in the name of being loving and accepting, we have not placed the stigma on divorce that we should have."
Some Oklahomans suggest the very nature of Bible Belt fundamentalism may contribute to marriage problems by offering guidelines that might not be useful for a troubled couple.
Fundamentalist churchgoers are often exposed to "fairy-tale conceptions of marriage," says the Rev. Robin Meyers, a Congregational minister in Oklahoma City. He describes himself as one of the few liberal clergymen in the nation's most conservative state.
"They have that whole dogma of 'This is right, this is wrong' and nothing in between," Meyers says. "They don't have the mental dexterity to make the adjustments to a less than perfect marriage."
Jordan disagrees emphatically.
"There may be a church here or there that takes a very caustic approach," he says. "But more and more of our churches are offering opportunities to strengthen marriage."
Due in part to Oklahoma's conservative religious values, relatively few young couples live together before marriage.
"There is very strong pressure: If you're going to have an intimate relationship, it has got to be in marriage," says Dr. Stewart Beasley, president of the Oklahoma Psychological Assn. "When you get that pushed down your throat, it doesn't give you a whole lot of options."
One option is early marriage, says Beasley, "and the younger they are, the less likely they'll make a success of it."