When Did Divorce Become Acceptable in Evangelical Circles?

Ronald Reagan speaks before the National Association of Evangelicals-1983

My friend at KonicekLawOrlando.com sent me this originally, in an LA Times op-ed Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College has offered some historical perspective on the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.  Balmer argues that evangelical views on marriage have changed over the last fifty years and he fully expects the same thing to happen with evangelical views on marriage.  


Here is a taste:

Evangelicals like to present their position as biblical and therefore immutable. They want us to believe that they have never before adjusted to shifting public sentiments on sexuality and marriage. That is not so. Divorce — and especially divorce and remarriage — was once such an issue, an issue about which evangelicals would brook no compromise. But evangelicals eventually reconfigured their preaching and adapted just fine to changing historical circumstances.
When I was growing up within the evangelical subculture in the 1960s, divorce was roundly condemned by evangelicals. Jesus, after all, was pretty clear on the issue. “And I say to you,” he told the Pharisees, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
Anyone who was divorced was ostracized in evangelical circles. In some congregations, membership was rescinded, and at the very least the divorcee felt marginalized. Any evangelical leader who divorced his spouse could expect to look for a different job.
Evangelical culture began to change in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the divorce rate among evangelicals approached that of the larger population. Some studies even suggested that the divorce rate among evangelicals was higher than average, although that claim was a trifle misleading since evangelicals were more likely to marry in the first place.
The ringing denunciations of divorce emanating from evangelical pulpits abated. No one outright supported divorce, but it became less and less of an issue as pastors found it more and more difficult to judge individuals within their own congregations — or their own families.
Forced to acknowledge the reality of divorce close to home, pastors responded with compassion rather than condemnation; the words of Jesus were treated as an ideal rather than a mandate. Megachurches provided support groups for divorcees and then, later, those groups functioned for many as the evangelical equivalent of singles clubs.
Although evangelical attitudes changed incrementally over many years, it’s possible to identify the real turning point with a fair amount of accuracy: 1980.
Not long ago I surveyed the pages of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism and a bellwether of evangelical sentiments. Condemnations of divorce, which had been a regular feature in the 1970s, ceased almost entirely after 1980.
More telling, the “family values” movement, which took off in 1980, largely ignored this once crucial subject. Jerry Falwell and other conservative preachers attacked abortion, feminism and homosexuality, but they rarely mentioned divorce.
What happened? In a word (or two words): Ronald Reagan. When leaders of the religious right decided to embrace Reagan as their political messiah, they had to swallow hard.
Not only was Reagan divorced, he was divorced and remarried, a clear violation of biblical teaching. As governor of California, moreover, Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law in 1969. Having cast their lot with Reagan in the 1980 election, evangelical denunciations of divorce all but disappeared.
If evangelicals can alter their attitudes toward divorce, they can do likewise with homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Indeed, views may soften as LGBT evangelicals come out of the closet and, like divorcees, make their communities confront their existence.
I am a lot less interested in Balmer’s take on gay marriage than I am on his interpretation of divorce. This leads to a a few questions:
  • Do we have a good book on the history of divorce and remarriage in evangelicalism?
  • What do other scholars think about Balmer’s argument that Reagan’s election led evangelicals to weaken their stand on divorce?  I have not heard this argument before.  
I am not sure what will happen to evangelical views on same-sex marriage.  Many evangelicals leaders have already accepted it.  Most have not.
But if history is any indication, evangelicals WILL accommodate to the prevailing winds of American culture. They always do.

10 thoughts on “When Did Divorce Become Acceptable in Evangelical Circles?

  1. John, I have been waiting for your commenting on the Supreme Court case. But … sticking to the topic, when David Instone-Brewster wrote an article on divorce for Christianity Today, he expanded the two scriptural reasons (Jesus's on adultery; Paul's on a non-Christian spouse leaving) to include the obvious: spousal abuse. I was pleased that he has two book-length treatments. May I commend them to you here (http://tiny.cc/2ndb0x) and here (http://tiny.cc/updb0x)?


  2. Evangelicalism in its broadest definition has surely accommodated to cultural trends. But there has always remained those who are far truer to Evangelicalism's roots. A great many of those today decry the accommodating tendencies of the larger movement and have for years. God always keeps his 7000's who don't bow the knee to Baal.


  3. If evangelicals can alter their attitudes toward divorce, they can do likewise with homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

    Like many leftists, Ballmer attempts to discredit the Biblical ideal with believers' inability to rise to it. Further, his sociology may not be rigorous enough to support his assertion.

    So I partnered with Barna and we re-ran the numbers: and if the person was in church the prior week, their divorce rate dropped 27% compared to those who weren't! Many studies have found that church attendance drops the divorce rate 25-50% compared to those who don't attend. It also increases happiness in marriage and has several other dramatic life and marriage outcomes that we cover in the book.

    Read more at http://www.christianpost.com/news/author-debunks-myths-about-divorce-rates-including-of-churchgoers-119843/#7zd5PI3E4YuY3Q4Z.99

    The way of improvement leads to the Democratic party I do believe.

    Or way to perdition. That society, marriage and the family have improved by embracing the sexual revolution ala the Democrats is not self-evident.

    FTR, the Democratic Party's greatest ally in Christianity, the Protestant mainline, is hemorrhaging members.

    This year is an ignominious anniversary for Mainline Protestantism, commemorating a half century of continuous decline since their membership peaks in the early 1960s. Fifty years ago one of every six Americans belonged to the Seven Sisters of Mainline Protestantism. Today it’s one of every 16 and plunging. Membership has dropped from 30 million to 20 million during a time when Americas population has nearly doubled. And it did so despite Gallup Poll’s insistence that overall church attendance has remained essentially the same for about the last 80 years.

    The irony should not be lost that those same Democrats who bewail evangelicalism's affinity for the Republicans are the same ones whose own denominations are indistinguishable from the Democratic Party, except for the holidays.

    my religion + my politics = good
    yr religion + yr politics = bad


  4. Why don't you conservatives progress a little more on social and political issues.
    The way of improvement leads to the Democratic party I do believe. Now, reflect on that for awhile. Then comment with something more competent, please. Thanks.


  5. There is no doubt that divorce has become acceptable to evangelicals. I agree with Mr. Balmer about this issue in that gay marriage will become acceptable eventually to them as well. The hypocrisy of the argument against gay marriage is incredible when the very same Bible is examined regarding the issue of marriage.

    It will take some time, but I think even the Catholic Church is going to have to come to grips with this issue. Gay marriage is not really a major issue for the Catholic Church. The whole thing is really crazy considering that the issue of divorce is a much bigger concern. I think though that many in the hierarchy are afraid that if they acquiesce in gay marriage then the issue of divorce will be changed as well.

    Eventually the Catholic Church and the evangelicals are going to have to come to grips with the reality that faces them. Either they will accept the fact that their teachings are not resonating with the majority of people or they will become churches with smaller congregations and followers.


  6. Well, Ed. T., that actually concedes my point. Evangelicals were NOT influenced by culture on abortion. They didn't remain silent, in fact, Roe v. Wade galvinized the evangelicals on the issue, and public opinion has turned in favor of the pro-life issue.


  7. Very interesting piece, Dr. Fea. I have had similar thoughts on how evangelical attitudes towards the same-sex marriage may or may not change over the coming years.

    But like you, I also would like to see more info on the topic of divorce and evangelicals. I attended one of the leading SBC churches during my teen years of the late '70s and early '80s and up through 2006. Divorce was really viewed unfavorably and there were often sermons and discussion on divorce and when a person could remarry.

    However, as time has marched on, it seems that divorce is almost not a big deal anymore and almost accepted as a fact-of-life. My church still takes the conservative view of some Biblical passages and doesn't allow divorced me to serve as deacons, but there are no harsh sermons condemning those who have divorced.

    I would quibble with Steve Lee over the abortion issue. While there may have been some evangelical influence on people trending back toward the pro-life side on the issue, I would imagine that the large influence is technology and sonograms that allow folks to SEE the life within the womb at very early stages (compared to pre-70s) and to see pictures of the growing embryo.


  8. That last line is way over the top, “But if history is any indication, evangelicals WILL accommodate to the prevailing winds of American culture. They always do.” I only have to point to the abortion issue to falsify it. Evangelicals have not accommodated to culture on abortion, in fact it has changed cultures look on abortion.


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