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Blue v Red?

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Posted: Tue Dec 21, 2004 3:22 pm    Post subject: Blue v Red? Reply with quote

Conflicted America
The Ironies Abound

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

Take two iconic states: Texas and Massachusetts. In some ways, they were the two states competing in the last election. In the world's imagination, you couldn't have two starker opposites. One is the homeplace of Harvard, gay marriage, high taxes, and social permissiveness. The other is Bush country, solidly Republican, traditional, and gun-toting. Massachusetts voted for Kerry over Bush 62 to 37 percent; Texas voted for Bush over Kerry 61 to 38 percent.

So 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 actual 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 criminal offence - has a divorce rate of 4.1. A fluke? Not at all. The states with the highest divorce rates in the U.S. are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. And the states with the lowest divorce rates are: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Every single one of the high divorce rate states went for Bush. Every single one of the low divorce rate states went for Kerry. The Bible Belt divorce rate, in fact, is roughly 50 percent 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 clearly don't have the maturity to know what they're getting into. There's some correlation too between rates of college education and stable marriages, with the Bible Belt lagging a highly educated state like Massachusetts. But the irony still holds. 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 these socially troubled communities cling onto absolutes in the abstract because they cannot live up to them in practice.

But doesn't being born again help bring down divorce rates? Jesus, after all, was mum on the subject of homosexuality, but was very clear about divorce, declaring it a sin unless adultery was involved. A recent study, however, found no measurable difference in divorce rates between those who are "born again" and those who are not. 29 percent of Baptists have been divorced, compared to 21 percent of Catholics. Moreover, a staggering 23 percent of married born-agains have been divorced twice or more. Teen births? Again, the contrast is striking. In a state like Texas, where the religious right is extremely strong and the rhetoric against teenage sex is gale-force strong, the teen births as a percentage of all births is 16.1 percent. In liberal, secular, gay-friendly Massachusetts, it's 7.4, almost half. Marriage itself is less popular in Texas than in Massachusetts. In Texas, the percent of people unmarried is 32.4 percent; in Massachusetts, it's 26.8 percent. So even with a higher marriage rate, Massachusetts manages a divorce rate almost half of its "conservative" rival.

Or take abortion. America is one of the few Western countries where the legality of abortion is still ferociously disputed. It's 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 to a country like Holland, perhaps the epitome of socially liberal, relativist liberalism. So which country has the highest rate of abortion? It's not even close. America has an abortion 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. The top conservative talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, has had three divorces and an addiction to pain-killers. The most popular conservative television personality, Bill O'Reilly, just settled a sex harassment suit that indicated a highly active adulterous sex life. Bill Bennett, the guru of the social right, was for many years a gambling addict. Karl Rove's chief outreach manager to conservative Catholics for the last four years, Deal Hudson, also turned out to be a man with a history of sexual harassment. Bob Barr, the conservative Georgian congressman who wrote the "Defense of Marriage Act," has had three wives so far. The states which register the highest ratings for the hot new television show, "Desperate Housewives," are all Bush-states.

The complicated truth is that America truly is a divided and conflicted country. But it's a grotesque exaggeration to say that the split is geographical, or correlated with blue and red states. Many of America's biggest "sinners" are those most intent on upholding virtue. In fact, it may be partly because they know sin so close-up that they want to prevent its occurrence among others. And some of those states which 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 first Puritans all the way through Prohibition and now the backlash against gay marriage are not therefore a war of one part of the country against another. They're really a war within the souls of all Americans. Within many a red state voter, there's a blue state lifestyle. And within many a blue state liberal, there's a surprisingly resilient streak of moralism. And it is this internal conflict that makes America still such a vibrant and compelling place. The conflict exists perhaps most powerfully within the red states themselves - as they grapple with the "sin" of their own practices and the high standards of their own aspirations. It's worth remembering that Bill Clinton was a product of a red state. And that for more than half his life, George W. Bush was a dissolute wastrel from a blue state family. These contradictions are not the exceptions. They are the American rule. And if you love this tortured and fascinating country, one more reason to be thankful it still exists.
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