OSTON — If blue states care less about moral values, why are divorce rates so low in the bluest of the blue states? It's a question that intrigues conservatives, as much as it emboldens liberals.
As researchers have noted, the areas of the country where divorce rates are highest are also frequently the areas where many conservative Christians live.
Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas, for example, voted overwhelmingly for constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. But they had three of the highest divorce rates in 2003, based on figures from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics.
The lowest divorce rates are largely in the blue states: the Northeast and the upper Midwest. And the state with the lowest divorce rate was Massachusetts, home to John Kerry, the Kennedys and same-sex marriage.
In 2003, the rate in Massachusetts was 5.7 divorces per 1,000 married people, compared with 10.8 in Kentucky, 11.1 in Mississippi and 12.7 in Arkansas.
"Some people are saying, 'The Bible Belt is so pro-marriage, but gee, they have the highest divorce rates in the country,' " said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. "And there's a lot of worry in the red states about the high rate of divorce."
The Barna Group, a California organization that studies evangelical Christian trends, has produced two studies about divorce that found that born-again Christians were just as likely to divorce as those who are not born-again Christians.
One of the reports, a survey of 7,043 people in 2001, said that: "Residents of the Northeast and West are commonly noted for their more liberal leanings in politics and lifestyle. However, the region of the nation in which divorce was least likely was the Northeast."
The other study, published two months ago, said that even though the Northeast probably had a higher rate of couples living together rather than marrying, the divorce rate would be essentially similar even if the cohabiting couples got hitched. And it said that "relatively few divorced Christians experienced their divorce before accepting Christ as their savior."
George Barna, the head of the organization, said that "a lot of really nice Christian people try to shoot down the research by saying 'Oh, they got divorced and then they became born again.' That's just not true."
What accounts for the nation's divorce dichotomy is the subject of much speculation.
Some people, like Bridget Maher, an analyst on marriage and family issues at the conservative Family Research Council, attribute it almost entirely to the religions in the different regions. "The Northeast and Midwest have high populations of Catholics and Lutherans and they have lower divorce rates than other Christians," she said.
Others, like Patrick F. Fagan, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, say it has nothing to do with differences between faiths.
"People who worship frequently no matter what their faith tend to divorce much, much, much less," said Mr. Fagan, making an argument that might unwittingly suggest that Northeasterners are more devout than other people. "All this talk about this faith, that faith, born again, not born again, to me is irrelevant."
Many experts believe the explanation to be more multidimensional, with high divorce rates tied to factors like younger age of marriage, less education and lower socioeconomic status.
"The higher the educational level, higher the occupational level, higher the income, the less likely you are to divorce," said William V. D'Antonio, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America, pointing out that Massachusetts has the highest rate of high school and college completion. "Kids who drop out of high school and get married very quickly suffer from the strains of not being emotionally mature and not having the income to help weather the difficulties of marriage."
Theodora Ooms, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said that a recent Oklahoma study found that when Oklahomans marry, they are on average two and a half years younger than the national average.
Ms. Whitehead, who lives in Amherst, Mass., said that New England is a region that has "more stability" than other regions. "People stay here, their families stay here, and there's more social and family support for people, a more communal versus individualistic culture in New England compared to the cowboy states."
She said religion may underscore those regional differences.
"In states with lots of evangelicals, the more individualistic Protestant religious faiths may actually also encourage more go-it-alone attitudes than communal ones," Ms. Whitehead said. And these are also states where the culture encourages sexual abstinence before marriage, she said.
"If your family or religious culture urges you not to have sex before you get married," she said, "then one answer is to get married, and then you're more likely to divorce."