You’d think with all the talk about “moral values” from the Republicans that the states with the lowest divorce rates would be in the God-fearing family-values strongholds of the Red State Bible Belt. Well, you would be wrong. The state with the lowest divorce rate is Massachusetts, the Fortress of Solitude of the Blue States.
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.” [New York Times]
What does President Bush mean, if anything, when he says that his kind of judge “knows the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law”? Taken literally, this simply means he wants judges who agree with him. Every judge sincerely believes that he or she is interpreting the law properly.
But Bush’s complaint must be understood in the context of Republican Party history over the past half-century. Ever since Chief Justice Earl Warren and Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 school desegregation case), conservatives have complained about “activist” judges who allegedly impose their own liberal dictates on the country with no legal basis. Taking up this rallying cry is one way Republicans won the South. Even southern conservatives don’t publicly complain about Brown anymore, of course. But denouncing activist judges is now Republican boilerplate.
Judges make decisions and impose their will all the time. That’s their job. When does this generally salutary activity turn into the dread judicial activism? If activism has any specific meaning, it means judges overruling laws and policies put in place by the democratically elected branches of government. It also means federal judges overruling policies enacted by the individual states.
George W. Bush may get to appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices, including the chief. But the complaint about activism has been quaint for decades. All three chief justices since the “activism” fuss began were appointed by Republican presidents. Earl Warren, it’s true, was a bitter surprise to Republicans, but Warren Burger and William Rehnquist were not. Liberal judicial activism peaked with Roe v. Wade, the 1973 abortion decision, and has been in retreat for longer than it lasted.
Complaints about judicial activism are a habit left over from powerlessness. They seem especially retro when held up against today’s ambitious Republican judicial agenda. With one apparent exception, the major items on it are demands for federal judges to override Congress or states’ rights. Republicans cheer, for example, when courts overturn state or federal — or even private — affirmative action programs, and they boo when such programs are allowed to continue unmolested. They have great hopes — largely unrealized, so far — for the “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment as a tool for overturning environmental regulations or any other government policies that might reduce the value of someone’s property. There is even a move afoot in the Senate to have Democratic filibusters against Bush’s judicial nominees ruled unconstitutional. That would be activism squared.
And let’s not forget that the Bush administration owes its very existence to the boldest act of judicial activism in a generation: the Supreme Court ruling that settled the 2000 presidential election dispute. Bush v. Gore made imaginative use of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation of its own state election laws.
Republicans will protest, sincerely if not always correctly, that these examples are all legitimate interpretations of the Constitution and not just invitations for judges to take a power trip. But that’s the point. One person’s constitutional interpretation is another person’s judicial rampage. Neither party has a magic formula for determining which is which, and neither can resist trying to enact its agenda through judicial fiat when it gets the chance.