Op-Ed Columnist: Blue States Practice the Family Values Red States Preach

Conservatives stray from many moral codes while liberals follow them, research shows.

As we watch Roy Moore thumping his Bible to defend himself from accusations of child molestation, let me toss out a verbal hand grenade: To some degree, liberals practice the values that conservatives preach.

This is complicated terrain with lots of exceptions, and the recent scandals involving Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Al Franken underscore that liberals can be skunks as much as anyone else. Yet if one looks at blue and red state populations as a whole, it’s striking that conservatives champion “family values” even as red states have high rates of teenage births, divorce and prostitution. In contrast, people in blue states don’t trumpet these family values but often seem to do a better job living them.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 32 states, those with the highest percentage of high school students who say they have had sex are Mississippi, Delaware, West Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas. All but Delaware voted Republican in the last presidential election.

Meanwhile, the five states with the lowest proportion of high school students who have had sex were New York, California, Maryland, Nebraska and Connecticut. All but Nebraska voted Democratic.

When evangelical kids have sex, they’re less likely to use birth control — and that may be a reason (along with lower abortion rates) that red states have high teen birthrates.

Nine of the 10 states with the highest teen birthrates voted Republican in 2016. And nine of the 10 states with the lowest teen birthrates voted Democratic.

“Red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages and lower average ages at marriage and first birth,” Naomi Cahn and June Carbone wrote in their important 2010 book, “Red Families v. Blue Families.”

The liberal impulse may be to gloat: Those conservatives thunder about “family values” but don’t practice them. But there’s also perhaps a measure of hypocrisy in the blue states. As Cahn and Carbone put it: “Blue family values bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage or the stigmatization of single parents. Their secret, however, is that they encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.”

Liberals, in other words, may be wary of strict moral codes, but they want to make damn sure that their own kids don’t have babies while in high school. It helps that they believe in comprehensive sex education and reliable birth control.

The conservative hostility to premarital sex also sometimes leads to early weddings, even to child marriages. I wrote in May about the hundreds of thousands of child marriages in America, and of the dozen states with the highest rates of child marriage, all voted Republican in 2016.

“Child marriage is happening at an alarming rate across the U.S., but available marriage-license data show more parents, judges and clerks in red states than in blue states seem comfortable with this human-rights abuse,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that fights child marriage.

Divorce rates show a similar pattern: They tend to be higher in red states than in blue states, with Arkansas highest of all. “Individual religious conservatism is positively related to individual divorce risk,” according to a 50-state study reported in the American Journal of Sociology.

Then there’s adultery and prostitution. One large international survey found that the largest group of customers on Ashley Madison, the dating website for married people, were evangelical Christians. And a major 2013 study found that men in the Houston and Kansas City metro areas were the most likely to call sex ads, while men in San Francisco and Baltimore were the least likely to.

Yet it’s complicated, and there is one religious group that is extremely good at living conservative family values: Mormons. Utah stands out for low teen birthrates, low divorce rates and low abortion rates, and it has the highest rate of teenagers living with married, biological parents.

More broadly, conservative values don’t directly lead to premarital sex or divorce. Rather, statistical analysis suggests that religious conservatives end up divorcing partly because they marry early, are less likely to go to college and are disproportionately poor.

So the deeper problem seems to be the political choices that conservatives make, underinvesting in public education and social services (including contraception). This underinvestment leaves red states poorer and less educated — and thus prone to a fraying of the social fabric.

So let’s drop the wars over family values. Liberals and conservatives alike don’t want kids pregnant at 16, and we almost all seek committed marriages that last. It’s worth noting that Bible-thumping blowhards like Roy Moore don’t help achieve those values, while investments in education and family planning do.

It’s time for my annual win-a-trip contest, in which I choose a university student to accompany me on a reporting trip. I’m thinking about a 2018 trip to the Central African Republic, or perhaps Bangladesh. Information about how to apply is at nytimes.com/ontheground, and thanks in advance to the Center for Global Development in Washington for helping me pick a winner.

The win-a-trip journey may involve bed bugs, rats and the worst toilets you’ve ever seen. But it’s a chance to shine a light on important and neglected topics, so please encourage students to apply.