Americans like to do things differently. In most countries, the colours red and blue signify left and right, respectively. In America it’s the other way round. Applied to the electoral map, the ‘blue states’ along the coasts and around the Great Lakes mostly vote Democrat, while the ‘red states’ of the South and inland America mostly vote Republican.

The Republicans like to see themselves as the party of family values. Thus there was much consternation when a 2010 analysis found that families in red states tended to be less stable than those in blue states.

As Bradford Wilcox explains in a briefing for the FamilyStudies blog, social liberals have been making hay ever since:

“Red America, the argument goes, is more likely to embrace outmoded views about sex, gender, and marriage that are ill suited to the new economy and the more egalitarian world that we now live in. By contrast, blue America emphasizes education, delayed parenthood, and gender egalitarianism, all values that are supposed to equip its citizens to build comparatively stronger and more stable families in twenty-first-century America.”

Wilcox then goes on to present a fresh perspective – by taking a look at what the statistics show at a more local level:

“After all, there are plenty of blue states with lots of red counties (think Pennsylvania), and vice versa (think Texas). Up until now, we have not known about the connection between local political culture and stable family life. As this research brief shows, it turns out, at the local level, red counties typically enjoy somewhat stronger families than do blue counties on at least three measures worth considering: marriage, nonmarital childbearing, and family stability.”

Wilcox is clear that the red county advantage is a modest one, but that it nevertheless “runs directly against the conventional wisdom.”

The gap between red and blue America might be stronger were it not for two factors that help even things up. Firstly, red America is a very diverse place with straight-laced Utah at one end of the spectrum and the steamy Deep South at the other:

“As I have noted, ‘the legacy of slavery, low levels of education, a history of underinvesting in public institutions, and a Scotch-Irish culture marked by higher levels of family instability’ all seem to have combined to make family life more fragile in the South. If the South did a better job of fostering marital stability, the red family advantage would be stronger than it is.”

The second factor worth paying particular attention to is an advantage for blue America:

“…the American Community Survey indicates that a higher level of education is also linked to more marriage, less nonmarital childbearing, and more family stability at the county level. Teenagers in counties with lots of college-educated adults are more likely to be raised by their own married parents, because better-educated Americans are now more likely to get and stay married. And education is higher in blue counties.”

It can be argued that there are two pro-family forces at work here. One of them is the rational calculation that stable, marriage-based families provide the best context for the nurturing of children (and other considerations such as the accumulation of housing wealth). The other force is one of shared belief:

“…red America’s stronger religious and normative support for marriage—manifested in higher rates of marriage and lower rates of nonmarital childbearing—means that the divorce disadvantage in red America is outweighed by the fact that children are more likely to be born to a married family in more conservative counties.”

It’s also worth mentioning that family instability in red America is concentrated among the so-called ‘religious penumbra’ – i.e. that part of the population only loosely connected with organised religion. There’s a parallel here to blue America where the highly educated rationalists who do so well out marriage have failed to promote its virtues to those further down the income spectrum.

It sounds as if both sides have some evangelising to do.