By FACT President David Fowler

I once saw a photo of a man in Bermuda shorts standing beside several men in Hazmat suits who were bending over something on the ground. The caption superimposed on the photograph said “Hey, Honey, come look at this. I think it might be dangerous.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. He was clueless about what was really going on around him. But then realized that sometimes being clueless isn’t always funny; it can be dangerous. It can cost you your life. What you don’t know can sometimes really kill you.

I also realized that for too long too many have also been really clueless about what is taking place in our culture, and as a result, the culture that many of us grew up in has almost disappeared, and that’s true even in Tennessee

Over the next few pages, I want to help clue you in on some of what is taking place in Tennessee. The purpose is to evaluate the “state of the State” in Tennessee relative to some of the key social issues that determine the quality of the “social air” we breath and the “cultural waters” in which we swim. Hopefully, it will help you better understand the nature of the “culture war” in Tennessee and the urgency of the situation. Committing this information to memory will also help you help others to “get a clue,” and in doing so, you will be adding strength to your voice when, together, we “stand for truth” in our state’s public squares.

The Truth About the Family in Tennessee


Looking first at the state of marriage in Tennessee, it would appear that divorce is a popular family activity. The 2011 U.S. Census Statistical Abstract makes it clear that marriage is not on solid footing in Tennessee. Between 2001 and 2011, Tennessee’s divorce rate actually improved—from really horrible to just horrible—from sixth worse in the nation to 11th worst in the nation. Currently, Tennessee’s divorce rate is 10th worse as of 2012.1


What many who want to avoid the “divisive social issues” don’t fully appreciate is that this affects other important things. In recent years, the Marriage & Religion Research Institute has created a report called the “Index of Rejection and Belonging.” It measures the number of children age 15-17 who have grown up in an intact family with both of their biological parents married to each other. According to the last published index, which was in 2010 (based on statistics from 2008), Tennessee ranked 43rd in the nation! That means we were tied for the seventh worst!

Let that sink in a moment. Here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, we have the seventh highest rate in the nation in terms of 15 to 17-year-olds who are living without their biological parents being married to each other. Only 39 percent of Tennessee’s 15 to 17-year-olds are living in an intact family with their biological parents. This puts the “cohesion” of Tennessee families behind such noteworthy “conservative” states as California, New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

Some might say, “So what?” This is important for several reasons. It affects the child’s future, at least statistically speaking, in terms of the likelihood of success in completion of his or her education to the likelihood of being engaged in criminal activity. But, as demonstrated below, it also affects us corporately, as a community.

Connecting the Dots Between Social and Fiscal Policy

In view of the number of people, particularly politicians, who want to be fiscal conservatives but want to avoid those sticky, divisive social issues, it is important that we know how to help them connect the dots between the fragmentation of the family and fiscal policy.

I’m going to use 2008 as a baseline for the following analysis, because it’s the last year for which there is good data in a number of different categories. This will help us make an apples-to-apples comparison.

In 2008, Tennessee’s divorce rate was 13th worst in the nation. (The report on divorce from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported rates for 44 states, and 31 states had lower divorce rates for that year). By the time you throw in out-of-wedlock births, according to the Index of Belonging and Rejection Survey, Tennessee was seventh worst in the nation in terms of the number of children growing up in intact families.

Do those numbers bear any correlation to the level of poverty in our state? You bet they do. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey Brief issued in September 2010, for that same year, 2008, Tennessee was tied with three other states for having the ninth worst poverty rate in America. Now hold that thought, and let’s connect the dots for those who say we conservatives need to stay quiet on social issues because “it’s the economy, stupid” or “it’s about jobs.”

According to The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing, published by the Institute for American Values (NY) in 2008, the annual, recurring cost of family fragmentation—defined as children growing up in single-parent homes either as a consequence of divorce or out-of-wedlock childbearing—was $757 in terms of Tennessee state and local tax dollars alone. Again, that’s annually. That doesn’t include the cost to the federal government, which was more than $112 billion.

To put Tennessee’s tax cost in perspective, $757 million is the 15th highest gross cost in the nation, not per capita, even though our population in 2008 was 35th in the nation. So, the cost of family fragmentation in Tennessee is very disproportionate to our population!

The bottom line is this: High Divorce = High Poverty = High Taxes

The Truth About ‘Pro-Life’ Tennessee

While polls show that Tennesseans are largely pro-life and elect pro-life politicians, our laws did not reflect our pro-life view. From 2000 until April of this year, no state in the nation afforded greater protection to abortion rights than did Tennessee. In fact, from 2000 until November 2014, Tennessee was one of only sixteen states with a state constitutional right to abortion. (The “right” was “created” by a Tennessee Supreme Court decision in 2000 and finally overturned by an amendment to the state constitution approved by voters in November 2014.But that vote is currently subject to proceedings in federal court.)

The practical effect of our being unaware of our Supreme Court’s decision and the state of our abortion laws (or lack thereof!) was that we did not immediately demand that our legislators submit a constitutional amendment to the voters. An amendment that could have been on the ballot as soon as 2006 did not get on the ballot until 2014. The results of that delay, aided by our inaction, had some very practical repercussions.

For the last several years, Tennessee was the only state in the entire Southeast that did not have at least an abortion-specific informed consent law or a waiting period law (a law that requires a woman to wait, usually 24 to 48 hours, from the time she is informed to the time the abortion is performed so she has time to reflect on the unalterable decision she is about to make). Tennessee was the only state!

Because we didn’t have an abortion-specific informed consent law or a waiting period law, Tennessee became an abortion destination. We “imported” abortions. By 2014, in terms of the percentage of abortions performed in a state on women from outside that state, Tennessee’s was the third highest percentage in the nation!

How many babies died because of our laws … or should I say, lack of laws? Literally thousands of babies died that might not otherwise have died because of what we allowed to continue in our state for almost a decade.

While abortion-specific informed consent and waiting period laws have now been enacted (following the adoption of the constitutional amendment), those laws, including the amendment itself, are the subject of a lawsuit in federal court challenging their constitutionality. We must make sure we remain informed about the status of that litigation and make sure we take appropriate actions if those laws are held unconstitutional.

The Truth About Sexual Morality in Tennessee

Sexual Activity and Sexually Transmitted Infections

First, let’s talk about our young people, the next generation of leaders. According to the 2011 report from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (the last for which they publicly published the information), the following reflects the degree of sexual activity among our youth in a 2010 survey:

  • Fifty-one percent of female high school students and fifty-six percent of male high school students have had sex, higher than the national average.
  • Thirteen percent of these young women and twenty percent of the young boys have had four or more partners, again higher than the national average.

Is that really very surprising when you consider the fact that groups like Planned Parenthood have helped teach “sex education” in our schools and also help train many of the teachers in our school systems that teach sex education? Through Planned Parenthood, our kids are getting information you can’t even imagine. If you can stomach it, read the materials in your notebook on “outercourse,” which is a part of Planned Parenthood’s suggested methods of birth control.

In case you think teen sexual activity doesn’t affect what happens to them later as adults, think again. A recent study has come out that shows the connection between teen sex and divorce. According to a study by the University of Iowa, those who engaged in sex before age 18, compared to those who waited until they were adults, were 50 percent more likely to be divorced after five years of marriage. Those who engaged in sex before age 18, compared to those who waited, were 55 percent more likely to be divorced after 10 years of marriage.

Since divorce is one of the leading indicators of poverty and since poverty affects taxes, teen sexual activity does more than affect the teens themselves; it affects your wallet! Again, let’s be prepared to help connect some dots for our friends who don’t want to talk about social issues: Teen Sex = higher divorce = higher poverty = higher taxes!

Now, let’s turn our attention to what is going on outside the classroom and among our young people to the culture and community at large here in Tennessee. When it comes to our overall population and sexually transmitted diseases, things aren’t too rosy here either.

According to the report of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued in December of 2014,2 here is where Tennessee ranked in terms of sexually transmitted diseases (for the calendar year data of 2013):

  • 30th worst in primary and secondary syphilis
  • 17th worst in chlamydia rates
  • 15th worst in gonorrhea rates

The CDC conservatively estimates that the lifetime cost of treating eight of the most common STDs contracted in just one year is $15.6 billion.3

The Truth About the ‘Homosexual Agenda’ in Tennessee

When it comes to the homosexual political agenda in Tennessee, most folks are “clueless” as to how strong, organized, and effective the activists for that agenda are. Few people realize that we have essentially a state version of the Human Rights Campaign known as the Tennessee Equality Project.

The mission of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) is this:

“to promote and sustain the equality of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in the State of Tennessee through the establishment of fair and equitable laws protecting these rights and the elimination of laws that would seek to counter this effort.”

As a result of TEP’s activism at the local level, all four of our major cities—Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville—have added special employment protections for employees based on their “sexual orientation” and their gender identity/expression.

In January 2011, the left-leaning Center for American Progress issued a report entitled Keeping the Faith: Faith Organizing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Moral and Civil Rights in a Southern State. That state in which such noteworthy progress had been made was Tennessee! Here are a few noteworthy comments from the report:

Tennessee offers lessons to other states concerning what it is doing on LGBT equality and what it is not doing but needs to do.

While many states experience a divide between faith communities and LGBT activists, the religious-secular divide is less apparent in Tennessee. This is partly because many activists are themselves people of faith who go to church.

The overall lesson is that high levels of conservative religious participation in a state do not present insurmountable roadblocks toward achieving LGBT equality. In fact, religious conviction can be an asset for equality efforts when effectively engaged. Tennessee demonstrates that well-coordinated LGBT/faith organizing can achieve remarkable success, despite religious and political opposition.

It is important to broaden and reframe the debate, to say that moral equality is as important as legal and social equality, and to show the advances that organized religion and people of faith have been making over the past years. (emphasis supplied)

The bottom line is that God’s design for human sexuality is under great attack in our state, and the statistics on divorce and sexually transmitted diseases and the advance of the homosexual agenda would indicate that God’s view on marriage and human sexuality is most likely not the majority view in our state, despite what we say we believe. But if it is the majority view, then apparently we have not been “standing” for the truth of it.

The Truth About Religious Liberty in Tennessee

How is religion faring here in the buckle of the Bible Belt? To be honest, it’s not doing too well.

You can’t talk about religious liberty without talking about the ACLU. The ACLU in Tennessee is becoming increasingly active and aggressive. But on the whole as a state, we don’t see the breadth of the organization’s activity, so we can easily think that religious liberty is only a problem in other states.

Do you know what has been going on in our school systems? In the last few years there have been lawsuits threatened or filed against at least six school systems. And for fear of suits, we have schools like the one in the little town of Millington that went overboard in restricting a student’s religious expression. The school initially told a grade-school student that her paper about her hero could not be about Jesus.

Our local governments in Memphis and Hamilton County have been threatened with suits or sued over beginning their meetings with invocations. In fact, the threat to Hamilton County did turn into a lawsuit that was just recently concluded (successfully concluded, thankfully!).

There is a reason the ACLU is more active in Tennessee. In 2010 we found a posting on the ACLU’s website for the position of development director. Here the critical part that should get our attention:

“With an annual combined budget of approximately $600,000, … the ACLU of Tennessee has been chosen to receive a significant infusion of resources over the next four years to significantly grow and expand its programmatic and institutional capacity.”

With a budget 33-percent higher than all the pro-family/religious liberty organizations in Tennessee (and probably growing), with national money coming in, and a person on the ground here in Tennessee dedicated to raising more money, we can expect to see not only more ACLU activity in our state, but an increasing inability by “our side” to counter with an equally comprehensive response.

But the opposition doesn’t just come from the ACLU. Our own government is starting to join in on the action. For example, a couple of years ago the postmaster in tiny rural Oakland, Tennessee had a man arrested for peaceably handing out tracts on a public sidewalk outside the post office. A year ago, the University of Tennessee signed a consent order to fix its policies governing guest speakers on campus, because the policy’s vagueness was being used to unconstitutionally keep conservative speakers off campus. Pellissippi Community College, part of the Tennessee Board of Regents system, had to be sued over its oppressive policy restricting students from handing out religious materials on campus.

In addition to these more direct attacks on religious liberty, when it comes to state legislation to protect religious liberty, if the legislation relates to our public colleges, the taxpayer-funded lobbyists for the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee are front and center to oppose them.

An example of the latter situation is our inability over the last three years to pass legislation that would give students in the counseling related fields of study in our public colleges the ability to protect themselves from professors hostile to religion. Students in these fields of study often have to complete a counseling internship. But sometimes the goal or objective of the client to whom the student is assigned for counseling is one that the student cannot, in good conscience, help the client achieve. The bill would allow the student to have the potential client referred to another client for whom the client’s goal or objective would not create a religious conflict. Our university lobbyist, along with the Tennessee Psychological Association, has strongly opposed the bill.

Prior to that, the lobbyists for our public universities opposed legislation that would have protected the integrity of the beliefs held by certain Christian student organizations on their campuses. Increasingly, colleges are refusing to recognize campus ministries that require their student officers to hold to a biblical sexual ethic. Many college administrators now see a belief in sex within marriage as “discrimination” against homosexual students who are thereby disqualified by those ministries for student officer positions. While the legislation protecting the rights of these ministries to continue to require fidelity to the biblical sexual ethic for student officers passed, it was opposed by our university systems.

It’s bad enough that the ACLU and sometimes our own government are trying to stuff religion in the closet, but increasingly Christians are doing it to themselves! Consider this statement in the previously referenced 2011 report by the Center for American Progress related to the boldness of Christian leaders in our state and the progress of the homosexual agenda here:

“[M]any white and African-American church leaders are increasingly willing to refrain from public opposition to LGBT equality. Moving faith leaders from public opposition to silence is considered by many LGBT activists to be a success. Sometimes this conversion to silence from formerly outspoken opponents happens when faith leaders receive negative comments from within or from outside their congregations.” (emphasis supplied)

In other words, they know that our silence means victory. We don’t really need to worry about protecting religious liberty from attacks if we are going to be unwilling even to exercise it to speak to the issues our state is facing.


While Tennessee is one of the most “churched” states in the nation, with a particularly high percentage of people professing to be Christians, few realize just how fragile marriages are here, how sexually promiscuous we are, how aggressive and real the homosexual activists are in our state, and how often our religious liberty is being attacked and how surprisingly hard it is to defend it.

Like the man standing next to potentially hazardous materials in the picture referenced in the beginning of this article, we need to “get a clue” about what is going on in our state and begin to be more vocal and engaged in the political, legal, and cultural battles taking place all around us. If we don’t, we’ll increasingly find ourselves, our children, and grandchildren living in a state we don’t recognize, and we’ll find that we’ve squandered the Christian heritage we were given.


  1. The CDC’s reports on divorce by state arae no longer available.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.