By Mark A. Taylor
Evangelical teenagers are as sexually active outside marriage as others. But not everybody agrees about why and what to do about it. Consider two pieces appearing in different publications this August.
Gene Edward Veith, senior writer for World magazine, reviewed the findings of sociologist Mark Regnerus, published in his new book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. Veith’s column in the August 11 issue included this report:
Statistically, evangelical teens tend to have sex first at a younger age, 16.3, compared to liberal Protestants, who tend to lose their virginity at 16.7. And young evangelicals are far more likely to have had three or more sexual partners (13.7 percent) than nonevangelicals (8.9 percent).
Although those who make abstinence pledges typically delay sexual activity about 18 months, according to the book’s findings, 88 percent of pledgers eventually give up their vow to remain virgins until they’re married. And although about “80 percent of teenagers who say they have been ‘born again’ agree that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong . . . as many as two-thirds of them violate their own beliefs in their actual behavior.”
But W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, casts a different light in his August 10 Wall Street Journal column.
His research for the Russell Sage Foundation indicates that the evangelical label doesn’t tell the whole story. Among evangelicals, going to church makes a big difference
.. . . evangelicals who attend religious services weekly, when compared with average Americans, are less likely to cohabit as young adults (1 percent vs. 10 percent of other young adults), to bear a child outside of wedlock (12 percent vs. 33 percent of other moms) and to divorce (7 percent vs. 9 percent of other married adults divorced from 1988 to 1993).
Meanwhile, evangelicals who seldom or never attend church, according to Wilcox’s findings, “have sex before other teens, cohabit and have children outside of wedlock at rates that are no different than the population at large, and are much more likely to divorce than average Americans.”
This single observation will make many conservative Christian parents and church leaders take heart. Simply getting our teenagers to church may increase the chance they will stay sexually unblemished.
But Veith’s conclusions make his readers question the example teenagers are seeing in typical evangelical churches. He believes, for example, many churches “follow the path of cultural conformity” in order to grow larger. And he speaks of the way they cultivate “emotionalism, self-fulfillment, and an odd religious sensuality.”
Both writers prompt us to help our teenagers live by the values they espouse. And both writers challenge us to live by those values ourselves.