It’s no secret that evangelicals have a big problem on their hands when it comes to young people and sex. The facts are staggering: despite almost universal affirmation that premarital sex is a sin, 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals (PDF) are having it, and 30 percent of those who accidentally get pregnant get an abortion, according to one survey. U.S. states where abstinence is emphasized over contraception in school sex ed—almost all in the heavily evangelical South—have teen birth rates as high as double (PDF) those of states with a comprehensive curriculum. Though an overwhelming majority believe premarital sex is wrong, white evangelicals are sexually active at a younger age than any demographic besides African-Americans, and are one of the least likely groups to use contraception.
The fact that true love isn’t waiting has concerned evangelicals for years, but the issue is gaining new attention because such a significant number of Christians' unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. The scramble to address the situation is revealing fault lines over the place of contraception in church practices, giving birth control a new centrality in the largely pill-friendly Protestant domain.
Exhibit A is an ongoing flare-up over a multimillion-dollar grant the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest evangelical organization in the U.S., accepted from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, an organization that supports expanding contraception access to unmarried young adults. The donation was revealed in an IRS disclosure form, and reported by Marvin Olasky, the editor of the conservative evangelical magazine World. Olasky’s reporting led to a spat with NAE President Leith Anderson, who insisted that his organization affirms a “Biblical sexual ethic”—no premarital or gay sex—but is concerned about the number of young Christians having abortions.
Exhibit B was a news-making panel at the Q Ideas Conference held in Washington in April, on “abortion reduction.” The discussion centered on whether churches should educate young believers about contraception as a backup plan. The National Campaign’s CEO, Sarah Brown, appeared as a panelist on the NAE’s recommendation. In an insta-poll at the event, a majority of the attendees—64 percent—agreed that they should, and the prevailing view at the conference was also affirmative. That is a remarkable majority who appear to lack confidence that the dominant evangelical teaching on premarital sex can be persuasive to young Christians. But in an online debate that followed, representatives from both sides of the contraception question toed the traditionalist line on the premarital sex question. No one asked the deeper question: why is abstinence the only theologically credible approach to young-adult sexuality?
The cognitive dissonance was even clearer in a September 2011 feature in Relevant, a hip magazine for young evangelicals, that systematically laid out the case against premarital abstinence and then swerved into defending it. Abstinence doesn’t work today, the article suggests, because biblical ideas about premarital sex came from an epoch of arranged teen marriages, while the average American is almost 30 before he or she marries. Religious studies professor Scot McKnight is quoted as saying the sociological difference between the eras is “monstrous” and that the demand that evangelicals remain sexless throughout their entire young adulthood is “absolutely not realistic.” Jennell Paris, an anthropologist who fell on the procontraception side of the Q panel, adds, “We need to talk to people as they really live in the world they really live in.” But despite these conclusions and the overwhelming nature of the data, McKnight, Paris, and Relevant did not go as far as to openly question the validity of the doctrine itself. The closest anyone came to suggesting something of the kind was a Christianity Today essay in which Paris admitted, “‘just saying no’ to premarital sex, important as it is, is not the heart of the gospel.”
But many evangelicals still see the “Biblical sexual ethic” as somewhere close to the heart of the gospel, or at least, as blogger and author Matthew Lee Anderson described it, a “hill to die on.” Most of their efforts to address the yawning gap between belief and practice amount to attempts to rebrand abstinence, or, in more intellectual circles, highly theoretical theological projects to transform churches into communities that model and support a countercultural lifestyle. Whichever flavor it comes in, the determination to double down on a floundering doctrine is driven by a conviction that religion is uncompelling if it fails to make significant demands on an individual’s lifestyle. These demands are always partially if not predominantly sexual, whether they are advocated by Catholics like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who made the argument in his recent book, or Eastern Orthodox converts like conservative blogger Rod Dreher.
The only concrete proposal to make the traditional insistence on marriage more realistic is a push for evangelicals to marry as young as possible, preferably by their early 20s. Sociologist Mark Regnerus, the author of a recent controversial study on gay parenting, argued in a 2009 essay that promotion of early marriage should replace the predominantly negative ideology of premarital abstinence. Regnerus faulted evangelicals for holding the incompatible notions that young people should delay sex until marriage but also delay marriage, like the average American, until they are economically secure, fully-formed adults. Regnerus’s ultimate goal was overcoming the obsession with virginity and abstinence, and emphasizing the positive benefits of marriage.
“Early marriage” has caught on with some evangelicals, but as Regnerus admits, it is almost as culturally against-the-grain as abstinence—a strong indicator that a large number of evangelicals won’t find it attractive. As Darryl Hart has argued, the evangelical temperament is much more progressive than conservative. Despite the public’s idea of evangelicals as stubbornly resistant to change, they have always interacted and evolved in close parallel with the American mainstream. It remains highly unlikely that American evangelical culture in its current incarnation will broadly embrace a lifestyle at odds with the prevailing cultural norms. Evangelicals may claim to believe in abstinence and not to believe in evolution, but premarital sex, later marriage, and occasional abortions will be harder to resist than the limited debates taking place among evangelicals seem aware.
Talking about contraception may be the most practical step they can take.
Correction: This article originally stated that states which emphasize abstinence is sex education have higher teen pregnancy rates. In fact, they have higher teen birth rates. It has been updated.