Shifting evangelical ideas about sex

Clearly the Atlantic Monthly is onto something in its coverage of men, women, and relationships. First it was “The End of Men,” the provocative cover-story article by Hanna Rosin back in July 2010. And now it’s “All the Single Ladies,” the November cover splash by Kate Bolick that’s gone stratospheric in reader attention before we’re even halfway through October. I argued last February in a Slate article that if the former title holds true, the second one will no doubt follow in its footsteps.

Basically, floundering men enable the flourishing men around them to become pickier about their romantic relationships and how they transpire, all the more in a world wherein women don’t really even need men anymore in order to live fruitful, satisfying, economically-secure lives. (But they still want men, which is always nice to hear.) Ergo, we should see less marrying going on, and at later ages. And voila, that is what we have.

We could argue the wisdom of this till we’re hoarse, but a piece of new research I saw recently reinforced the idea that marriage can shape how or what religious people think. In a fascinating article in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Notre Dame graduate student Justin Farrell documents how evangelical Christians in America under the age of 30 are significantly more “liberal” (for lack of a better word) about matters of sex and marriage—from premarital sex to porn to same-sex marriage and cohabitation—than evangelicals ages 30 and up. But, notably, being married significantly predicted more conservative attitudes about premarital sex and same-sex marriage, regardless of whether they were in the 30-and-over category or the under-30 group (or a bunch of other things). Farrell also notes that evangelicals are marrying about one year—on average—earlier than the American median age at first marriage, which now stands at 28.4 for men and 26.7 for women.

So much for the conventional wisdom that evangelicals typically marry as late teens or in their early 20s; we knew that wasn’t true, but this is the first time I’ve laid eyes on a decent estimate from reliable data. While I’ve become known for thinking Americans wait too long to marry, the JSSR article suggests—or implies, at least—that younger evangelicals’ marital status matters for their opinions about the sex lives of other people. Not surprising. Ideas, after all, aren’t thought about and shaped in a social vacuum, but within real lived contexts and relationships.

  • j smith

    But couldn’t it just be that young evangelicals with conservative views about sex are more likely to marry somewhat earlier? At least, isn’t that probably the lionshare of what’s happening.

    If some of the conservative sex beliefs are explained by the influence of marriage, how is it that marriage influences?

  • M

    I’m an academic from the UK and reading this, I find it plausible. Younger evangelical postgrads come to study in our universities. Most are young married men, some are (mostly single) women, and their attitudes to marriage and sex seem to vary. Most are in their early 20s. I have seen this trend for over 10 years now, during which time I completed my own PhD and became a professional academic myself, and I have witnessed it going over to the States as well. I used to think it was just a protracted rebellion against their parents. I also noticed the horrible naivete and lack of social awareness of many. Repeatedly one would hear a young postgrad whine vaguely about the Christian Right, conservative Christians, Iraq, Bush, etc. and say ‘things are so much better here (in the UK) churchwise’. When I would ask them who they had been talking to from the church in the UK, the answer I would often get is ‘you’. My answer would always be, don’t be silly, I am not a typical British Christian, let alone a typical British person – I am an academic.
    What I have to say about it from a UK/European perspective is this – young educated American evangelicals take their social subculture too much for granted. They don’t realise nearly enough that this is what enables them to marry and for their tribe to continue existing. Sociologists of religion, in my experience of being around them in the past, have never asked the question whether it is Christian higher education that has enabled churchgoing rates to be higher in the USA than in Europe or elsewhere in the western world. The Christian higher education world enables people to meet and marry, and creates a cultural economy. Here in Europe, everything is secular, and sociologists of religion nowadays talk about ‘eurosecularity’. Church (and now the internet) is your only chance of meeting people for dating and marrying. A few years ago, I attended a major UK conference on gender and the sociology of religion, and data by experienced researchers showed that the commonest reason for people of both sexes to leave church was dating and marrying non-churchgoers. People tend to ignore the significant minority of Christian men who date and marry non-Christian women. For men more than women, failure to get intellectual engagement on various theological issues was the other main reason for church leaving.
    Our problems here in Europe are very serious indeed. American evangelicals need to grow up and stop being liberalised spoilt brats when it comes to sexual ethics. othewise the rest of us in other countries will stop taking you seriously.


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