Two teenagers stepped into the public fray in the past few weeks and were slapped down for expressing their religious and ethical convictions. One, pop idol Justin Bieber, dared to state his views on abortion. The other, high school wrestler Joel Northup, forfeited a sporting event rather than betray his religious beliefs. Both of these young men have been the object of scorn across the internet.
All this raises the question: Should it matter what teens think about important issues related to faith and ethics? Are teens old enough to have a real opinion on such topics? Does it really matter what they think?
Justin Bieber, a professed Christian, became a target for criticism following the publication of his interview in Rolling Stone magazine in which he was asked to share his thoughts on everything from health care to premarital sex to abortion. The quote that dropped the young singer into hot water came when he was asked about ending pregnancies that are the result of rape. "Well, I think that's really sad," responded Bieber, "but everything happens for a reason. I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that." Later, Rolling Stone corrected the quote, admitting it had been edited improperly, so that it now reads, " Well, I think that's really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don't know how that would be a reason. I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that." This correction, if even necessary, probably would not have appeased the hosts of the television program "The View." Several of them argued that Bieber was too young to have an opinion on such matters and that his gender probably should have precluded him from saying anything at all on the topic. They also expressed concern that Bieber's attitudes might negatively influence other teens. The implication: He should keep his thoughts to himself.
Teenager Joel Northup, a celebrity in his own right at least when it comes to high school wrestling in Iowa, forfeited a match at a recent state tournament because his opponent was a female. Northup, who is home schooled and belongs to a non-denominational church where his father is the youth pastor, stated his reasons for stepping out of the match against opponent Cassy Herkelman:
I have a tremendous amount of respect for (Cassy) . . . However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other High School sports in Iowa.
Since this story went public, Northrup has been criticized on blogs and websites for being chauvinistic, turning back the clock on gender equality, and allowing his conservative religious views to cloud his judgment. Again, the implication seems to be: He should have kept his thoughts to himself.
Now, do I hold the same religious and ethical convictions on abortion and gender roles as these two teens? Not at all. Do I support their right to express those convictions? Absolutely. In my work with youth in the Church, I am constantly encouraging teens to develop their convictions around issues that matter. I want to them to wrestle with questions of abortion, war, the death penalty, health care inequity, homelessness, sexuality, government-sponsored torture, drugs, poverty, and gender equality. I want them to feel free to express where they stand on these issues. My goal is certainly not to get them to move to my point of view. Rather, it is to help them consider how their ethical and religious stances do or do not line up with their own professed beliefs about their faith.
Does Northup see the "violence" he may impose on his male opponents as in line with his understanding of the peaceful life of Jesus? Do Bieber's views on sex and abortion fit his understanding of the Christian faith? (Imagine if Rolling Stone had asked him that question.) Sometimes teens discover that their positions are clarified when seen in the light of their Christian beliefs. Other times they are surprised to find that there is a disconnect between what they profess about Jesus and the views they hold on controversial issues. Even these moments of cognitive dissonance are opportunities for young people to deepen their thinking and their search for understanding about justice and humanity. But none of this learning happens if we insist that teens are too young to know what they are talking about or that their views simply don't matter.