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Philip N. Cohen

Philip N. Cohen

Posted: September 21, 2009 10:26 PM

Teaching to the Choir on Marriage

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In addition to their other beliefs, most Christian Evangelicals hold two unyielding moral positions: vehement opposition to pre-marital sex, and vehement opposition to real sex education (as opposed to preaching against premarital sex). In recent years, they have been much more successful at realizing their goals with regard to the second position. Achieving "abstinence only" sex non-education is as simple as convincing local, like-minded adults to change school policy; putting an end to premarital sex requires a swift swim against a much stronger tide.

When you're successful at blocking sex education, but fail to prevent sex, the result is -- spoiler alert -- pregnancy and, often, birth. New research shows that states with more religious populations have higher teenage birth rates -- which are not accounted for by the lower income or lower abortion rates in those states.

In the U.S., surveys that identify highly "religious" people mostly count Christian Evangelicals -- the largest group of people who tell survey-takers things like they are "absolutely certain" God exists, that their holy book is the literal word of God, that God answers their prayers regularly, and that their religion is the only "true" faith. This constellation of dogmatic attitudes (no offense -- that's what they're called) -- when brewed with American conservative politics and combined with adolescent sexual urges -- produces interesting combinations of human behavior. For example, virginity pledges. According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, these promises to abstain from sex (don't get too technical here) seem to have no effect on the rate of achieving non-virginity -- or the total number of sexual partners-in-crime -- but they do effectively prevent teenagers from using contraception while they are achieving it.

(The same study reported found that 82% of those who told the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that they had taken a virginity pledge denied it five years later. An intrepid social scientist might suspect that something in the education they're getting might also contribute to problems with honesty -- or memory -- but that's another story.)

There are serious problems to address. Research into the well-being of children born to teenage parents finds that they are more likely to have tougher lives -- and not just because of the poorer backgrounds of their parents. In fact, however, a recent rebound notwithstanding, teen parenthood remains down by almost a third since the early 1990s. Despite the best efforts of non-sex educators, near-universal premarital sex has not been accompanied by similarly high rates of single or teen parenthood. Most of these sex-crazed young people use birth control, or have abortions, to prevent births.

But opposing sex is such a losing battle that some advocates are proposing, if not an actual retreat, at least an advance in a new direction. Maybe, they suggest, the real problem is not children having children -- it's unmarried children having children. That's an exaggeration, but I'm referring to the Christian sociologist Mark Regnerus, who thinks the situation would be better if more of these young people were married (in their early twenties), like they were Back Then - instead of "postponing their adolescence" with all this freedom. He has been promoting the idea that Christians should focus on promoting marriage rather than trying to deny sex.

Now, having your articles packaged with a downloadable companion Bible study isn't the quickest way onto the podium at the American Sociological Association. He has suffered criticism, some of it very reasonable, for pursuing this higher cause. So I do not doubt Regnerus is genuinely motivated by his interpretation of Christian principles.

But I'm befuddled about why. Christians and conservatives, and lots of other people, have been promoting marriage. They even took millions of dollars from the pockets of welfare recipients to promote marriage. Regnerus offers anecdotes of parents and peers advising young lovers to hold off on marriage. Many people do know that those who marry very young are most likely to divorce. And the cultural shift toward accepting later marriage has probably touched even Evangelicals. But as a matter of policy and doctrine, I see no real evidence for a recent slackening on the pro-marriage front. So in this case I think the academic is teaching to the choir.

Despite the pro-marriage movement, there are plenty of barriers to marriage, mostly among the poor. But I believe the truth is that, across the board -- even among Christians, the poor, and poor Christians -- the standards for marriage have increased as it has become less necessary for survival. I think that's why people marry later and divorce more than they used to, but see no reason to postpone sex. Regnerus's attempt to lower the bar for marriage -- "weddings may be beautiful, but marriages become beautiful" -- is probably futile.