Like everyone who checks Instapundit on a regular basis, I come across all kinds of interesting news; yesterday Glenn offered a link to this National Review Online post by David French where one learns that young unmarried evangelicals are behaving very much like other unmarried young people. 80 percent of them are sexually active, compared to 88 percent of their peers.
One should note that this is a fairly crude statistic; “sexually active” can cover a lot of ground in terms of the number of partners, frequency and degree of emotional commitment. The differences between evangelical youth and their peers are likely to become a little more significant as the questions get more specific. Nevertheless, the statistics are striking.
As French sagely observers, this is partly about the delay of marriage in our society; waiting until marriage means one thing if most people get married before 20. It means something else completely if a lot of people don’t marry until 30. And we do live in a sex-saturated society in which formerly ethical companies like Abercrombie & Fitch advertise their wares with a laser-like focus on sex.
French observes that evangelical youth continue to believe pre-marital sex is wrong — 76 percent agree in the poll he cites. These young people are experiencing a reality of Christian life memorably described by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. As the King James Bible translates the verse (Romans 7:15): “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”
They feel that premarital sex is wrong, but somehow there they are at the hook up bar, or in the dorm room of a friend, staying over with their date — or just trolling the web for porn.
Via Meadia has no magic solutions to the ancient human conflict between our aspirations and our urges. Every human being struggles with these problems, some people more successfully and creatively than others. Titans of industry, famous basketball coaches, presidents of the United States, nationally known megachurch preachers and many others fail to restrain their sexual behavior within the bounds of simple human decency; amazingly, 20 year-old college students also sometimes stray. (There are even whispers of misbehavior in the ranks of bloggers, but Via Meadia dismisses these as mere rumors and canards. Uniquely, the world of internet journalism is inhabited by perfect saints.)
St. Augustine’s prayer as he reports in his autobiography (“Lord, make me chaste — but not yet”) has no doubt been prayed many times since. Beyond the remedies St. Paul proposes — patience, faith in God, prayer, an effort to deepen your relationship with God and your love of your neighbor day by day and if all else fails, marriage — we here at Via Meadia have little to say. We do not recommend the approach of Origen, the Alexandrian theologian who many believe took the advice of Jesus about cutting off the offending member a little too literally and castrated himself to remain sexually pure, but neither do we endorse the position St. Paul raises rhetorically in Romans: since human sin brings forth new grace and forgiveness from God, let us sin all the more that grace may abound.
But if we cannot make temptation vanish or inoculate readers to resist it, we can at least help some of those young evangelicals and others understand why this particular problem is so difficult today. The answer goes beyond the delay in the age of marriage and the pervasive presence of sexually tinged advertising and entertainment that surrounds us all. It even goes farther than the effect of the bad examples of incontinence and infidelity among so many social leaders.
The core truth is that premarital sex is less evil today than it used to be. It remains, as moral theologians say, wrong in itself, we Christians believe, and that is a quality that does not change. But premarital sex is less of a sin against other people than it used to be.
In the old days, for example, before contraception, every act of intercourse outside marriage carried a substantial possibility of ending in pregnancy. For women, the consequences of pregnancy out of wedlock were life shattering: disgrace, the loss of any hope of a good marriage, economic and social marginalization. It was very foolish and wicked for young girls to place themselves and their families at risk of all this for a moments’ pleasure; it was much worse for young men to attempt to persuade and cajole girls they did not plan to marry into sex. Young men who behaved in this way attracted the deserved moral censure of the community, and parents were vigilant to protect their daughters from unscrupulous seducers.
Premarital sex under these circumstances was not just a moral crime against God’s law; it was a selfish act of personal gratification that endangered the well being and happiness of whole families.
If we add to that the devastating consequences of sexually transmitted diseases in the era before antibiotics made them treatable, premarital sex becomes an even more dubious phenomenon. Insanity, death, sterility, defective offspring: unchastity brought all these consequences in its wake. The casual seducer who infected a young woman with syphilis might be condemning her, her unborn children and her future husband to madness and death.
Given the stakes, parents, teachers, preachers and the community generally moved heaven and earth in efforts (not always successful) to keep young people apart and to keep the fires of sexual infatuation banked. (Once couples were firmly and publicly engaged, even the most straitlaced communities relaxed the rules. A planned wedding can always be moved up.)
These days, the negative consequences of premarital sex, though real and not to be lightly passed over, are much less dramatic. Some young people may lose their ability to form deep relationships, young women in particular often come to regret the emotional consequences of too many involvements too soon, and the dangers of unexpected pregnancy and its consequences remain, but on the whole young people having sex these days do less immediate damage to each other and to their families and communities than might have once been the case.
This helps to explain the diminished concern that parents and educators feel about the 88 percent. It does not mean that a society in which marriage steadily weakens, abortion is commonplace, and millions of children grow up without a father in the home is a healthy place. But it explains why many parents in particular are more concerned with their children’s grades than with their sexual activities in college and why tuition-paying parents no longer demand that their daughters be kept in sex-segregated dorms with curfews and parietals.
The biological urges driving young people in particular but people in general toward extracurricular sexual activity are so strong that any relaxation of the moral and social barriers against such activity will have a predictable result. In our society, with marriage delayed, sexuality pervasive in our culture, the economic and social penalties for premarital sex drastically reduced, parents less concerned, and colleges no longer acting to keep the sexes apart, nature is taking its course.
At NRO, David French worries that the high degree of sexual activity among evangelical youth is part of a broader process of creeping moral laxity among American Christians. There is a lot of evidence pointing in this direction; in my youth divorced people could not remarry in an Episcopal church. It is hard to think of anything you can’t do in an Episcopal church these days and other denominations seem to be drifting down the same gentle slope. (It is, one must note, odd that the fewer moral demands a church places on its members, the fewer people bother to come. Many of the relaxations in moral discipline were intended to make the church more ‘relevant’: that judgment looks pretty stupid today.)
Yet in other ways, Christians along with other Americans are becoming less tolerant of ethical flaws. Casual and brutal racism was once so deeply woven into American life that you had to be a great moral hero to fight it. We are less tolerant of those who want to pollute the rivers and the air in the search for private gain. The vice of smoking was once tolerated; among adults there is much less toleration for drunkenness (especially in business and professional settings) than there used to be.
A common thread in all this is that people struggle hardest against those vices which they perceive do the most harm. Parents may want their children to be morally excellent in every way, but they are realistic enough to know that you must choose your battles. Fifty years ago smoking was believed to cost money and stain your teeth; now that we know how deadly it is, parents care more.
This will sound like heresy to many optimistic Americans, but at Via Meadia we sometimes wonder whether people make any moral progress at all. Americans are less racist than we used to be, thankfully, but we are much less committed to our marriage vows. We drink to excess less than Americans did before the temperance movement arose to combat the public drunkenness of the 1830s and 1840s, but we take many more dangerous drugs. We have abolished political and economic discrimination against women, but it is much more socially acceptable than it used to be for a prosperous, middle aged man to ditch the mother of his children, leave her in poor economic condiitons, and to take up with a much younger woman and start a new family. Our ancestors would have thought that an unspeakable crime, and would be horrified that we tolerate that behavior so widely today. Islam, I note, at least demands that plural wives be treated equally. Is serial monogamy involving casting off the old wife like a dirty pair of socks really morally superior to egalitarian polygamy?
Changing fashions in morals often reflect prudential calculations; smoking is seen as more dangerous than it used to be, and premarital sex as less destructive. We focus more on preventing the one than we used to, and pay less attention to the second.
This is not hypocritical or even immoral; all vice by its nature is bad for you, but it is best to struggle hardest against the vices that do the most harm. Prudence is also a virtue and has its proper place in human struggles to live better lives.
The difficulty when it comes to premarital sex is that any separation of sexual conduct from marriage inevitably weakens the family — the primary and foundational institution of society. That damage is not obvious and overwhelming; it is gradual and subtle, but it is real. A hook up culture in college is not the best foundation for faithful monogamy later, especially when so many young people now grow up in what used to be called broken homes.
The defense of the family is one of the most important priorities before American society today, but most of the would-be defenders approach the issue superficially. The most dangerous attack on the family has nothing to do with extramarital sex.
125 years ago when most Americans still lived and worked on farms, the family was a unit of production. Parents were partners in the fullest sense of the word: they worked together to put food on the table as well as to raise the kids. Kids helped out around the farm with chores and as they grew up took on more and more responsibilities in the family business until the time came for them to launch a new partnership on their own.
Today’s American family is quite different. Mom and Dad usually work in different jobs far from homes; they get in their cars and drive off. Home is a place where people spend money and enjoy leisure time; the family bonds around the TV rather than in the corn field. Both parents have work friends who their spouses know only slightly if at all; they outsource much of the work of raising and teaching their kids to schools.
The bonds between the members of these units tend to be weaker than the bonds on the farm where the parents and children worked together as a team to keep each other clothed and fed. If we are serious about strengthening the America family, and I think we should be, we will have to think much more deeply about how our society works.
Defending the American family and laying the foundation for strong homes in the 21st century is a much bigger project than worrying about extramarital sex or, for that matter, gay marriage. Evangelicals and other Christians who want to play a role in the revitalization and protection of the family need to get away from a “moral panic” agenda and begin to analyze the ways our current social and economic order weakens and impoverishes family life. Then comes the hard work of figuring out how to fix what has gone wrong. There is a lot of work to be done.