These Two Graphs Illustrate Everything Wrong With Conservative Christian Sexual Ethics

I’m doing some research for our October sermon series at Saint Junia UMC. I’m calling it “Just Sex: Justice, Sexuality, and Christian Ethics.” I’m also continuing my theme of drawing attention to Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which I referenced the other day in my post Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid.

These two graphs compare data from the General Social Surveys. This first graph illustrates the change in people’s view of premarital sex from 1977 to 2002.

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Evangelicals are the most likely to say it is always wrong, and they have become more likely to do this over the past quarter century. In contrast, only a few mainline Protestants or Jews think premarital sex is always wrong. Black Protestants are more likely now than earlier to think premarital sex is always wrong, whereas Catholics are less likely to say so. The nonaffiliated are unlikely to say premarital sex is always wrong, and have shifted even further in this direction since 1977.  (Wuthnow, 139)

So, self-described evangelicals have become more conservative about sexual ethics (in this area) since the 70’s. The second graph illustrates their behavior.

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However, behavior does not always follow convictions. Fully 69 percent of unmarried evangelicals age 21 through 45 said they had had sex with at least one partner during the previous 12 months. To be sure this… was lower than the comparable figures for adherents of other religious traditions… But it was not that much lower. (Ibid).

This discrepancy between opinion and action means a whole lot of people walking around with a whole lot of guilt— guilt that they then project onto the whole realm of human sexual behavior. Especially other people’s sexual behavior. Those most likely to receive the brunt of projected conservative self-loathing are those with the least power to defend themselves: women (especially teenage girls) and gays and lesbians.

(This would probably be a good place to point out that there is no biblical commandment forbidding masturbation. This may be a surprise to many people. Because guilt and disgust are such prominent features of conservative religious culture, anything that reduces those feelings seems heretical).

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I should point out that the graphs can be a bit misleading. The first graph is maxed out at 45%, not 100%. So, if you think of 100 self-described single evangelicals, perhaps 69 of them have had sex outside of marriage, only 10 of whom claim it’s always wrong. The other 31 are completely consistent in their words and actions… Except that when we’re talking about groups, we know what’s being preached from the pulpit.

Taken as a whole, though, the American view of premarital sex has not shifted appreciably since 1977. Nearly just as many believe that it is always wrong. What has shifted is the polarization among the groups.

Again, I think it’s important to point out that one of the contributing factors to sex outside of marriage is that the average age of marriage is later, and the average age of marriage is later because it is less economically viable. So if you have conservative opinions about both economic policy and about sexual ethics, your preferred policies are working against each other. If you want to promote traditional marriage and conservative sexual ethics, you need to help lift people out of poverty, promote job stability, and reduce economic anxiety.

In the book Diary of an Early American Boy, Noah Blake, in 1805, planned to propose marriage to his sweetheart when he was 15 years old. This was before there was such a concept as “adolescence” — a male was either a boy or a man. Teenagers were adults, and expected to act like adults. Life was very stable; people might never leave their county for decades. The industrial revolution, child labor laws, and public education created a new class of people who were neither children nor adults. We isolated them from a community adult influence by putting them in grade-level education factories. Knowing full well that society has no need of them to fulfill adult-like responsibilities, they are locked into preparation mode for decades. I’m not promoting a return to “the good old days” of subsistence farming and smallpox, but we keep putting marriage and the ability to “settle down” further and further out of people’s reach.

We like to think of sexuality as something personal and private, but the fact is our sexual behavior is also shaped by politics and economics in ways that we, as a society, take for granted. People who follow Jesus can’t pretend we still live in 1805, or 2000 years ago. We need to ask what kinds of ethics will best reflect God’s kingdom in the world we live in now. I’m actually fairly conservative about this stuff: I think self-control and self-denial are important aspects of emotional intelligence and maturity, and that sexual irresponsibility hurts people physically and spiritually. But I suspect that those two graphs above represent a sin and sickness in our world that goes beyond garden-variety hypocrisy. I think it represents a fundamental problem with the way we think about religion, God, and being human.

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Why the United Methodist Church Should Ban Contraception (No, Not Really)

So, yeah, the headline to this post is deliberately provocative, but I think it’s important for church leaders to recognize how changing marriage and birth rates affect the churches they lead. (There are, of course, Christians who do support this philosophy).

This is a follow-up to my last post on this subject, Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid. I said that the economy has affected how people create and maintain families, and that because churches have strategically focused on stable families, declines in participation are probably more related to the economy rather than to theology or mission (which preachers prefer to talk about). I drew evidence for my argument from Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which far too few church leaders have read. I want to share a one particular excerpt from it on why changing marriage patterns and birthrates have affected church participation.

Growth and decline are partly affected by how many children people want and have. Growth and decline are also influenced (perhaps even more) by the timing of those decisions. If a hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 30 when they had these children, in 60 years there would be 338 offspring. But if those hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 20 when they had them, there would be 439 children in 60 years, or almost 30 percent more.

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I’ve added another hypothetical average age of childbirth (15 years) not because I think it’s a good idea, but to illustrate the math. – D.

In addition, waiting until age 30 means more discontinuity of the kind that often weakens religious ties with religious traditions (geographic mobility, travel, higher education). To the extent that religious organizations perpetuate themselves by encouraging families to have children, then, the most significant influence may not be the number of children, but when they have children. (Wuthnow, 143)

Again, I want to assert that I do not think that the Great Commission (making disciples of all peoples) is primarily about breeding new Christians, nor do I think churches should actually be advocating for earlier heterosexual marriages or contraception bans. But I do think that part of the religious right’s idolatry of the family comes from a recognition and prioritization of these social realities. Churches that have built Jesus-theme-parks for families know which side of their bread is buttered.

As a culture,  we have idolized a particular vision of family even as we have made that vision less attainable. We have made it economically tough for young people to marry and have babies, even as the religious right has ratcheted up their condemnation of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. If we make it hard for people to form and maintain families, we also shouldn’t be surprised when churches that depend on families begin to decline. Again, I don’t think this is the way things should be. I just think it’s a pretty accurate description of the way things are.

I’ll restate some of the important questions that I believe churches should ask: How can we be church to people who choose not to or can’t have children? To single parents? To gay and lesbian parents? To grandparents? How can we help people whose life goals do not include “settling down,” but building a life of active ministry?

My Monday Morning

I spent most of yesterday morning with a formerly homeless man. He’s now in an apartment without a refrigerator or stove, or electricity or running water, but he has a roof over his head and a door that keeps his few possessions (relatively) safe.

We sat for a good hour in the Cooper Green pharmacy, waiting on his prescription to be filled. It was surprisingly crowded for a Monday morning. The pharmacy is a windowless room, about twenty feet square, with bad lighting, a blaring television, and four service lines. About twenty-five people sat on chairs or stood in the flickering fluorescence waiting for their number to be called. This is one of the places people who can’t afford much health care go to get their meds.

My friend was waiting on his insulin. He works at a car wash, but since it was raining he wasn’t working that day. He said that when it turns cold, the younger guys will stop showing up. He can endure the cold, he said, and he knew he would be working more come October and November.

As I looked around, I tried to guess the history of the other folks in the room. There were more than a few who were well-educated – I could tell from their dialect and their vocabulary. Most were clearly living in poverty. Everyone wore expressions that suggested they would rather be somewhere else.

I could tell that a few of them were in there because of bad lifestyle choices. They smelled of cigarette smoke and talked too loudly. I could see the signs of years of addiction on their weathered faces. But most were just tired.

After our pharmacy visit, I took my friend to a big box department store to get some work boots. Someone had offered him some weekend work clearing a fallen tree, but he had to provide his own steel-toed boots. Forty bucks. We also picked up some Ensure, because he said that he often had a hard time getting breakfast (having no refrigeration, in this day and age, is a problem if you want ready access to healthy food).

I took him to Jim & Nick’s for a diabetic-friendly lunch. Then we went to Family Dollar, because he needed some personal hygiene items. He bought a duffle bag to cary his supplies to and from the showers at the Salvation Army, just a few blocks from his apartment.

We spent most of the morning running errands, and we spent about $120 during our four hours together. And it occurred to me again, as it has so often in the past that it is expensive to be poor. The most valuable thing I provided for this gentleman besides the money was transportation in my car. If he had instead taken the bus, what took us a morning would have taken him days. That’s time that he would not spend looking for a better job, or educating himself, or reading and just enjoying life.

I thought about all the people in the waiting room, almost all of whom are there because they cannot call in a prescription to CVS and drive down and pick it up. I thought about the tremendous wasted economic and personal value that their time represents. Decent public transportation would help all of them, and everyone else in Birmingham as a result. Affordable preventive health care would help not only them, but my insurance premiums, because I wouldn’t be paying for as many of their emergency room visits.

I was also impressed, as I have been in the past, with this gentleman’s financial savvy. I tried to give him space to make his choices about the products he was going to buy, and I tried not to stand hovering over his shoulder so he could have some dignity and privacy. But I couldn’t help notice the way he was doing comparison shopping, squeezing every bit of value out of the budget we had agreed on in the past.

When we meet, I usually ask this man, “What would be the most helpful thing we could do right now for your goals?” And we talk for a bit about what he wants to do, and what would help him do it. Sometimes I’ll make suggestions or ask questions, but I generally figure he knows best. I did ask him awhile back if he had a savings account, and he informed me with some pride yesterday that he has one now, and he intends on socking away $25 each time he gets paid. He’s on a waiting list for some subsidized housing that includes utilities and comes with a fridge and stove – items which will make it less expensive for him to conduct the daily business of living and working.

Each time I willingly step into a relationship with someone who is poorer than I am, I have my world view shifted a bit. I already know it’s expensive to be poor, but when I think about what this guy goes through to get his insulin so he can go to work, and how he’s working his butt off to claw his way out of poverty, I admire him. He admits he’s made some bad choices, but now he’s making good ones.

As I drove home reflecting on my experiences, I turned on the radio. Some talk show guest was referring to my president as “the Food Stamp President.”

I turned the damned thing off. The man just has no idea.

“Churches that preach politics should be taxed”

“Churches that preach politics should be taxed.”

This is a common refrain that grows louder every election year. I have heard it from both liberals and conservatives. In conversations about abortion, about Israel-Palestine, about gay marriage, and about tax reform, someone who disagrees with an official policy of one church or another will claim that church leaders should not try to convince their members to vote or advocate one way or another.

I do understand the sentiment behind it. As a pastor, I watch my words very carefully. People who have chosen to come into my congregation do so for a variety of reasons. They have loaned me their time and attention for somewhere between fifteen minutes and an hour, trusting that I will not waste their time or abuse that trust. There are some churches whose theological or political or aesthetic opinions I find objectionable, and I do wish they would shut up. Penalizing them financially might be one way to lower their volume in the public square.

But would you penalize a humane society for advocating for laws against dog or rooster fighting or animal cruelty? Would you say that an organization whose mission is to promote music and the arts should not take a public stand when politicians try to gut funding for art education or public museums? Would we say that an organization whose mission is to fight homelessness should only pass out blankets and soup bowls, and should not advocate for housing policies that would actually reduce homelessness?

If you agree that the above non-profit organizations should be able to advocate for policies that support their mission and values, then the only reason to tax churches is because they are religious—which violates the first amendment.

Supporters of the tax-the-churches idea claim that most of the charitable contributions to churches do not go directly to “causes” that benefit the community. They point to mega-churches with gym memberships and country-club atmospheres that cater to members only. They fume over pastors who live in mansions.

Strong opinions and anecdotes, though, are not data. Mega-church country clubs are big and visible, but they represent less than 10% of all churches. The median church has just 75 members. Within that 10%, churches range between 400 and tens of thousands of members. While half of all church-goers in the U.S. go to this 10% of all churches, most of these are not very politically active. You don’t usually get to be that size by being on the radical fringe.

Economists have also pointed out that the economic benefit of churches to the surrounding community is typically somewhere between two and six times their budget. This is because churches leverage ministry dollars and volunteer time to multiply their ministry. The person who is tithing is likely also singing in the choir, volunteering in the nursery, and working in a food pantry. By building community they are reducing crime, boosting literacy and education, promoting the arts, and providing free services of all kinds. A church with a $200,000 budget may have a positive economic impact in the community of up to a million dollars. This is called the <a href=”http://articles.philly.com/2011-02-01/news/27092987_1_partners-for-sacred-places-congregations-churches&#8221; title=”“halo effect.””>“halo effect.”</a>

A government who taxed such an organization punitively would be shooting itself in the foot.

Finally, it only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how uneven calls for revoking tax-exempt status are. What kind of political behavior should churches be allowed to do? Should they have been allowed to advocate for Civil Rights? Women’s suffrage? The abolition of slavery? Support of child labor laws? This kind of rhetoric was used by people who wanted to silence religious leaders of those movements, too. Which churches shall we penalize? Glide Memorial in San Francisco, for their outspoken support of minority people?

What about churches whose individualistic prosperity gospel and support of the status quo certainly does fit the definition of “political?” Churches are inherently politically active, even when they claim not to be. One very wise author told me recently that he advised one church planter, “Decide, right now, whether you will be a Republican church or a Democrat church. If you choose neither or say you’re going to ‘transcend’ politics, you will be a Republican church. That’s the default Christian mode in our culture.”

I wish the church were the leading edge of social change and the transformation of culture, but in the last fifty years, we’ve been playing catch-up. God is still at work, and remains faithful, even when we are not.