WASHINGTON -- Recent books and studies seem to indicate disturbing sexual trends among evangelical Christians. And this time we're not talking about their pastors or political leaders. The new attention is on evangelical teenagers, who reportedly start sex earlier than their mainline Protestant peers.
One gleeful headline on an Internet site recently read: "Evangelical Girls Are Easy." That is not the way I remember it.
Now, in the cruel march of years, I have a child on the verge of joining the tribe of the teenager, and its rituals hold a sudden interest. In this circumstance, a parent has a choice between turning to sociology or turning to drink. So I called a bright young sociologist at the University of Virginia named W. Bradford Wilcox in search of consolation.
Wilcox argues, in a paper for the Russell Sage Foundation, that the facts are more complicated and more hopeful than the sniggering media caricature.
When the statistics on teen sexuality are controlled for social and economic factors, conservative Protestant teens first have sex at about the same time as their peers -- the average is midway through their 16th year. That is hardly comforting to conservative Protestant parents, who would expect more bang for the bucks they spend funding Sunday schools -- well, actually, less bang.
But these numbers shift when controlled for religious intensity. For those who attend church often, sexual activity is delayed until nearly 17, while nominal evangelicals begin at 16.2 years, earlier than the national average.
This trend is more pronounced on other measures of sexual behavior. Only 1 percent of conservative Protestants who attend church weekly cohabit, compared to 10 percent of all adults. (On this statistic, nominal evangelicals almost exactly mirror the nation.) Twelve percent of churchgoing evangelicals have children out of wedlock, compared to 33 percent of all mothers.
These facts, according to Wilcox, support some liberal claims and some conservative ones. Liberals are correct that economic and cultural factors matter greatly, sometimes more than individual belief. Teens with good life prospects and a strong sense of the future -- kids with economic and educational ambitions -- tend to avoid risky behavior such as drugs and early sex. Without those prospects, the temptation is strong to live for the moment.