Patrick Henry College welcomes Dr. Marvin Olasky, Distinguished Chair in Journalism and Public Policy, to the American Roundtable editorial board.
The National Association of Evangelicals says 80% of single evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 have been sexually active, and 64 percent have had sex during the past year. The NAE also reports that nearly 1/3 of single evangelicals have been pregnant or made someone pregnant, with nearly 1/3 of those pregnancies ending in abortion.
Some dispute those statistics, but even with lower numbers the situation is grave. Four years ago the NAE, concerned about abortion, applied for and received a $1 million, multi-year grant from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which promotes contraceptive use by unmarried individuals. The NAE, while officially advocating sex only within marriage and opposing contraception for unmarried Christians, helped the National Campaign communicate its message through a variety of gatherings and publications.
Some young Christians spent their 2012 summer vacations in unbiblical sexual activity, and others spent them saying no to temptation. As editor in chief of WORLD, I spent the first weeks of summer breaking the story of NAE’s strange bedfellow: the National Campaign’s chief program officer, Bill Albert, told me his organization was negotiating a second grant with the NAE and extending funding to the end of this year.
WORLD quoted NAE president Leith Anderson’s explanation of his position: “Evangelicals are conflicted about contraceptives outside of marriage because we never want to promote or condone sexual immorality. But we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.” Hmm... many evangelicals complained that such a position implicitly accepts contraceptive use by unmarried evangelicals, and the tide turned: On July 10 NAE vice-chairman David Neff (who is also editor in chief of Christianity Today) told me flatly, “We are not applying for another grant.”
I then asked lots of pastors: What’s the alternative to promoting contraceptives? The most common response from pastors was: fight the recent tendency to marry later. (Since 1971 the median age for first marriages has jumped from 23 to 28 for men and from 21 to 26 for women.) Paul Mulner of North Carolina wrote, “I have counseled certain young people to get married sooner than they had planned. I am opposed to the practice of long engagements and I let our young people (and their parents) know that.”
Others told me that pastors should do more to show the beauty of long marriages. This goes with what University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus has found: “Weddings may be beautiful, but marriages become beautiful. Personal storytelling and testimonies can work wonders here, since so much about life is learned behavior.... Young adults want to know that it's possible for two fellow believers to stay happy together for a lifetime, and they need to hear how the generations preceding theirs did it.”
Still other pastors noted the concern that some contraceptives, by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg, produce early abortions. They also said we need more discussion of the spiritual and social effects of adulterous lifestyles. For example, 20-somethings who cohabit and eventually marry are more likely to divorce than those who did not cohabit, in part because they become used to thinking of sex as a consumer activity rather than a covenantal one.
All recognized that the problem of extramarital sex is not going away. True Love Waits and other abstinence programs have succeeded in pushing back the age when sexual relations commence, but they apparently have had little effect on individuals in their 20s. Many of us know about the 10-40 window for evangelism, but the biggest open window domestically is the 10-30 window regarding sex, with puberty coming earlier and marriage later, all within a highly sexualized culture.
I come away from this agreeing with many pastors that marriage pushes men and women to maturity, and late marriage means extended adolescence for millions. For many single men, an older age for marriage underlies both sexual recklessness and job fecklessness -- and many unmarried women, competing for eligible men, feel the need to be sexually available.
Parents of both men and women are complicit, because they often urge children to have a firm career foothold before considering marriage. We all need to rethink our attitudes, or the pro-adultery lobby will win, and take evangelicals with it.
Dr. Marvin Olasky is Editor-in-Chief of WORLD Magazine, the news magazine from a Christian perspective, and PHC’s Distinguished Chair in Journalism and Public Policy. Read full bio.