Evangelical teens are actually more likely to have lost their virginity than either mainline Protestants or Catholics. They tend to lose their virginity at a slightly younger age—16.3, compared with 16.7 for the other two faiths. And they are much more likely to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17: Regnerus reports that 13.7 percent of evangelicals have, compared with 8.9 percent for mainline Protestants.
But partly the problem lies in the temptation-rich life of an average American teenager. The fate of the True Love Waits movement, which began with the Southern Baptist Convention in the '90s, is a perfect example. Teenagers who signed the abstinence pledge belong to a subgroup of highly motivated virgins.
But even they succumb. Follow-up surveys show that at best, pledges delayed premarital sex by 18 months—a success by statistical standards but a disaster for Southern Baptist pastors.
Evangelical teens today are much less sheltered than their parents were; they watch the same TV and listen to the same music as everyone else, which causes a "cultural collision," according to Regnerus. "Be in the world, but not of it," is the standard Christian formula for how to engage with mainstream culture. But in a world hypersaturated with information, this is difficult for tech-savvy teenagers to pull off.
There are no specific instructions in the Bible on how to avoid a Beyoncé video or Scarlett Johansson's lips calling to you from YouTube, not to mention the ubiquitous porn sites. For evangelicals, sex is a "symbolic boundary" marking a good Christian
from a bad one, but in reality, the kids are always "sneaking across enemy lines," Regnerus argues.
What really matters is not which religion teenagers identify with but how strongly they identify. After controlling for all factors (family satisfaction, popularity, income), religion matters much less than religiosity. Among the mass of typically promiscuous teenagers in the book, one group stands out: the 16 percent of American teens who describe religion as "extremely important" in their lives. When these guys pledge, they mean it. One study found that the pledge works better if not everyone in school takes it. The ideal conditions are a group of pledgers who form a self-conscious minority that perceives itself as special, even embattled.
I recently spent a year among some evangelical teenagers who belong to this elite minority, and I can attest to the inhuman discipline they exert over their hormones. They can spend all evening sitting on the couch holding hands and nothing more. They can date for a year, be alone numerous times in a car or at the movies, and still stick to what's known in the Christian youth literature as "side hugs," to avoid excessive touching. Muslims have it easy compared to them. At least in Saudi Arabia the women are all covered up, so there's nothing to be tempted by. But among this elite corps of evangelicals, the women are breezing around in what one girl I know called "shockingly slutty conservative outfits" while the men hold their tongues. (No, they don't hold anything else.)
- Evangelicals are in the world and exposed to the same cultural influences that nonevangelicals are.
- Evangelicals are being taught what's right and wrong, but their thinking is not being transformed. Typically, the church teaches the rules and the lists and the "steps to ___," but doesn't teach its people how to learn God's logic and be transformed by His Spirit.
- Unmarried teens and married adults both think that fulfillment and romantic love are higher values than commitment, obedience, and integrity. When presented with the opportunity for premarital sex or the challenges of a difficult marriage, the tendency (i.e., temptation) is to opt for the "self-actualizing" approach, rather than the one of chastity or fidelity.
- Plus, there is, no doubt, a spiritual warfare component to what's going on - which would give the evangelicals an adversary that the others might not have.
- It's not all bad news, though. Teens who are truly committed and not just mouthing words are avoiding sex before marriage at a rate better than nominal evangelicals. A different mind (or mindset) and the power of the Holy Spirit do make a difference.
- I suspect there's a similar pattern in marriage: although evangelicals as a group are divorcing at a rate similar to their non-evangelical neighbors, the rate among "true believers" is probably better than among those who simply talk the talk and act the walk.