The XX Factor

The Christian Right Cultivates Teenage Childbirth

This is perhaps the least surprising finding of social science to date: ” Rates of births to teenage mothers are strongly predicted by conservative religious beliefs, even after controlling for differences in income and rates of abortion .” In 2008 the larger public got a taste of what watchers of the social conservative movement have known for a long time, which is that they’ve quietly started to celebrate teenage motherhood, albeit while falling short of openly encouraging it. When Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston were trotted out as American heroes for the Big Knock-Up during the Republican National Convention, that was a wink and a nod to this growing enthusiasm in the Christian right.

Another example of the trend comes from the deliberately misnamed Feminists For Life, which sponsors a college lecture series that exhibits young women explaining why having a baby in college was the best thing that ever happened to them. Wild promises are implied: The boyfriend will make a romantic proposal straight out of a storybook, parents will be ecstatic, studies will be manageable, life will be darn near perfect. Perhaps Bristol Palin’s lack of a storybook ending, which cannot be covered up with any number of People magazine covers, will help expose this lie that’s been building within this subculture.

Don’t think that the Christian right wanted it this way. It’s in response to the impossible situation they’ve put their young people in. Mark Regnerus-himself an evangelical Christian, but one who takes his academic fealty to the truth seriously- wrote a book demonstrating that all the admonishments to evangelical youth to wait for marriage not only didn’t cause them to wait longer to have sex, but that evangelical teenagers have sex at even younger ages than pretty much all other groups of teenagers. (He theorizes that their fear that stopgap behavior like oral sex and mutual masturbation is perverse drives them to intercourse sooner.) Add to that the levels of misinformation about contraception fed to them in an attempt to trick them out of having sex, and what you have is a situation where, to quote the researcher on this most recent study, “religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging the use of contraception among their teenagers than they are in discouraging sexual intercourse itself.” Nature beats God most of the time.

There’s only one solution, and evangelicals such as Regnerus or Michael Gerson have started to promote it strongly: early marriage. Of course, what that means is up in the air. Regnerus suggests 19-20, Gerson plays it safe by suggesting one’s early 20s. This cynic points out that both are still many years past the average age of sexual debut, which is close to 17 (though younger for evangelicals).

The on-the-ground compromise that evangelical Christians seem to be coming around to is quietly encouraging-or at least, not discouraging-sexually active teenagers to get pregnant quickly, so they “have” to marry, because they know that just asking kids to marry young won’t fly when their kids, like most kids, have college and career goals that marriage could interfere with. Getting pregnant and married young will never be as well-regarded as abstaining for a decade plus after puberty before marrying, but teenage motherhood is quietly becoming a way of life for evangelicals, and a compromise position between the sexual needs of actual human beings, and the strongly anti-sex attitudes pushed by the Christian right.