Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Preaching Prevention and Family Values

Below is a letter I wrote to the Dallas Morning News. Unfortunately I sent it to the wrong email address so that they didn't even have a proper opportunity to decline it. I was responding to an opinion piece by Star Parker titled "Social Distortion". The version in the Dallas Morning News (Saturday, June 9, page 21A) was a slightly abbreviated form of Parker's full essay. Anyway, here is my letter.
Although I am no friend of the religious right, I largely agree with Star Parker's ("Social Distortion" June 10, page 21A) essay pointing out that poverty in America is substantially a consequence of family breakdown. But Ms Parker goes on to say that "Christians like to stay home can care for their families." The simple facts of the matter is that divorce, teen age pregnancy and out of wedlock births are strongly correlated with being religious. The US states with the highest rates of religiosity have the highest rates of family breakdown. And among the rich democracies of the West those countries with the most religious populations also have the highest rates of family breakdown. If religious leaders wish to consider whether their message is contributing to the problem, a good place to start would be to ask whether futile preaching against premarital sex (at a time when age at first marriage is rising) might be better refocused on preaching against premarital pregnancy. Jeffrey Goldberg
A letter to the the editor needs to be short, but blogs can ramble on endlessly, so at some point I'll add in actual references. I've looked it all up before, but don't have it at my finger tips now. But there is a very clear pattern that within the US the more religious a region (as measured by church attendance and self-descriptions) the higher the teen pregnancy rates along with higher divorce rates. The pattern with abortion rates is less clear. All this can be checked by looking at US Census data. We see exactly the same pattern across "Western" countries. The higher the religiosity the higher the rates of teen pregnancy and divorce. Again, a case could be made that abortion rates also follow the same pattern, but that case is harder to make due to a number of notable exceptions to the pattern (particularly in former Soviet bloc countries). There certainly can be many reasons for this. We know that religiosity declines with level of education and we know that the more educated women are the longer they wait to have children (and the latter is a world wide trend), so the relationship between early pregnancy and religiosity may merely be a consequence of female education level. But I suspect that it is more. Many Christians in the US have attempted to combat early pregnancy through abstinence training. They have opposed the secular sex education in school if it informs children about contraceptives. On the whole the philosophy is that making contraceptives easily available encourages pre-marital sex. An analogy would be to the fact that automobile airbags encourage faster driving (for which there is some evidence). Even if the anti-contraceptive crowd is correct in this to some degree, it does matter to what degree and what the negative effects of discouraging contraception can be. First of all, the efficacy of abstinence training at having any positive effect is disputed. (I know that I should add a source for this). Studies range from saying that it has no effect on delaying sex to delaying sex for a few months on average. To my knowledge, no serious study has shown that it has a substantial effect. People who blame teen and young-adult sex on TV or other aspects of popular culture are simply ignoring the facts of life. If we are seeing a rise in premarital sex it is because people are getting married later. A century ago an unmarried 25 year-old women was definitely an "old maid." Again studies (which again I should cite) show that those who wait to get married and have children have more successful marriages and children. So the Christian "family values" people have a difficult choice to make. They can continue to fight against pre-marital sex and contraception outside of marriage. To do that they either have to try to change human nature or reverse get girls marrying young again (mid to late teens). Neither approach seems to very appealing. Or if they really want to strengthen families, they can promote the use of contraceptives to prevent not premarital sex, but prevent pregnancies until the couple are prepared to properly support a family. The bottom line is that the religious opposition to contraception outside of marriage is contributing substantially to family breakdown. I hope they take action to truly promote healthy families.


  1. did you find the correct email address and send it?

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  2. Yes. I did resend it, but I'd only discovered my error a couple of days after I initially sent it. So it got there pretty late.

    None-the-less, I did get an email from the Dallas Morning News saying that it was likely to be published. This is what they said:

    your comments have been selected as a
    finalist for publication in our Letters column in The Dallas Morning News
    and also on our Web site

    So it should appear. My guess is tomorrow (Saturday, June 16), but I don't know what they will edit out of it.

  3. An abbreviated from of the letter was published in on Saturday, June 16, 2007 on the letter's page. They did print the crucial final paragraph.