Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A new study out this week shows widening gaps in how different demographics in America approach sexuality and family. The Relationships in America study, produced by the Austin Institute, looks at “how social forces, demography, and religion continue to shape attitudes about family and intimate relationships.” The findings are notable, boosted by a survey that draws from 15,738 respondents ages eighteen to sixty, a very large and representative sample of the general population of the United States.

What is clear from the study are the increasingly entrenched perspectives of two Americas: A growing secular America champions an unburdened sexual libertinism whose version of sexuality is freed from the constraints of traditional sexual morality, a morality that often issued from religious-based truth claims. Meanwhile, religious conservatives in America remain quite skeptical about the general population’s enthusiasm for throwing off supposedly outmoded notions of sexuality.

But another narrative of America’s religious landscape is also clear from the survey—one that Russell Moore and I wrote about at National Review discussing preliminary statistics that sociologist Mark Regnerus described at a spring conference of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. What we said then remains important: Evangelical Christians aren’t liberalizing on the issues of sexual morality.

To begin, the just-released report reveals that it is evangelical Christians who report much higher rates (74 percent) of weekly church attendance than their Mainline Protestant counterparts or secular counterparts. Evangelical Christians report moderately lower rates of pornography usage (though still troublingly high, but not as high as the general population). Weekly church attenders are the least likely to view pornography. The same is true for engaging in premarital sex. Evangelicals rank amongst the lowest of those who insist that marriage is an outdated institution, while the same can be said for promoting casual sex and cohabitation. Evangelicals are also amongst the least likely to believe that same-sex marriage should be legal. This study is important because it makes the necessary distinction about rates of church attendance, not just self-identification. In Appendix B, the study reveals that those who attend church services at least three times a month are much more likely to have traditional or conservative beliefs about sexuality.

All of this thwarts the narrative of progressive Christianity’s professional dissidents who chant the hymns of the sexual revolution while overlooking the paucity of their own aging, dying denominations. The adherents of a choose-your-own-Christianity seem to correspond with the adherents of a choose-your-own-sexuality, too. While this has been a recurrent phenomenon long discussed, the study seems to reaffirm that it is orthodox Christianity (i.e., not liberal) that breeds higher levels of personal and moral commitment in its adherents than liberal Christianity. This makes sense, too, at least from a sociological perspective. Liberal Christianity offers its adherents a picture of Christianity that looks little different from the values of the world—especially on issues of sexuality. If liberal or Mainline Christianity looks no different than the surrounding culture, it isn’t all that surprising that its members hold beliefs about sexuality and family more in line with the editorial board of the New York Times than historic, biblical Christianity. This suggests that the jig is up for liberal Christianity, since its revisionist teachings end up rejecting the rest of Christianity’s teaching on marriage and family.

There’s a lot to comment on from the study. Here are a few other findings worth noting:

  • 18 percent of Americans report being in church weekly.
  • 35 percent of Americans attend a religious service on any given week.
  • 66 percent of Americans still identify with some sort of Christianity.
  • Irreligious Americans account for a larger share of the population than the total of all non-Christian religions combined in America. Around 20 percent of the population is “Spiritual but not religious” or “Atheist/Agnostic/No Religious Affiliation.”
  • Around 60 percent of Americans age 25–34 identify as Christian.
  • According to the study, “the groups with the highest church attendance are the two extremes of the education distribution—those with less than a high school degree and those with a bachelor’s degree or more . . . while the most educated Americans are the most likely to be (religiously) unaffiliated, they are also the most likely to attend church if they have a religious affiliation.”
  • Religious commitments accompany higher rates of overall happiness.

But the study’s overarching implication is one that the commentariat will be asking: Why does sex play such a central role in the dominant and competing narratives of America today? Is it religious practice that shapes belief and practice about sexuality? Or is it sexual practice that becomes a driving force in people selecting religions that accommodate to their sexual preference? What the study reveals is that people either intentionally or unintentionally self-select themselves into religious or non-religious groups based on either a) the person’s attitudes about sexuality; or b) the religious group’s attitudes about sexuality.

The Bible calls for a sanctified sexuality, a sexual system brought under the authority of God. While there’s some level of disconnect between beliefs about sexuality and the actual practice of sexuality that’s seen in the study, the trend lines in America paint a picture of very divergent beliefs about the purpose of one’s sexuality and how it should be ordered. The implications from this are legion, one of which is the impact on religious liberty. What’s happening in America’s disputes over religious liberty are often at root basic disagreements about sex.

The Relationships in America study reaffirms a central truth in the Christian narrative: Marriage, the dignity of the body, and sexual telos are meant to drive us to the Gospel, one pictured in the marital imagery of the Christ-Church union. Christianity has always taught that our sexual desires are primal and wild; and something to be used according to the Creator’s purposes. When humanity mistreats the good purposes of sexuality according to both reason and revelation, we neglect the purpose and complementarity of sexual design and all the corresponding realities that issue from it.

So it isn’t that evangelical Christians are obsessed with sex out of some fetishizing concern that culture is having more enjoyable sex than Christians. When we express grave concern about the decline of America’s sexual standards, it’s not that we’re rigid, sexless Puritans, but that loosened sexual ethics are evidence of a whole other gospel altogether, the gospel of the Sexual Revolution, a prosperity gospel promising sexual freedom but offering results in the form of human carnage, broken relationships, and social misery.

Andrew Walker is Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles