A Child Is Born

December 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

France’s minister of justice is unmarried and very pregnant, yet she still refuses to identify the father of the child. Gossip speculation on the matter includes several prominent Europeans including the former prime minster of Spain.

I’m not sure how that scenario would play in this country, but I do remember that Bush’s first Attorney General, John Ashcroft, an Evangelical Christian, had the DOJ spend $8000 for drapery to cover the bare breast on a statue.

But the Evangelical relation to sex and pregnancy is complicated. At first blush, it seems monolithically puritanical – no unmarried sex, no sex education, abstinence pledges. But as the evangelical reaction to Bristol Palin showed, it is also understanding and forgiving. When it was revealed that Palin, seventeen and unmarried, was pregnant, evangelicals were not the first to cast stones. Instead, they seemed to accept the pregnancy as one of those things that just happen. And since Bristol was not going to have an abortion, and since she was going to marry the father, a difficult situation would be resolved for the best. Difficult, but for evangelicals, not at all unusual. Palin’s mother Sarah seems to have taken a similar path (either that or her eldest child was several weeks premature).
As Marlys Popma, the head of evangelical outreach for the McCain campaign, told National Review, “There hasn’t been one evangelical family that hasn’t gone through some sort of situation.”

That’s from “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker last month. Evangelicals, especially teenagers, face a large gap between values and beliefs on the one hand and behavior on the other. Compared with other teens, they favor abstinence (by a wide margin), fear that partners will lose respect for them if they have sex, and do not anticipate that sex will be pleasurable. Yet on average, they start sex at an earlier age (16) and get pregnant more often. I’m not sure how they handle the cognitive dissonance.

Talbot cites the work of some sociologists (Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, Mark Regnerus) on factors that influence whether virginity pledges work – mostly how embedded a teen is in networks (friends, family) that support abstinence. The basic data on abstinence seem to reinforce what should by now be a sociological truism: situational forces matter far more than personal factors like character or statements of intent.

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