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In early September, when Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for Vice-President, announced that her unwed seventeen-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant, many liberals were shocked, not by the revelation but by the reaction to it. They expected the news to dismay the evangelical voters that John McCain was courting with his choice of Palin. Yet reports from the floor of the Republican Convention, in St. Paul, quoted dozens of delegates who seemed unfazed, or even buoyed, by the news.
A handful of social scientists and family-law scholars have recently begun looking closely at this split. Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical.
The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents—seventy-four per cent—say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. Only half of mainline Protestants, and a quarter of Jews, say that they believe in abstinence. Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them.
Jews most often cite pleasure as a reason to have sex, and say that an unplanned pregnancy would be an embarrassment. But, according to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier. Another key difference in behavior, Regnerus reports, is that evangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception.
This could be because evangelicals are also among the most likely to believe that using contraception will send the message that they are looking for sex. More provocatively, Regnerus found that only half of sexually active teen-agers who say that they seek guidance from God or the Scriptures when making a tough decision report using contraception every time. By contrast, sixty-nine per cent of sexually active youth who say that they most often follow the counsel of a parent or another trusted adult consistently use protection.