Given all we know about the impact of commitment and social support, teaching young people to prioritize church attendance and to keep religion central in their daily lives will most likely help them to be more faithful to their churches’ sexual teachings.
Evangelicals share something in common with every other branch of conservative Christianity. They hold to a simple view of sex outside of marriage, rooted in many centuries of historical teaching and what appear to be the plain teachings of the Bible, especially the New Testament—don’t.
Yet most self-identified Evangelicals1 engage in premarital sex. And doing so has become increasingly morally acceptable among them, regardless of what their churches teach. We have seen a long trend toward greater liberalization of sexual ethics among Evangelical laypersons over the past several decades, underscored in recent years by several prominent Evangelical leaders breaking ranks to embrace progressive views on sex.
The recent, highly public defection of a superstar of the “sexual purity” movement, Josh Harris, is a dramatic case in point. Starting with the repudiation of his own best-selling books promoting courtship practices that promoted abstinence until marriage, on to pursuing his own “amicable” divorce, and then rejecting Christianity entirely—all on social media—Harris has become a poster-child for the “new” Evangelical sexual ethic. Unique, perhaps, only in indicating that his views are no longer Christian (rather than the more typical attempt to claim that Christianity allows for pre-marital sex), Harris is indicative of a larger shift away from traditional stances on sex within Evangelical circles.
For example, in the General Social Survey (GSS), in 2014 through 2018 combined, only 37% of “fundamentalist2 adults said that sex outside marriage was “always wrong,” while 41% said it was “not wrong at all.” From 1974 to 1978, the same percentages were 44% and 27%, respectively.
Meanwhile, the GSS shows that among never-married fundamentalist adults between 2008 and 2018, 86% of females and 82% of males had at least one opposite-sex sexual partner since age 18, while 57% and 65%, respectively, had three or more. These percentages were even higher for those under 30.
In my recent book, Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction, I looked at data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which provides a lot more detail on sexual activity and includes a larger number of respondents.3 In this article, and in the corresponding research brief, I incorporate the most recent NSFG cycle released in December 2018 to further explore the sexual practices of young, never-married Evangelicals, combining the surveys for 2013-15 and 2015-17. I summarize my findings below.
The following figures compare the percentages of never-married respondents in these NSFG cycles, by gender and in two age groups and five major religious affiliation categories, who have ever engaged in sexual intercourse, as well as those who have ever engaged in any sexual activity (vaginal, oral or anal) with an opposite-sex partner.