Researchers putting the sex in secularization

While we hear much about how religious decline and secularization tend to lower birth rates and lead to liberalized sexual practices and ideas, is it also the case that sexual liberalization decreases religious vitality? Mary Eberstadt’s 2013 book How the West Really Lost God (see May 2013 RW for review) put forth that controversial position. Without providing much in the way of empirical findings, Eberstadt argued that changed sexual practices, starting with the approval of contraception, have weakened religious institutions and beliefs, using Europe as her main case-in-point. More recently, social scientists have conducted research that provides more substance for Eberstadt’s argument, if not necessarily proving her point. For instance, University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus writes in the Washington Post (September 5) that the uncertainties posed by the modern mating market are putting increasing pressure on churches as they try to retain their younger members and reach out to the unchurched. Regnerus cites several recent studies showing that Christians are tracking with unchurched Americans’ declining marriage rates and other behavior and attitudes that would have been frowned upon two decades ago. “Whereas only 37 percent of the least religious never-married adults in the 2014 Relationships in America survey said they would prefer instead to be married, 56 percent of the most religious never-married adults said the same. But 56 is a far cry from 80 or 90 percent. Something is going on,” the sociologist writes.

Unlike Orthodox Jewish and Mormon youth who have eschewed the wider dating market, young Christians’ narratives of dating are not very different than nonreligious Americans; while they may wait longer, single Christians are also engaging in pre-marital sex. Younger evangelicals (below 30) are more permissive than older ones on a range of issues including pornography and are postponing marriage (and thereby postponing its conservatizing effect). Among Christians of all ages, there are rising uncertainty levels, if not support, about all kinds of unconventional sexuality: 23 percent are uncertain about cohabitation, 25 percent are unsure if viewing pornography is okay, and 17 percent don’t know if consensual polyamorous unions are permissible. Regnerus writes, “One can interpret those on the fence as movable—open to being convinced. But if trends in sexual norms hold, most who once claimed neutrality eventually drift toward the more permissive position.” What this trend means is that churches can no longer count on young adults returning to the fold once they establish families, since delayed marriage is slowing such returns.

But these mating market dynamics may reinforce how “long-standing Christian sexual ethics are making less and less sense to the unchurched—a key market for evangelicals. … ‘Meeting people where they’re at’ becomes challenging. Congregations are coming face to face with questions of just how central sexual ethics are to their religious life and message.” He points to how the new Nashville Statement on marriage and sexuality illustrates how “live and poignant the tension is.” Regnerus concludes that there has been too little reflection on how cohabitation and other mating market trends erode religious belief: “We overestimate how effectively scientific arguments secularize people. It’s not science that’s secularizing Americans—it’s sex.”

Meanwhile, the new book Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America’s Christian Denominations (Lexington Books, $95) by George Hawley presents a wealth of data on the demographic makeups of the major church bodies, arguing that the future of organized Christianity seems to be one of decline. Using General Social Survey, Pew, and denominational data, Hawley makes the familiar argument that lower rates of affiliation and religiosity relate to lower birth rates but also advances Eberstadt’s thesis that having fewer children and trends such as increased cohabitation also dampen religious vitality. Hawley looks at specific denominations and seeks to explain why some are declining and others are growing. While he agrees that conservative churches are growing more than liberal ones, he writes that most often high fertility more than strict beliefs and practices and evangelistic fervor are the best predictors of a denomination’s health. But even here he is cautious not to draw a straight line between high fertility and denominational vitality—the conservative Southern Baptists have lower fertility and have been showing less growth than the moderate-to-liberal American Baptists.

Hawley looks at the case of the conservative yet declining Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) to see how fertility dynamics play out in one denomination. He finds that in geographic districts of the LCMS where there were higher birthrates of its core, non-Hispanic members, there was less membership decline. He finds that while losses to other denominations and to secularism may be a factor in the LCMS decline, the greatest losses are in these low fertility areas; the low fertility New Jersey Synod experienced a 30 percent membership decline in just 13 years. Hawley finds that aside from high fertility, regions with ethnic diversity and high commitment from members show more vitality. Concluding chapters focus on the demographic and growth prospects of specific major denominations, with Hawley finding that Mormons remain the most “pro-family,” although they are losing members due to apostasy.