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Traditionalism v. Individualism: The Struggle of the Conservative Youth.

Julio Torres, Intern

Red Families v. Blue Families by  Naomi Cahn and June Carbone examines the differences between the value systems of conservative and liberal families.  The book compares, contrasts and connects the differences to explain how these  shape contemporary American culture, 9780195372175economy and  law.

The following excerpt explores how red (conservative) families struggle to successfully impart traditional norms of sexual behavior to a generation that no longer lives in the world of unanimous values of the nineteenth century. Today, conservative teenagers subscribe to the irreconcilable values of purity imparted in the home and the individualistic, liberal way of thinking they find outside. The wide gap between “belief and behavior” stems from the disconnect between competing value systems, a challenge that Sociologist Mark Regnerus words as “serving two masters.” Cahn and Carbone lay out the consequences of this dichotomy in red families.

Moral Backlash

This new middle-class ethic, unlike its nineteenth century counterpart, is a direct affront to those who do not accept its premises. The nineteenth-century emphasis on purity, with its condemnation of those who could not live up to its principles, may have been hypocritical (and often racist), but it reaffirmed consensus-based standards of morality. The new version, in contrast, is disdainful of traditional moral restraints, insistent on the rights of women and same-sex couples, and skeptical of once-venerated institutions such as marriage.

Traditionalists have responded to the changes in family form, the negative consequences for children, and the class-based nature of the transformation with a sense of crisis. If advocates of the new order are right that a promising future is the best contraceptive, this disturbing news for poorer men and women who face less-hopeful prospects.  Moreover, if investment in women opens new opportunities to prosper in a post-industrial world, it does little for the poorly educated men who have less to offer in a society in which the factories that once employed them have moved overseas and the farms of their youth have given way to mechanized agribusiness conglomerates. The advice to defer childbearing until financial independence just does not resonate for those who may never achieve it.

At the same time, the growing gap between the beginning of sexual activity and marriage creates much more dissonance for evangelicals and their parents than it does for those with more tolerant attitudes towards sexuality. In today’s society, Protestant evangelical teens experience the biggest gap between belief and behavior. Both the teens and their parents hold more-conservative sexual attitudes than many others, but evangelically affiliated adolescents, for a variety of reasons that include class differences, lose their virginity at younger ages than the average for many other religious groups, and they are almost likely to do so with someone other than the partner they will mary. Sociologist Mark Regnerus reports:

“[Evangelical adolescents]…are urged to drink deeply from the waters of American individualism and its self-focused pleasure ethic, yet they are asked to value time-honored religious traditions like family and chastity. They attempt to do both (while other religious groups don’t attempt this), and serving two masters is difficult. What results is a unique dialectic of sexual-conservatism-with-sexual –activity; a combination that breeds instability and the persistent suffering of consequences like elevated teen pregnancy rates.”

More than half of the weekly churchgoers, who constituted the most devout in Regnerus’s sample, were no longer virgins by the age of 18, and well over 90% of all evangelical adults engage in sex before they marry; even those who delay sexual activity into their 20s nonetheless are likely to engage in premarital sex.

This combination of sex and conservatism breeds (in addition to generational tensions) a set of reinforcing cycles. More sex prompts more sermons and more emphasis on abstinence. More religion may, in fact, delay the beginning of sexual activity, particularly for the devout, who constitute 20-25% of the evangelicals Regnerus studied. It also, however, makes it more likely that teens who engage in sex will fail to use contraception, which in turn increases the likelihood of pregnancy. More pregnancy fuels parental concern and—as we will see in the next chapter—more forced marriages that raise the risk of divorce. Early marriage and childbearing, in addition to increasing instability, derails education and limits earning potential. More limited men’s income compels women’s greater workforce participation and, especially when it occurs because of the husband’s limitations as a breadwinner, decreases family happiness, particularly among the most traditional families. The consequential sense of failure increase the demands to constrain the popular culture—and blue family practices such as contraception and abortion—that undermines parental efforts to instill the right moral values in children.

The red analysis of our changing mores and its prescription for renewal have some validity. Greater religiosity does have a positive impact on sexual behavior and family commitment—but only for the most observant. Teachings that reinforce sexual restraint are most effective in the context of a network of the like-minded, who “teach and enable comprehensive religious perspectives about sexuality to compete more effectively against ubiquitous sexually permissive scripts” and provide supervised time and space that reinforce parental values and an orientation toward future goals, such as education. The most significant effect of these teachings is delay—religiously devout teens do begin sexual activity a year later on average than less-devout teens who profess the same religious—but even the most devout overwhelmingly do not abstain until marriage. Halfway measures that preach without providing supervision or support, or that restrict access to contraception without persuading teens to abstain, may be counterproductive. Moreover, such measures at their best may have an impact on the most-religious teens (a minority even among evangelicals), while increasing the risk that the relatively less-religious teens in these communities will become pregnant or suffer from preventable sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Additionally, greater sexual restraint, even if it reduces the number of unintended pregnancies, does not entirely solve the matter of divorce… younger marriages provide a less-secure economic foundation for family life than they did in other areas, and lower income is a risk factor for divorce. That risk is compounded if the wife who would prefer a more-traditional division of family responsibilities has to work to support the family. Higher divorce rates, in turn, contribute to a sense of moral decay even in communities with more-stable family patterns than the country at large.

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