The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Shared Fortunes of Church and Family

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The sexual behavior of teens seems to be an obsession of health and social science researchers. Yet they often view their subjects with a gnostic detachment, as if sexual experimentation is no big deal, comparable to being issued a driver’s license or gaining college admission. As they frame the issue, teens experience their “sexual debut”; they do not suffer a loss of virginity. Of course, the consequences of promiscuity, especially for young women, are a big deal. But the researchers rarely question the permissiveness that leads to unwed births, abortions, and STDs and that make it more difficult for young people to experience the debut that really matters: marriage.

Even with these limitations, the research nonetheless consistently underscores how various elements of religiosity are far more effective than are condoms in protecting unmarried teens from sexual permissiveness. Two studies drawing on different data sets make the case that teen chastity has a lot to do with taking religion seriously, weekly church attendance, and having friends with similar religious sentiments.

Looking at the 2002 and 2005 waves of the National Survey of Youth and Religion, Amy M. Burdette of Mississippi State and Terrence D. Hill of the University of Miami measured the influence of various measures of religiosity on three measures of teen sexual activity. The two sociologists found that, in general, “religious salience”—or how teens personally view the importance of religion—was the most important predictor of all three measures of sexual behavior relative to four other measures of religiosity (religious affiliation, church attendance, private religiosity, and family religiosity). Likewise, having no religious affiliation worked in the opposite direction by fostering sexual experimentation. In contrast, the researchers found that regular church attendance significantly reduce the likelihood of teens’ engaging in sexual intercourse (p<.05). Moreover, interactive tests found that as teens move through adolescence, “private religiosity”—measured by frequency of prayer and Bible reading—became an equally important predictor of all three measures of chastity.

A study by Amy Adamczyk of the John Jay College yielded complementary results using data representing 1,677 teens from the 1995 and 1996 waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Although looking strictly at “private religiosity”—a variable that she defines by frequency of prayer and subjective importance of religion—and limiting the behavior under review to losing one’s virginity, her study likewise found that teens are less likely to experiment sexually as religiosity increases (p<.05 in all three models). Her focus, however, is on the impact of having religious peers on sexual behavior. In two models that included this second variable, teens were less likely to lose their virginity as the private religiosity of their friends increase (p<.01 for both). As both models account for a teen’s own personal religiosity, they confirm friends’ religiosity as an independent predictor of teen sexual behavior.

Likewise, having friends who lost their virginity increased the odds of a teen losing his (<.01). Yet the effect of friends’ religiosity remains significant even when accounting for having friends who lost their virginity. Moreover, the sociologist found that when a teen loses his virginity, he loses his religious friends while those who remained chaste tended to pick up more religious friends relative to the previous year (p<.001 for both correlations).

However the researchers skin this cat, their findings confirm how very much the fortunes of both church and family are bound together.

(Amy M. Burdette and Terrence D. Hill, “Religious Involvement and Transitions into Adolescent Sexual Activities,”Sociology of Religion 70.1 [Spring 2009]: 28–48, and Amy Adamczyk, “Socialization and Selection in the Link between Friends’ Religiosity and the Transition to Sexual Intercourse,” Sociology of Religion 70.1 [Spring 2009]: 5–27.)