STOKING FIRE: Research Underscores the Potential for a Pro-Choice Agenda Among Evangelical Youth

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Analysis Religion

STOKING FIRE: Research Underscores the Potential for a Pro-Choice Agenda Among Evangelical Youth

Eleanor J. Bader

Since evangelical youth have essentially the same career aspirations as everyone else, these kids need to understand how their bodies work so that ill-timed pregnancies don’t derail their plans.

The New Testament’s Timothy 2:12 pulls no punches: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

While a tiny coterie of contemporary Biblical literalists take these words seriously, virtually no one else—not Michele Bachmann, not Bristol or Sarah Palin, and not the fundamentalist stay-at-home moms who home school their children—actually heeds this absurdly sexist notion. This fact was underscored in “What Teens Aspire To Do In Life,” a June 2011 report released by the Barna Group, a 27-year-old Ventura, California-based research firm founded by Catholic-turned-evangelical pollster George Barna. The company’s mission is to serve as a “catalyst in the moral and spiritual transformation in the United States,” a goal that can mean pretty much anything. [NOTE: Barna staff did not respond to my emails and calls requesting clarification.] That said, their research findings–gleaned from interviewing a small sample of 13-to-17-year-old fundamentalist Christian adolescents and their youth leaders and pastors–are anything but ambiguous.

According to Barna:

“Teenaged girls feel fully empowered to pursue any career they like. As expected, young women exhibit traditional preferences for teaching, fashion, interior design, and nursing. But teen females are more likely than teen males to aspire to work in journalism [7% versus 1%], business [6% versus 1%], and law [11% versus 5%]. Teen girls and boys are equally likely to be interested in the military, art and music, public safety including law enforcement and fire fighting, and government.”

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Perhaps most surprising, only one percent of the teens interviewed explicitly indentified homemaking as a career goal.

Yes, you read that right. Regardless of religious messaging, evangelical youth are as likely as their secular peers to believe themselves capable of becoming professional news reporters, police officers, lawyers, politicians, artists—or anything else.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the triumph of feminism and it partially explains why their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors are scrambling to defund Planned Parenthood and make abortion–and contraception–inaccessible in all but the most liberal bastions of the country.

Sure, numerous groups—among them Teens for Life, American Collegians for Life, Students for Life, National Medical Students for Life, and Crossroads Pro-Life—have made inroads in organizing teens and young adults to promote abstinence and oppose abortion and birth control, but they haven’t had the wide-scale influence they’d hoped for. Indeed, another Barna survey, released last January, queried Christian teens about their role models. Although Jesus ran neck and-neck with Barack Obama, other heralded figures included Tyra Banks, Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, and Paul McCartney,

‘Tis pretty amazing, this—and it may represent good news for progressive pro-choicers. Since evangelical youth have essentially the same career aspirations as everyone else, these kids are not only going to need good, solid information about job training and higher education, they’ll also need to understand how their bodies work so that ill-timed pregnancies don’t derail their plans. Deny this and it’s easy to imagine a bunch of newly-radicalized men and women.

The key, of course, is organizing, reaching these teenagers so that they understand the concept of reproductive justice and can connect it to their lives and dreams.

Angela Ferrell-Zabala directs Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom [SYRF], a project of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organizing effort that brings a pro-choice faith perspective to college campuses across the country. Ferrell-Zabala describes the people SYRF trains as “passionate about access to sex education, contraception, and abortion,” and eager to learn the basics of community organizing, from how to grow a pro-choice group on campus, to how to talk to people about reproductive justice. Although SYRF training includes hard facts about sexuality, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), birth control, pregnancy, and abortion, Ferrell-Zabala’s experience has taught her that:

“You can’t engage someone when you only use facts. You need to share experiences and stories, like what you personally went through because of abstinence only education or when you experienced an unplanned pregnancy. Our values are best understood through emotions,” she concludes. “When people connect to what happened to a real person, they get angry and want to do something to right the wrong.”

Ferrell-Zabala is emphatic about story-sharing as an effective way to break stigma about sexual activity, sexual preference, and reproductive choice. “In college, people build relationships with their peers and meet people of different races, sexualities, and faith traditions. Those raised in conservative fundamentalist homes,” she continues, “often learn that the differences between people are not as significant as they were raised to believe. They then start to look at the other things they’d been taught and see that they’re not all true. We try to make sure that SYRF is a resource to help those students who grew up in opposition to choice open up to the idea of options,” she says.

It’s important work, but what happens on those campuses that SYRF never gets to? What of those teens who don’t go to college or go part-time, at night?

If the Barna report is accurate—and there’s no reason to think it’s not–it seem clear that we ignore evangelical adolescents to our detriment. In fact, if we’re serious about empowering young people, we’d be better served by turning our gaze toward fundamentalist teens as they head into adulthood.

Here’s my hope: If we find ways to talk to evangelical youth about reproductive and sexual health, we’ll fire up a whole new generation of militant advocates. After all, aren’t the fiercest fighters always those who respond to “you can’t” with “I will?”