Friday, March 14, 2008

Righteous adolescents

The current generation of adolescents has a strong tie with religion: the vast majority attend church, believe in God, and many are religiously engaged. Christian popular culture is a non-cynical mirror-image of mainstream popular culture: the well-known ascendancy of Christian rock bands into the mainstream, and the skater, surfer, hipster, and bling-heavy Republican hip-hop ministries. Lauren Sandler explores the Christian subcultures in Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Adolescents and young adults join these movements in search of "authenticity," a word which recurs in each of the ministries' self-descriptions.

Some adolescents seem to join these communities in search of love. The book opens with an anecdote of a high school student who seeks the love of Jesus while attending a Christian rock concert to compensate for a love she lost in a break-up. I find it interesting that religious love articulated by religious music replaced her failed romantic love. Since popular culture idealizes romantic love and sex so much, it can remind the unpaired of break-ups, loves lost and unrequited. Christian rock doesn't talk about romantic love, but has similar aesthetic qualities, so it must be refreshing to adolescents to experience music which does not reinforce their loneliness and romantic insecurities.

Young adults seem to join Christian communities not only because of the community that they offer, but because the communities allow them to maintain superficial contact with their Goth, rocker, tattooed subcultures after swearing allegiance to the church's social conservatism. The particular church that she profiles, Mars Hill in Seattle, is attached to a nightclub which uses its hosting of secular acts to attract new members. Once in, church members don't just signal their commitment to their church's vision of traditional families, they actually have to attest that they agree with it; in this church, women quit jobs to become home-schooling mothers and yield decision-making authority to their husbands. The high admission price of membership brings benefits, consonant with Eli Berman's theory (and perhaps the theory goes back before him) that the amount of mutual aid available within communities is directly proportional to their admission price. She tells of a mega-church member whose friends built him a backyard fence because he couldn't afford to hire workers.

Other ministries are entirely away from churches, such as in skating parks. Skateboarders in a van purchased on ebay for $700 travel to small, economically depressed towns and put on a combination skating/music show, which starts out secular and gradually increases the Christian content. The explicitly Christian portion of the show starts with an apology for the "jackasses" that attempt to spread the word of God, and ends with a group prayer which brings some audience members to tears. A more slick, professionally-produced show does the stereotypical altar call, passing out commitment cards, and counting the number of cards they receive, not unlike virginity pledge cards.

Sandler calls for secular culture to offer meaning, but she never presents an alternative paradigm other than rationalism. Rationalism is great for science, but it is not going to cause tearful conversions. As steeped in rationalism and atheism as she describes herself, Sandler says explicitly that she was touched by the sincerity and emotion: while narrating her experiences with the $700 van skaters, she describes her unwillingness to convert as "not yet," and at an ecstatic two hour worship service breaks out in tears and briefly considers conversion. Nor will rationalism exact a sufficiently high admission price to inspire mutual aid; people only give aid to people who signal sufficient belonging in a community, so they can avoid free-riding.

Perhaps a more realistic alternative to secularism for adolescents are liberal evangelical Christian organizations such as Jay Bakker's church called "Revolution" and Relevant Magazine", which Sandler profiles briefly. Bakker's church not only has the badass fa├žade of the hip socially conservative churches, such as meeting in bars and calling itself "a church for people who have given up on church," but also has liberal politics. The church embraces actively-identified gay members, and its motto is, "As Christians, we're sorry for being self-righteous judgmental bastards." Sandler quotes a lesbian health educator speaking in Bakker's church as saying that abstinence-only education does not work, and quotes Bakker as saying, "You should know that Christian kids are sleeping together.... People do drugs. People have sex. And I'm afraid if we don't live in the reality of the world, we're just losing the battle."

Sandler's sparkling language is sometimes marred by unfairly snarky comments, but many of her critiques seem fair.

The evangelical youth movement continues to grow without secular counter-pressure, and liberal churches such as Bakker's are rare. Social policy is often formulated by those without direct experience with religious subcultures. Any intervention for adolescents needs to account for the fact that a large proportion of them are evangelical Christians. While adolescents evangelical Christianity is aesthetically similar to mainstream popular culture, the message needs to account for their Christianity. Public health can fill the gap between the religious abstinence message and the reality that most religious adolescents have sex and many others engage in other risk behaviors.

Interventions can explicitly address the conflict between adolescents' hormones and their morals: the religious message says that they should choose their morals over their hormones, but judging from the proportion of religious Christians who have sex, this message is not efficacious. Teaching adolescents to think realistically about their sexual decisions, and to create a contingency plan to ensure that any sex is as safe as possible, is important for both their physical and emotional health. While the idea of such a contingency plan is seen by religious leaders as an unacceptable concession to secularism, many religious leaders also know that continual feelings of guilt and cognitive dissonance risk driving people away from religion altogether.