It's funny how religious stories sneak up on most American journalists. One minute, churchgoers will be going about their business and the next they'll discover that their worship/Sunday School curriculum/whatever is part of some New Hot Trend, even though they've been doing--or not doing it--it for years.

So it is with the "new" virginity movement among evangelical Christians. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, reporter Jeff Sharlet writes that he's found "the new organizing principle of the Christian right": chastity. In an explanation that sounds like it was copied out of a catalog for the Society for Creative Anachronism, he writes that this strange new virginity is "built on the notion that virgins are among God's last loyal defenders, knights and ladies of a forgotten kingdom." But the emphasis on virginity for evangelicals is neither new nor terribly political. I know because I grew up in the '80s and '90s as part of the evangelical counter-zeitgeist. Heavyweights like radio shrink James Dobson and popular apologetics writer Josh McDowell trained their sights on premarital sex, to great emotional effect. Through books, seminars, and videos, speakers regularly scared the hell out of young Christians. The message was twofold: 1) the correct use of sex--one man and one woman who have abstained until marriage--is a beautiful thing; but 2) violate this norm at your great peril. Speakers warned their audiences that if they slept around, they were likely to contract some sort of disease that would lead to sterility or death.
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The warning tended to be more accentuated than the positive vision, and the AIDS outbreaks of the '80s lent urgency to the message. In Baptist summer camp during ninth or tenth grade, I listened to a speaker deliver just such an address. There was no fire and brimstone, but his dire predictions had an effect. Through the sermon and after, girls trickled out of the room, weeping. Some might balk at that scene, but it made sense to me. Sexuality is not a toy, and sexually transmitted diseases were not dreamed up in the fevered minds of pulpit-pounding preachers. I agree--with a few hesitant, throat-clearing coughs--with the moral order that is summed up in the word "chastity." And I give evangelicals full marks for successfully creating a countermovement that has become too large to ignore. But some of the propositions advanced by virginity promoters seem misguided and faintly embarrassing. To wit, one of the bits of data to float up in the recent Georgia "runaway bride" story was that her fiancée was a "born again" or "secondary" virgin. On his MSNBC show "Countdown," Keith Olbermann had fun with this concept for several days. "When," he asked, "did they change that rule?"
Olbermann was right to mock the formulation. "Secondary virginity" is one of those contortions of logic and the English language that invites derision. And that isn't the only mockable thing to emerge from virginity movementarians. When Sharlet tagged along with several young, sexless Christians, he learned of the existence of the "masturband," a bracelet that is worn to signal that the wearer--ahem--does not masturbate. Most of us would be glad to go our entire lives without learning that fact. In some ways, the current push for virginity is far removed from the ideal of chastity. Those who were chaste for religious reasons used to be quiet about it. They would go about their business in a certain disciplined way. If they decided to remain virgins, they would devote their lives to other ends. Sometimes they would join religious institutions to formalize this discipline. You knew that nuns in their habits were celibate, but they didn't constantly go on about not having sex. Nowadays, such reticence seems quaint. Sharlet visited a young evangelical church that caters to singles. He discovered what many who were brought up in an evangelical subculture had long known. In many cases, "Not having sex means talking about it constantly; the topic of sex and why to wait for it comes up in nearly every sermon, under titles such as 'Desperate Sex Lives,' 'Sex and the City' and 'What a Girl Wants.'" There are some obvious reasons for this loudness. Young people--let's face it--have sex on the brain. Without certain habits of mind (i.e., restraint, modesty, perspective), the subject is going to tumble forth in countless conversations. Telling them that they have to wait until marriage is not going to change that fact. Also, the pushes for virginity are pushing against something: a culture that is awash in sexual images, pornography, etc. Some think that the only to combat the culture is with a bullhorn.

But the loud and proud approach seems to me the wrong way to go about it. Virtue is not mute, but neither is it obnoxious. People don't wear "I gave to charity" T-shirts or "I honor my mother and father" wristbands, with good reason. In the contest between the oratorical almsgiver and the guilt-ridden, short-winded tax collector, a world-famous rabbi judged that the tax collector had made the better confession.

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