Politics & Policy

Sex On The Religious Campus

God on the Quad is a fascinating study.

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s God on the Quad is one of the most interesting books about sex I’ve read in some time. God on the Quad appears to be a prim study of religious institutions of higher learning. In fact, it’s a fascinating account of how the problem of sex gets resolved at colleges where “anything goes” doesn’t go.

Take the contrast between a small conservative Catholic college, like Thomas Aquinas, and that Mormon giant, Brigham Young University. At Thomas Aquinas, public displays of affection are strictly forbidden. Yet ubiquitous pairs of Brigham Young lovers stroke and caress, even during Sunday religious lectures. Radical as this difference may seem, each school is channeling its students’ desire for sex into the quest for marriage.

Thomas Aquinas is a very small school, where a shared great-books curriculum nurtures an intense community spirit. That spirit would be weakened by open displays of affection between couples. Yet the tight sense of community is responsible for the fact that most graduates of Thomas Aquinas end up marrying fellow students. In any case, if they don’t find a spouse during their college years, Thomas Aquinas graduates know they will still be able to meet fellow Catholics after graduation.

Brigham Young, on the other hand, is not only a big school with a broad curriculum, it’s the most concentrated collection of young, eligible co-religionists a young Mormon is ever likely to encounter. Mormons believe they will live on eternally in heaven with their families. In this and other ways, marriage is absolutely central to Mormonism. The years at BYU are the ideal time during which to meet and marry a fellow Mormon. So by graduation, about half of BYU students are married. Getting there means that BYU is a cauldron of romantic intensity, with whirlwind courtships and dramatic scenes of broken engagements the order of the day. Premarital sex may be forbidden at both BYU and Thomas Aquinas, but that doesn’t stop these institutions from treating sex in radically different ways.

Riley could have made fun of the rules and conventions surrounding sex at religious colleges. Instead, she helps her readers make sense of even the most extreme restrictions. At Magdalene, a small Catholic religious college in rural New Hampshire, students eat in assigned seats that are regularly rotated to prevent the formation of cliques (and perhaps pairs of lovers). Magdalene students even carry around a clean pair of shoes to change into whenever they enter buildings. They readily accept this restriction because, in a further exercise in character building, it’s the students who perform the school’s janitorial work. Magdalene is unusually strict. Students are forbidden to date. Yet Magdalene’s students swear by the system, which by removing the complication of sex, actually encourages male-female friendship. Many Magdalene students get married shortly after graduation–with marriages more likely to last, since they’re based on the real and deep friendships developed at school.

Sex is part of life, in Christian schools no less than anywhere else. But as Riley shows, the sexual pressures experienced by students at secular schools are transformed at religious colleges into the pressure to find a spouse. Religious students who come to these colleges from secular high schools are shocked and excited by all-of-the-sudden being surrounded by attractive and eligible mates. As a woman interviewed by Riley put it: “The guys think, ‘Wow, there are Christian girls here. And they’re actually cool.’ They haven’t seen that. The tendency is, “I have to go get that right away.’” So at every religious college Riley visited, the mantra was, “Ring by Spring” (i.e. get engaged by spring of senior year). There’s a rash of weddings after every graduation.

All this is consistent with the idea that religious folks marry early and have lots of kids. But there is a countertrend. Although women at religious colleges may know nothing of Gloria Steinem or Carol Gilligan, they have clearly been affected by the changing role of women in American life. Women now outnumber men at America’s secular colleges, and the imbalance in favor of women is even greater at religious schools. This may be because women tend to be more religious than men. Parents’ desire to sexually protect their daughters may also be at work. But as Riley points out, particularly on issues of marriage and family, even the most conservative religious schools may actually have a subtly secularizing influence on women–if only by orienting them toward delayed marriage and careers.

As Riley shows, the end result is not so much outright secularization as a complex accommodation between religious traditionalism and modern attitudes toward women. Many female graduates of religious schools may postpone marriage and go on to professional careers, yet they remain fairly traditional theologically. No doubt, Riley is right about that. But if even women from the growing number of religious colleges increasingly postpone marriage and child bearing, the effects on fertility rates will be real.

As the battle over Social Security heats up, and as Americans grow ever more aware of the demographic crisis facing not only this country but Europe, I think we’re going to begin to look at women’s issues in a new light. The tension between career women and stay-at-home moms has heretofore hinged on the sometimes conflicting emotional needs of women and children. In other words, the question has been how you feel about feminism. Soon, though, we’re going to be thinking at least as much about the demographic consequences of the move toward working women as about the emotional significance of this change. So when Riley emphasizes the number of women at even religious colleges who are delaying marriage and child-bearing for the sake of careers, we need to think about what this means for fertility rates.

We’re beginning to hear talk about possibility that religious Americans from the red states might soon outnumber secular liberals from the blue states, simply because religious folks have more kids. (I explore this and related issues, in my new piece for Policy Review, “Demographics and the Culture War.”) God on the Quad doesn’t exactly contradict that view. After all, we’ve already seen that the “ring by spring” ethos of early marriage is still hugely influential among students at religious colleges, even as the practice of early marriage has virtually disappeared among educated secular liberals. Yet Riley makes it clear that the trend toward early marriage may be moderating, even at religious schools. So although fertility differences between religious Americans and more secular (or religiously liberal) Americans will no doubt remain, fertility rates will probably continue to drop among all American groups–even the strongly religious.

Phillip Longman’s new book, The Empty Cradle, features a striking comparison between fertility rates in Utah and Vermont. According to Longman, in Utah, where 69 percent of residents are Mormon, 90 children are born every year for every 1,000 women of child-bearing age. Longman pointedly contrasts this to Vermont, “the only state to send a socialist to congress, and the first to embrace gay unions,” which produces only 49 children per 1,000 women of child bearing age. But Riley’s study makes me wonder how long the discrepancy will be this large, and how many states other than Utah it will apply to. Maybe Longman’s comparison is a bit misleading, since Mormons seem to stress early marriage more intensely than other religious groups. Again, I think the religious red states will continue to out-reproduce our secular cities. But it could well be that the degree of difference–and with it, America’s overall fertility rate–is destined to fall.

So long as women continue to pursue graduate education and serious careers in large numbers, the fertility rate will go down. From the third world to the United States, nothing correlates more closely with reduced fertility than greater education for women. And worldwide, the trend toward more education for women and falling fertility rates cuts across all cultures and religions. The red states may slow this trend, but in the absence of a demographically induced economic crisis (all too possible), the direction of fertility seems to be downward. Even so, if falling fertility precipitates the sort of economic-cultural crisis I discuss in “Demography and the Culture Wars,” traditional religious ideas about marriage and family will still be around–and could easily enough be revived.

What’s interesting about Riley’s book is its complicated picture of a religious America that is successfully fighting the secular tide, even as it is partially coopted by some aspects of secular culture. As Riley shows, while enrollment at secular schools is stable, enrollment at religious colleges is up. Yes, religious schools are, in some measure, being changed by the secular society that surrounds them. Yet as Riley argues, the population of these religious schools is rapidly growing, and so these institutions are clearly making the country more conservative.

I’ve concentrated on sex (and marriage), but Riley’s book is a delightful and wide-ranging study of the renaissance of America’s religious colleges. In addition to sex, Riley has fascinating stuff on more serious issues–like rock-n-roll. It turns out that religious schools resolve the music problem just as variously as they approach the challenge of sex–with schools doing everything from banning all pop music (including religious pop), to reveling in the rise of rock-influenced Christian music.

And believe it or not, Riley even has something to say about…education. Yes, Riley does divert her attention from sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll long enough to give us a fascinating account of the struggle in the classrooms of these religious colleges. Each of the schools Riley visited has adopted its own way of reconciling religion with the shibboleths of secular education. And again, the paths to resolution are extraordinarily varied. For all the sex, the best part of Riley’s book may be her case studies of particular colleges. Notre Dame is probably the most “liberal” of the religious schools Riley visited–he one that straddles the religious and secular divide most fully. The contrast between Notre Dame and Riley’s case study of that small Catholic great-books school, Thomas Aquinas, poses the problem of contemporary American Catholicism very sharply. The other case studies–of Bob Jones, Baylor, Yeshiva, and Brigham Young, are all riveting. Riley visited and talked with the folks at each of these schools, and her hard work shows.

This is a fascinating book. Riley is clearly sympathetic to these religious colleges, but she doesn’t shout her opinions. Nor does Riley hesitate to be gently critical when that seems warranted. If you want a fascinating report from the frontlines of a growing and relatively unknown side of American higher education–a report from what in some ways is the core of red-state America–this is your book. And if you or your child are interested in attending a religious institution of higher education, this book is a must.

Oh, and if you’re just looking for a cool book about sex, look no further than Naomi Schaefer Riley’s delightful, God on the Quad.


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