A quick note on what some might call the New England Morality Miracle – I wouldn’t call it a miracle, actually, because it’s an accomplishment, not a matter of divine providence. That’s kind of the point, if you think about it.
Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine achieved the lowest rate of teen pregnancy of any states in the USA. The South, with all its Bible Belt posturing about sexual morality, turned out to be a hotbed of teen pregnancy. Mississippi in particular turned out to be the the worst of the worst, with a social epidemic of pregnant teenagers.
Southerners loudly proclaim that their right wing, literalist breed of Christianity is the only thing that can keep teenagers from having sex. Obviously, that isn’t the case. In fact, it seems to be the opposite.
New England’s success in keeping teenagers from getting pregnant is associated with a different kind of moral view. New England is home to high concentrations of non-religious people, and those who are religious in New England tend to be a lot more philosophical in their beliefs than people in other regions. New England is the home of non-literal traditions of belief. These traditions don’t hold, as the Southern Baptists do, that moral status is a simple, all or nothing thing of purity or damnation. They teach a more practical morality that takes context into account.
Think about the implications for teenagers, and the differences in sexual behavior shouldn’t be surprising. Which do you think will encourage teenagers to act with more maturity – a stubborn, absolutist teaching, or a little bit of context?
The tricky thing about moral absolutism is that it’s a lot less absolute than it at first appears to be. When an absolute moral code is broken, it is broken absolutely, as if there isn’t anything left to lose. The result can be ungracefully chaotic. Southern Christian teenagers just can’t keep their pants on, and don’t know what to do once they get their pants off. That’s the cost of fundamentalism for you – the worst of both worlds. Under Biblical literalism, you get neither sexual abstinence nor sexual competence.