It happens to journalists every now and then. You are interviewing a source and suddenly this person says something strange and specific that completely changes how you see an issue that you are covering.
That happened to me back in the early 1990s when I was covering the very first events linked to the "True Love Waits" movement to support young people who wanted help in "saving sex for marriage." This happened so long ago that I don't have a digital copy of my "On Religion" column on this topic stored anywhere on line.
Anyway, I realize that for many people the whole "True Love Waits" thing was either a joke or an idealistic attempt to ask young people to do the impossible in modern American culture. But put that issue aside for a moment, because that isn't the angle of this issue that knocked me out in that interview long ago. (Yes, I have written about this before here at GetReligion.)
If you want to understand the background for this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), I want you to think about something else.
What fascinated me was that, according to key "True Love Waits" leaders, they didn't struggle to find young people who wanted to take vows and join the program. What surprised them was that many church leaders were hesitating to get on board because of behind-the-scenes opposition from ADULTS in their congregations.
The problem was that pastors were afraid to offend a few, or even many, adults in their churches -- even deacons -- because of the sexual complications in many lives and marriages, including sins that shattered marriages and homes. Key parents didn't want to stand beside their teens and take the program's vows.
It was the old plank-in-the-eye issue. It was easier to keep preaching about Hollywood and homosexuality and other "safe" topics.
Now, roughly a quarter of a century later, the Barna Group has come out with yet another survey -- "What Americans Believe About Sex" -- noting the degree to which issues in sexual morality are dividing the generations in modern America and causing increased tensions between believers and secular citizens.
At this point, that is pretty familiar material in the headlines. Can you say "Pew Forum" and the "nones"? I thought so.
No, the numbers that hit me in this study were found deep in the spreadsheets, over in the columns noting the degree to which religious believers -- even in "red" or conservative pews -- are now confused or divided when discussing basic issues in moral theology.
In this week's "On Religion" column, I focused quite a bit of attention on one particular question. So, how would active members of conservative Protestant churches respond if asked to react to this statement: "As long as it's between consenting adults, any kind of sex is fine."
If this were a conservative or nondenominational Protestant church, the active, "practicing" members would be sharply divided, according to a new Barna Group survey. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- would affirm this live-and-let-live approach to sex outside of marriage, while 40 percent would disagree "strongly" and 12 percent "somewhat."
These are the active members, not the people who occasionally visit the pews.
Yes, we are talking about conservative churches. I asked, specifically, if this was the data niche that included Southern Baptist churches, nondenominational Protestant megachurches, the Assemblies of God, etc. Yes, it's that crowd and it's split pretty much 50-50 on that "anything goes" question.
Want some other results on that issue?
The Barna team found that "practicing" Catholics were as divided as conservative Protestants, with 24 percent agreeing "strongly" and 23 percent agreeing "somewhat" that "any kind of sex is fine" between consenting adults of whatever gender. Meanwhile, 24 percent of these Catholics disagreed "somewhat" and 28 percent disagreed "strongly."
A similar division -- close to 50-50 -- was seen among active members in liberal, or "mainline," Protestant denominations.
Now, how active are these "active" members? Is there a difference between people who are in the pews on a regular basis on Sunday mornings and members who are there day after day, including religious education projects, volunteer work, weekday prayer services, house-church support groups, etc.? Does it make a difference if children are home-schooled or attend religious schools? Are there differences between Catholics who go to confession and those who do not?
These are questions for future surveys. But for now, it's time for religious leaders to spend a bit more time focusing on the revolution inside their own flocks. Is this a subject that is too hot to touch? Do clergy simply have to leave this elephant sitting out there in the pews?
Maybe journalists need to look for the Woodstock DNA in red pews, as well as charting what is happening in the culture as a whole. Maybe all bets are off.