Speaking at this year’s Family Education Trust conference, Dr Patrick Fagan, from the Marriage and Religion Research Institute in Washington DC, argued that it is a massive strategic mistake for the government to try to operate behaviour-changing programmes.
Real change comes about through the relational spheres of family, church and school, he said. During his time as deputy assistant secretary for the family and social policy at the US Department of Health and Human Services, he had access to the largest depository of evaluation data on government social problems.
Here, Dr Fagan had observed first-hand that there is not a single government social behaviour-changing programme in the United States that works.
He argued that the main function of the government is to protect the different institutions of society, not to grow them. The government has completely failed in the realm of sex education and marriage programmes. At a national level they are simply not working.
Dr Fagan contended that public policy will always be secondary to the input that parents have into the lives of their own children in the privacy and sacredness of the home. Children will learn more about sexuality from observing how their mother and father relate to each other than from classes on relationships and sex education.
The United States is the only country in the world with survey data that measures the effects of religious observance as well as family structure. Dr Fagan cited evidence showing weekly church attendance, combined with stable family life, has a protective effect in the areas of sex, alcohol and drugs, and a positive impact on educational achievement.
At a time when religious liberties are increasingly under threat, he encouraged his audience to press for church attendance to be included in the key population surveys, along with family structure, so their benefits can be brought into the public debate. In view of the positive associations, there is strong evidence for arguing that the government should be in the business of protecting marriage and religious freedom.
At the same conference, Dr Olwyn Mark from Love for Life in Northern Ireland considered the moral complexities surrounding the introduction of statutory relationships and sex education (RSE) in all schools in England, and concluded that a Christian approach has the potential to enrich the curriculum.
She observed that the emphasis on ‘informed choice’ which prevails in so many schools assumes that sexual activity is a normal and inevitable part of growing up. However, a Christian perspective will help young people recognise they are more than their sexual instincts and they are designed for emotional intimacy and fidelity.
While a purely secular approach to RSE tends to be preoccupied with warning about the dangers of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, young people need to hear a more positive message about the goodness of sexual intimacy within the context of a lifelong marriage.