Can we be good without God? The question seems somehow abstract, a topic for Atlantic Monthly cover stories and college seminars more than practical applications. So here's another question: Can we keep our pants on?

Ironically, the group that often answers "yes" to the first question says "no" to the second. And some believe that not only can't we stay chaste, but we should not.

"An abstinence-until-marriage program is not only irresponsible," U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said last year. "It's really inhumane."

South Dakota Planned Parenthood apparently agrees. Governor Mike Rounds last summer complained about the state library's teen website link to Planned Parenthood's hypersexual site TeenWire. So Planned Parenthood demanded that the library board also remove a link to CT sister publication Campus Life because it promotes abstinence. If you can't tell teens to have sex, Planned Parenthood says, you can't tell them not to have sex. Not that TeenWire is entirely against "abstinence." It includes such chaste advice as, "Some straight couples use anal sex as a way to preserve the woman's virginity."

Then there's NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, which in mid-July held a "Screw Abstinence" party. The event might be merely juvenile rather than creepy had it not come from an abortion-rights group, notes Focus on the Family's Linda Klepacki. "It's clear NARAL wants your kids to be sexually active because it's good for business," she says.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, and more than 100 other groups asked the Health and Human Services Department to remove its website because it said, "Abstinence is the healthiest choice for teens." The Associated Press said the groups complained that the government was "dictating values."

Since 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics had a policy that "abstinence counseling is an important role for all pediatricians." No more.

"The evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy," Jonathan Klein, chairman of the committee that wrote the new recommendations, told the Associated Press. As with the activist groups, the AAP apparently believes that pregnancy, not underage sex, is the problem.

Miraculous condoms
Back in the day, "underage sex" was sometimes referred to as statutory rape. But this isn't the only form of rape increasingly downplayed in the crusade for condoms. Pushing for condom distribution programs in prisons, a June New York Timeseditorial declared, "Studies show . . . that same-sex encounters behind bars are more common than prison officials care to admit." Actually, those studies show 20 percent of male inmates report being forced into sexual activity while in prison. Just how would condoms fix that?

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In a July syndicated column, PBS host Bonnie Erbe mocked abstinence as an answer to the African AIDS epidemic due to the "high rate of rape in some African countries. … How is teaching abstinence at all relevant in the case of child rape victims?" Her answer: Condom distribution.

Some worry that abstinence is a Trojan horse for theocracy. Rolling Stone recently warned of "The New Virgin Army," and writer Jeff Sharlet explained more fully on his weblog that "Christian political activists have moved [chastity] to the center of their concerns. … Premarital sex is the new communism, the new 'evil empire.' "

The ACLU, meanwhile, says public schools should be forbidden from hosting abstinence program The Silver Ring Thing because its website contains Christian statements.

The school presentations aren't religious, a U.S. District Court ruled in June. But it's no wonder the ACLU was nervous about Silver Ring Thing's mission statement: "To saturate the United States with a generation of young people who have taken a vow of sexual abstinence until marriage and put on the silver ring. This mission can only be achieved by offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life."

Abstinence is impossible without Jesus? Silver Ring Thing and the anti-abstinence crowd seem to be sounding a similar note. Are they right? Without a right relationship with God, are we sick and lost creatures at the mercy of our worldly passions? Or are we still moral creatures capable of choosing right over wrong? Can we keep our pants on? Christians may disagree on the answer, but they can't ignore the question.

Related elsewhere

This column appeared in the magazine's September 2005 print issue as the eighth entry of "Weblog in Print," CT's effort to duplicate on paper our popular online Weblog feature. Earlier entries include:

Dirty Qur'ans, Dusty Bibles | If Leviticus or Jude suddenly disappeared from Scripture, would we notice? (June 20, 2005)
Who's Driving This Thing? | Everyone is asking who leads the evangelical movement. (Feb. 21, 2005)
Bad Believers, Non-Believers | Do religious labels really mean anything? (Oct. 19, 2004)
Pro-Abortion Madness | The abortion lobby has abandoned its rationales amid pro-life gains. (Aug. 17, 2004)
Grave Images | The photos from Abu Ghraib have reopened debate on the power of pictures.
Misfires in the Tolerance Wars | Separating church and state now means separating belief and action (Feb. 24, 2004)
A Theoblogical Revolution | Billy Graham's vision goes from print to online, then back again. (Jan. 16, 2004; Weblog update: "New Kids on the Blog," Feb. 13, 2004)

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