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Review of David J. Ayers: After the Revolution

June 18, 2024
By Samuel James

Editor’s Note: The following book review appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon.

Oliver Perry famously wrote to William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” This line has become a proverb for the sober moments when the difficulties and problems we think are caused by others are actually traced back to us. It’s an aphorism that’s appropriate for what David J. Ayers lays bare in After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical, a meticulously researched confrontation with the sexual habits of professing evangelical Christians.

After the Revolution is not a pleasant read. It may, in fact, be one of the most discouraging and uncomfortable books you have read in a while. The data Ayers presents is a straightforward story of moral compromise, thin discipleship, and a potentially disastrous future. Ayers couples this research with reflection that is simple and unsparing, but not hopeless. If After the Revolution comes up short as a truly transformational work, it shines an important light on the state of conservative Protestantism today.

Ayers’s book essentially poses three questions: What is the biblical teaching on sexuality? How do the sexual habits of evangelical Christians compare with this teaching? And what is the long-term outlook for a Christian culture that gets this wrong? The first question yields (thankfully!) no surprises, as Ayers offers a traditional, exegetically responsible summary of the Bible’s sexual ethics. Culturally, Ayers writes a concise and helpful summary of the social transformation of sexual mores, arguing that Western society has migrated from “an ethic of covenant to an ethic of consent.” But the major contribution of After the Revolution is the use of data from the General Social Survey (GSS), National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), and others, to assemble a reliable narrative of how evangelical Christians in Western society are living compared to the mainstream.

The results are unequivocal: A significant percentage of professing Christians in the United States express either uncertainty, ambivalence, or outright approval of sex outside marriage. A solid 35% of evangelical men and women say that sex between unmarried adults is “not wrong at all” (78). Evangelical habits support this confusion. A clear majority of evangelicals in their thirties say they have cohabitated with a partner at least once, including 62% of evangelical men and 72% of evangelical men aged 29–34 (117). Sexual activity among unmarried evangelicals rises when the topic expands from intercourse to include things like oral sex, which over 80% of evangelical men and women aged 23–32 say they have done (113). Ayers produces many such poll results, often zeroing in on a demographic or a particular sexual habit. While self-identified “evangelicals” have less extramarital sex than other Christian subgroups, the results throughout the book suggest more assimilation than difference.

Getting one’s head around these numbers is challenging. While most pastors would probably not be shocked to find young singles in their churches who were sexually active, these results suggest that evangelical virginity is a relative rarity. Why? Ayers offers a reasonable, if somewhat anticlimactic, explanation: “Antinomianism is a major problem among modern evangelicals,” he writes, “and in many ways reflects the sensate mindset in which sexual sin is evaluated based on its perceived impact on people, or lack thereof, rather than as an offense against a just and holy God” (146).

Ayers offers an extended analysis of moralistic therapeutic deism, the term coined by sociologist Christian Smith for Western society’s me-centered, feelings-oriented civil religion. In the absence of robust catechesis, Ayers argues, contemporary evangelicals have absorbed the ambient culture’s values. “Almost half of evangelicals and over 60 percent of Pentecostals do not believe in absolute truth,” he records “Roughly 70% in both religious classifications rejected the idea that God is the basis of all truth.” (167). It’s not surprising that such uncertainty about the very existence of transcendent truth would express itself in unbiblical sexual habits, particularly in a post-sexual revolution world.

After the Revolution is a unique book. Its combination of social science, ethics, cultural analysis, and pastoral reflection makes it a valuable work. What’s more, After the Revolution is one of the only books offering evangelical church leaders both a data-based and doctrine-oriented look at evangelical sexuality. Whereas many books about these topics are either purely polemical (e.g., a defense of Christian sexual ethics) or purely observational (e.g., here’s what the surrounding culture is up to), Ayers’s project helps church leaders interpret their context intelligently and theologically.

In further evaluating the book, however, I’d like to offer three rejoinders. One is simply an observation, one a question, and one a critique.

First, After the Revolution offers clear, scriptural reflection on sexual ethics, but the emphasis on worldview seems to be somewhat at odds with the book’s premise. Assuming these data sets are accurate, evangelical adults are living far beneath their stated worldviews. Ayers seems to assume that this means their actual worldviews are not what they say they are; otherwise, these evangelicals would be leading much different lives. While worldview is certainly a legitimate angle by which to interpret evangelical sexual habits, the discrepancy between how people self-identify theologically and how they choose to live would seem to invite a rethinking of just how effective “worldviews” are in shaping life.

Second, I have a question about the research methodology. In a helpful appendix, Ayers details how he extracted his data from the GSS and NSFG. As someone untrained in demographics or social science, I was a little confused by the total numbers. After combining eight years worth of GSS surveys in order to get a sample size large enough, Ayers ends up with responses from just over 2,700 evangelicals, 1,400 mainline Protestants, 800 Black Protestants, and 2,600 Catholics.

In terms of evangelicals, this seems like a very small sample size. It’s important to note that Ayers uses denominational affiliation as the key discerner of “evangelical” data, rather than trying to identify evangelical respondents based on a metric such as how they live. This leads to some confusing statements at different parts of the book (more on that shortly). But the bigger question is: In a nation where evangelicals, understood demographically, make up potentially 100 million people, how representative are 2,700? Should a pastor or church leader look at the data in After the Revolution and infer the situation in his church from it?

Finally, I want to offer some critique of the way Ayers uses “evangelical.” Part of the tension in After the Revolution is that the respondents who own the term “evangelical” in some ways clearly disown it in others. Ayers wants readers to accept that tension rather than try to relieve it. “I am assuming that ‘evangelicals’ are historically orthodox Protestants with a high view of the accuracy and ultimate authority of the Bible,” he writes. Ayers establishes his definition of evangelical theologically; evangelicals “believe that people who have become true Christians endeavor to grow in holiness and obedience to God by his grace” (75). This, of course, leads to a natural question: if someone demonstrates by their lifestyle an ambivalence toward biblical teaching and apathy toward sanctification, is this person still an evangelical? Ayers anticipates this question:

Moreover, there are many who affiliate with evangelical churches whose beliefs and lifestyles are out of alignment with those of the church and denomination they are attached to. These and other pitfalls are why it is necessary to measure other aspects of religious belief and commitments when looking at the sexual views and practices of evangelicals…However, the fact is that pastors, church leaders, parachurch workers, parents, and many others in evangelical churches deal with the congregations they are in and with all of the individuals in them. They do not have the right to narrow down their responsibility to a subset of ideal, “purer” evangelicals within their fellowships. Therefore, they need to be informed accurately about the range of sexual beliefs and practices that might exist among the people in their churches. (76)

The problem is not what Ayers says here, but what he says later. Ayers clearly states later in the book that 70% of evangelicals do not believe God is the basis of truth. But by his own definition of evangelical, this is an oxymoron. How can 70% of people with a high view of the authority of God’s Word deny the authority of God’s Word? At another point, Ayers recounts something that “an evangelical lesbian college student” told him (156). I circled this phrase in my copy of the book and wrote a question mark. If “evangelical lesbian college student” is a coherent category, then clearly the definition of evangelical used in After the Revolution is weighed much more heavily toward self-identification in a social group, rather than a theologically-defined subset of conservative Protestantism.

Ayers is absolutely correct that Christian leaders cannot let themselves or their churches off the hook by saying that “real evangelicals” are virgins until marriage, and anyone who falls short of this should not be considered in evaluating the state of the evangelical church. But there’s a profound difference between an evangelical church that is in crisis because a massive percentage of its disciples have consciously and willfully disobeyed Scripture, and an evangelical church that is populated by many who don’t and possibly never intended to obey.

Despite these concerns, After the Revolution is a trustworthy guide to interpreting a culture and a church that is deeply shaped by sexual libertinism. Pastors and others who want a compact yet thoughtful primer on these topics should consult the valuable information that David Ayers assembles here, and think long and prayerfully about what it could mean in their own contexts.

Samuel D. James serves as a developmental and acquisitions editor at Crossway. He is the author of Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age (Crossway, 2023).

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