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One Nation Under God

Friday, November 1, 1996

Eve Jackson taught "family life" classes to students in Hamilton Southeastern High School, a typical Indianapolis-area public school, for four years. They were troubling years for her Baptist conscience.

          At the exact time when the hormones of adolescents are at flood tide, Jackson says, the most persuasive message they get about sex comes from their peers -- and the message is: "Come on in, the water's fine." Other voices remain muffled. Teachers often ignore or play down a state requirement that they stress abstinence in sex-education classes. Church-state legal doctrine bans religious ideas about premarital sex from public schools. Says Jackson, "As much as I wanted to talk about God, I really couldn't."

Indianapolis's mayor recruited religious groups to launch one of the nation's most aggressive campaigns against illegitimacy.

          And what she could talk about -- responsible decision-making, peer pressure, self-esteem -- had no more effect than a flashing yellow light on a lonely country road. "So many of them were sexually active. Every year I had a couple of students who had abortions," she says. "But I couldn't talk them out of being sexually involved." Jackson eventually left public education, developed a Bible-based abstinence program taught by high-school juniors and seniors, and brought it into 34 Catholic grade schools throughout the city.

          Now the public schools -- in a city with a teen pregnancy rate that has risen 40 percent over the last decade -- want Jackson back. Mayor Steve Goldsmith has asked Jackson to bring her chastity program, "A Promise to Keep," into 150 public grade schools this fall. Stripped of its religious references, the program will recruit at least 100 high-school students to serve as advocates for abstinence. It's one of more than two dozen initiatives launched by the mayor in the last year, using his bully pulpit in an effort to reduce out-of-wedlock births. Citing its impact on crime, poverty, and welfare dependence, Goldsmith calls teen pregnancy "the most serious long-term issue facing this city. We can do nothing if we don't solve this problem."

Energize and Stigmatize

          Unlike President Clinton's $30-million proposal to reduce illegitimacy, however, the mayor of the nation's 12th-largest city seems uninterested in expanding government services. Following a meeting last year that included the city's school superintendent, a juvenile-court judge, and a county health director, Goldsmith mapped out a 27-point strategy for city-wide action. His aim: energize public opinion, the courts, and church and community groups to stigmatize out-of-wedlock births while supporting teen mothers.

          The mayor intends to treat casual attitudes about teen pregnancy with the same tolerance that actor Jean-Claude Van Damme brings to flabbiness: Since studies show that roughly half of all teenage moms are impregnated by males older than 18, Goldsmith wants prosecutors to crack down on statutory rape. He plans to enforce laws requiring women to establish paternity as a condition of receiving welfare. He intends to publish monthly reports of teen pregnancies in every high school in the city.

          And while local Planned Parenthood clinics seek to build "creative self-expression" through dance, art, and painting classes, Goldsmith is pressuring schools to ban pregnant teens and boys who have fathered children from extracurricular activities. He even has floated the idea of sending pregnant girls to separate schools altogether.

          "Philosophically we're not in agreement," says Kathleen Baldwin, Planned Parenthood's director of education in Indianapolis. "They would define the problem largely as illegitimacy, and we would define it as limited opportunities for achievement."

          Esperanza Zendejas, the superintendent of Indianapolis's public schools, opposes some of the mayor's school-based sanctions, but applauds his broad-based approach to attacking the problem of illegitimacy. "The fact that the city, as a city, is looking at teen pregnancy is extraordinary," she says. "It should be happening in every city in the nation."

          It wouldn't be happening in Indianapolis without the active support of the religious community, Goldsmith says. Indeed, the mayor insists that the most dynamic partner in the assault on the culture of teen pregnancy -- and all of the social problems it creates -- will be churches and synagogues.

          In February, he summoned 100 spiritual leaders -- Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist -- to a summit on teen pregnancy. He asked them to speak out on the risks of sexual activity outside of marriage. More significantly, he challenged congregations to become personally involved with families on welfare by helping women to avoid more pregnancies, reunite with the father of their children, and get off of government assistance. "The whole notion is to be more of a mentor and support group, not a candy store," says Richard Wiehe, the executive director of the Faith and Families project, a new effort to link congregations with welfare families.

          The mayor wants religious groups to fight this culture war almost everywhere -- even in city parks. Indianapolis now has 16 congregations managing 30 contracts to maintain public parks. In exchange, churches can sponsor events in the parks with minimal bureaucratic hassle. Goldsmith's explicit hope is that people of faith will form relationships with children who live in surrounding neighborhoods. "We could put police officers on every corner of the city," he says, "but if our people did not believe in God and basic moral values, then we would still not have a safe community."

          Crime statistics seem to side with the mayor: Juvenile crime in Indianapolis has increased nearly tenfold in the last decade, and 75 percent of those offenses were committed by fatherless children. Judge Jim Payne of the juvenile court of Marion County says at least 600 new juveniles enter the system each month. "Out-of-wedlock birth is driving every single rotten outcome in our city," says Krista Rush, Mayor's Goldsmith's social-policy advisor.

          At Goldsmith's request, the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC) set up shop in the city a few years ago to reach out to troubled youth and their families. Payne now refers kids headed for state detention centers to the Christian-based program, which houses about two dozen teens at a time in its residential center. To overcome objections by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, Payne argued that the program's emphasis on character and family relationships could help reverse irresponsible or predatory attitudes toward sex that have become "incredibly common" among today's youth.

          Center director Benny McWha says that many of the girls at the center were sexually abused as children, and are considered at high risk of teen pregnancy. Most of the boys come with no experience of responsible fatherhood. Eight mentor families and about a hundred student volunteers work to keep the kids out of trouble.

          "Our primary goal is to help teach them character," McWha says, which includes "moral purity from a biblical perspective." The ITC staff also offers practical support -- and a message of abstinence -- to unmarried mothers in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

Modeling the Message

          Communicating an effective abstinence message may be the most difficult task facing the mayor, and the city's public schools are becoming a prime battleground. It is here where getting involved sexually is considered a badge of honor. And it is here where more and more pregnant teens are envied, admired, and applauded -- but rarely shunned. "In many of our schools," Rush says, "there's a tremendous reward for getting pregnant."

          Jackson, who coordinates adolescent-growth programs for the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, cites three principles for overturning an ethos of sexual freedom: (1) Give kids a clear message of abstinence until marriage, (2) get the message to them early, and (3) recruit credible high-school students to deliver it.

          "There's a real need to have some positive peer pressure for a change," Jackson says. Young people are more likely to listen when student role models get involved. And, contrary to Planned Parenthood's news releases, finding chaste high schoolers is not a problem. Last year, Jackson recruited 200 peer mentors from six Catholic schools and six public schools to lead the workshops. She expects to train at least 50 students from Indianapolis high schools to work with kids in the city's middle schools this fall.

          Though Jackson has removed all religious references from her public-school program, the six-hour curriculum parallels its religious counterpart in stressing chastity until marriage. Jackson essentially has translated religious concepts about the benefits of marriage -- and the risks of sexual permissiveness -- into secular language.

          Moreover, most of Jackson's high-school mentors come from strong religious backgrounds. "We're finding that our peer mentors are people of faith," she says. "That faith component is essential, because it gives them a moral standard to live by. Otherwise, it's anything goes."