A Ring and a Prayer

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Forget Glastonbury, the Olympics and the Edinburgh Festival: the real event of the summer had no need for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

The Silver Ring Thing, the virginity cult born in the Bible Belt of the US, recently came to sermonise to British kids about the evilness of sex. Because obviously none of our self-appointed moral guardians have thought of that before.

Denny Pattyn, the founder of the Silver Ring Thing, has denounced 'the cesspool generation', which he claims is 'suffering the catastrophic effects of the sexual revolution'. But the Mary Whitehouse approach has been dumped in favour of a bizarre fusion of Revivalist fire and brimstone rhetoric with the hormonal hysteria of a boy band gig. Sex is not taboo - speakers celebrate the prospect of 'getting it on', but only after marriage. If their sexual morality is stuck in the Victorian era, at least their slang has reached the 1970s.

The bitter pill of sexual abstinence is sugared with a soulless, preachy kind of rock 'n' wafer and a peer group pressure that is well parodied in the forthcoming Michael Stipe produced film, Saved! This is the story of Mary, a committed Christian who gives up her virginity to 'save' her gay boyfriend and is rewarded with cruel ostracism. It is miraculous not only for sneaking in criticism of organised Christianity into an otherwise formulaic Hollywood film, but also for giving Macaulay Culkin (of Home Alone fame) a role where you don't want to hit him.

The Silver Ring Thingers, like the baddies in Saved!, are on a crusade - and a federally funded one at that. They have received $700,000 from the White House as part of a huge increase in money for abstinence education - which was doubled to $270 million this year.

The catastrophic effects that Bush and the Silver Ring Thingers predict are the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. But numerous studies show that while abstinence programmes tend to delay the first sexual experience of their adherents (by about 18 months), they are much less likely to use protection (which they are constantly told is immoral and ineffective) when they eventually do the deed. Which may explain why Bush's home state of Texas, on which he lavished $10 million for virginity training while governor, has the fourth highest rate of HIV infection in the US. And why the US has by far the highest teen pregnancy rates in the west, with 53 births per 1,000 teenagers compared to five in the Netherlands and seven in Sweden - where sex education advice is explicit and contraception freely available.

Meanwhile it's a staid old world in Silver Ring land, where oral sex is also frowned upon (apparently it's like Pringles - once you start you can't stop). Luckily the approved high school health textbooks in Texas have some advice for horny teenagers tempted by sex or masturbation - 'get plenty of rest'.

Gay sex, meanwhile, is completely beyond the pale for these fundamentalists. You would think they would be happy to see thousands of gay couples embrace marriage - with the proliferation of long-term singletons someone's got to keep the average up. But they were merrily cheering on Bush's attempt to pass a constitutional amendment barring it. Because God's attitude is there in black and white in Leviticus - homosexuality is 'an abomination'. Of course, so is eating shellfish, getting your hair cut or having contact with a woman during her period, according to the same source. Oh, and it says that slavery's OK too. Truly a manifesto for the 21st century.

'Fundamentalist' is a loaded term in these Islamophobic times, but it's worth noting that it was coined in the 1920s to describe precisely such conservative US Protestants. Clearly Christianity has a much greater hold in the US - particularly in the South - than in Britain. Scarily, more than 70 percent of Americans say that they would be prepared to die for their religious beliefs (compared to less than one in five of us cowardly Brits). But according to Esther Kaplan, author of With God on Our Side, Protestant fundamentalists only make up 18 percent of the US population. So, for instance, 59 percent of Americans support a woman's right to choose in all or most cases.

Bush is clearly not one of them. He spent the first working day of his presidency (if 'working' is not too grand a term) issuing an executive memorandum blocking funding for international organisations that perform abortions or provide abortion counselling or services overseas. This is one of a series of measures he has taken to attack reproductive rights on a world scale, including cutting off the United Nations Population Fund and diverting money from the Global Fund for Aids to bilateral projects. The result of funding discredited abstinence programmes in countries with Aids epidemics will be countless unnecessary deaths. Clearly God moves in mysterious ways where George Bush is concerned.

But religion of whatever stripe needn't be so reactionary. Since the Gnostics in the first century AD, there have been challenges to the church hierarchy. The Ranters, the free-love advocates of the English Revolution, are a personal favourite. The clergy that helped to form the Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil are a more recent example of the positive way in which religion can express and mobilise movements for change. In Desmond Tutu's metaphor, religion is a knife: you can use it to help feed yourself and others, or you can use it to kill. Which might be excusable if someone's coming at your kid with a silver ring.