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Young Adults Doing Religion on Their Own? Blame It on Politics

5 years ago
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Last week, the number-crunching folks at the Pew Center released a report titled "Religion Among the Millennials." It's part of an ongoing analysis of the generation of young adults between 18 and 29 years old.

This report was a meta-analysis of lots of surveys done over the past several years, some by Pew and some not. Many of the results seemed pretty "duh" to me: Young people tend to lean left politically, be more open to change, more tolerant of differences than their elders. It has ever been thus, ain't it? As Plato kvetched more than 2,400 years ago:
"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

But two paragraphs in the report jumped out at me:
"Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents' and grandparents' generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation -- so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 -- are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than Generation Xers were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20 percent in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13 percent in the late 1970s)."

So that seems different, evidence of secularization on the march. But then we have:
"Young adults' beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today. Though young adults pray less often than their elders do today, the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades. And though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago."

Which says to me that young adults are not losing faith, just unplugging from religious institutions at a rate unprecedented in U.S. history.

(And I know that "mileage may vary" for individuals. There are lots of politically and religiously conservative and engaged Millennials -- they're just in smaller proportions than among their elders.)

That data got me thinking about Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor whose book "Bowling Alone" made a powerful case a decade ago that Americans were disengaging from all manner of institutions -- from churches to social clubs to bowling leagues.

Putnam later reported that the trend had plateaued a bit after the Sept. 11 attacks, as many Americans sought social cohesion as a way to cope with the trauma. Maybe the survey results about Millennials were evidence the trends had resumed and even accelerated? I wondered what Putnam was doing these days.

Imagine my surprise: He and Notre Dame professor David Campbell have co-authored a book scheduled for publication this fall titled "American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives."

So I pinged them, asking what they thought of the Pew report. The bad news: Campbell replied that the book's publishers have asked that they not do media until closer to when the book comes out. The good news: They've been talking about their analysis for a while.

Putnam is the head of Harvard's Saguaro Seminar on civic engagement. The Social Capital blog reported on a presentation that Putnam and Campbell made last year for the Pew Forum.

No surprise, then, that their data tracked what Pew reported last week:
"Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5-6 times the historic rate (30-40 percent have no religion today versus 5-10 percent a generation ago)."

And now their explanation:
"But youth's religious disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics."

They are hardly the first social scientists to link conservative politics and disengagement with organized religion. Back in 2002, Berkeley professors Michael Hout and Claude Fischer took the same line in the American Sociological Review:
"We seek to explain why American adults became increasingly likely to express no religious preference as the 1990s unfolded. Briefly summarized, we find that the increase was not connected to a loss of religious piety, and that it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion."

But the entanglement of religion and politics is hardly a new American phenomenon. From the abolitionists to the temperance movement to the civil rights movement to the Vietnam era protests, people of powerful and visible faith were central to the battles -- on the right and on the left.

So has the Religious Right of the past couple of decades been more offensive, somehow, than previous faith-and-politics combinations? Are the Millennials more susceptible than prior generations? And if so, why?

Putnam and Campbell have said they thought the trend was reversible, that religious institutions with fewer political ties could engage in all-American entrepreneurship to swoop in and give the disaffected Millennials a religious home. But even high-profile religious leaders such as Saddleback's Rick Warren who have tried to stay out of the political swamp have found themselves pulled in from time to time. And it's hard to believe that people of powerful faith will be able to resist applying the standards of that faith to the thorniest political issues of our time.

Maybe Putnam and Campbell will have all the answers in that book. We'll ping them again in a few months to find out.
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