Sunday, October 31, 2010

Before you leave for church...

Remember to count the number of young people (20-somethings) in the pews.  No matter what denomination or faith, they are staying away in droves.  And we may now have a hint why.
So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new "nones" actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics.
During the 1980s, the public face of American religion turned sharply right. Political allegiances and religious observance became more closely aligned, and both religion and politics became more polarized. Abortion and homosexuality became more prominent issues on the national political agenda, and activists such as Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed began looking to expand religious activism into electoral politics. Church attendance gradually became the primary dividing line between Republicans and Democrats in national elections.
This political "God gap" is a recent development. Up until the 1970s, progressive Democrats were common in church pews and many conservative Republicans didn't attend church. But after 1980, both churchgoing progressives and secular conservatives became rarer and rarer. Some Americans brought their religion and their politics into alignment by adjusting their political views to their religious faith. But, surprisingly, more of them adjusted their religion to fit their politics.
Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, the increasingly prominent association between religion and conservative politics provoked a backlash among moderates and progressives, many of whom had previously considered themselves religious. The fraction of Americans who agreed "strongly" that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions nearly doubled from 22% in 1991 to 38% in 2008, and the fraction who insisted that religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote rose to 45% from 30%.
This backlash was especially forceful among youth coming of age in the 1990s and just forming their views about religion. Some of that generation, to be sure, held deeply conservative moral and political views, and they felt very comfortable in the ranks of increasingly conservative churchgoers. But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were "always" or "almost always" wrong plummeted from about 75% in 1990 to about 40% in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)
Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives. Increasingly, young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic. If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them. [More]
 I would think that other factor are at work here as well. For example, it is harder every day to bridge the gap between increasing sophisticated technology and anti-scientific dogma. From cosmology to anthropology, hardline views such as Biblical inerrancy and creationism complicate our real-life understanding of how our world works.  When delivered in a tone of authoritarinism present in many churches, it seems to be less appealing than simply not participating.

At the same time, the tendency of evangelical conservatism to descend into personality cults makes the natural lifetimes of leaders like Falwell, Robertson and even Graham hurdles for continuity.  Many mega-churches falter when the charismatic leader is no longer at the head.

It is always difficult to identify why people don't do things, but the author, Robert Putnam who did this research is noted for his ability to do just that (Bowling Alone). And coupled with what I see and hear from oncoming generations, I suspect his outlook is not far off.


Anonymous said...

Not all churches are in decline. Our average attendee age has been going down. Most "liberal" denominations are in decline because the life changing message of a personal savior forgiving our sins through the cross is no longer preached. There are more fun things for our young people to do on a Sunday AM than go to a dry social club. Introduce them to Jesus and they will fill the pews.

Anonymous said...

Well maybe, if feel-good entertainment shows can be called religion.

John Phipps said...


I am happy for your church - it's an uplifting experience to be part of a growing faith community.

However, if you read the whole linked article, Putnam discovered evangelical protestantism to be a big loser over the last decade among 18-29ers. In other words, your experience is more unusual than you may think.