Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Coming to Grips with Post-Baby Boom American Christianity

Stephen Prothero's book American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003) is must reading, in my opinion. If you're interested in that topic, take a look at my article American Christianity and Its Jesuses.

However, you might also be interested in a recent Prothero piece, which appeared in the March 29, 2010, USA Today. You can find it online here. But I've reprinted it in full below. It is a summary and interpretation of the the very significant Pew Study, Religion among the Millennials. I strongly suggest you read that piece, which you may find at


Millennials Do Faith and Politics Their Way

By Stephen Prothero

According to the Pew Research Center, which recently released a massive new report on the Millennial generation, I am a pretty Millennial guy. On Pew's online "How Millennial Are You?" quiz, I scored 87 out of 100. I do not sport a tattoo, but I have a Facebook page, I text and the only phone I own is cellular. So though I was born in the 1960s, I am something of an honorary member of the Millennial generation, a demographic bubble that should have as much to say about the shape of American life in the next quarter-century as Baby Boomers did in the last.
Born after 1980, Millennials constitute the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. According to Pew, this cohort of teens and twenty-somethings is "confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change." But what of religion? What can this Millennial generation tell us about where American religion is going?

The core finding of Pew's "Religion Among the Millennials" report is that young Americans are "less religiously affiliated" than their elders. In fact, one in four of Americans ages 18 to 29 do not affiliate with any particular religious group. This is not entirely unexpected, since it is a sociological truism that young people cultivate some distance from the religious institutions of their parents, only to return to those institutions as they marry, raise children and slouch toward retirement. According to Pew, however, "Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle ... and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults."

This is an important finding because it provides strong evidence for the loosening of religion's grip on American life. Or does it?

No run toward atheism

One of the biggest errors made by observers of the rise of religious "nones" is mistaking the religiously unaffiliated for secularists.

As another Pew report rightly observes, however, "not belonging does not necessarily mean not believing." More than a third of the unaffiliated Millennials believe in God with absolute certainty, and nearly 20% report that they pray daily.

When it comes to religious beliefs, the Millennial generation as a whole looks a lot like the overall population. These young Americans are just as likely as older Americans to believe in life after death, heaven and miracles.

In short, there is cold comfort in this survey for those who want to see the popularity of atheism in bookstores spark a run on the churches. Only 3% of Millennials call themselves atheists. Apparently, those who don't want to affiliate with religion don't want to affiliate with atheism either.

When I asked my 16-year-old daughter about all this, she told me that her friends don't want to be "branded." Nobody her age wants to be seen as forcing religious or political views on friends, and declaring yourself a "Christian," "atheist," "Democrat," or "Republican" seems, well, pushy.

Religiously, the independent streak of this unbranded generation fuels the popularity of non-denominational alternatives to the once-venerable Methodist, Baptist and Catholic brands. If 7Up was The Uncola (remember that, Boomers?), these new churches are The Undenominations.

Politically, this same self-reliance drives young people into Unparties — outside-the-box movements such as the "Tea Party" (on the right) and the aborning "Coffee Party" (on the center-left). Whereas 25% of Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, 40% of registered Millennial voters refuse to call themselves either Democrats or Republicans.

Much of this revulsion to joining is perennially American, going beyond both Groucho Marx's refusal to join any group that would have him as a member and Thoreau's boast of marching to a "different drummer." But the late, great spate of partisan bickering among America's two major political parties has doubtless contributed to this recent scourge. If you are a teenager and you see so-called grown-ups conducting themselves the way Democratic and Republican politicians have in recent years, why would you want to have anything to do with the whole mess?

Others have read Pew's work on the Millennials as good news for both theological and political liberalism. Politically, two out of every three Millennials say they want "bigger government" with "more services." Theologically, Millennials are more likely than their parents and grandparents to say that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith. On culture war questions, Millennials aren't quite pacifists, but they are far less interested in picking "family values" fights than their parents and grandparents have been. While only 47% of older Americans believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, 63% of Millennials believe it should. No wonder the Millennials went 2-1 for Barack Obama in the 2008 election.

The new mix

This liberal turn will not necessarily convert young people into Democrats, however, because "Democrat," too, is a brand most Millennials are unwilling to call their own. Even so, the new data do lay bare the so-called new conservatism of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party not as the next new thing but as the last paroxysm of a spent revolution.

Both the Tea Party activists and their beloved Palin are as white as Alaskan snow, but the American population is increasingly brown; 19% of Millennials are Hispanic and 14% are black. No religious or political movement propelled by white rage (or for that matter by the fury of retirees) will have legs in the America this new generation is making.

One of the big stories of the past few decades in American religion has been the decline of the mainline denominations at the expense of evangelical megachurches. One of the big stories of the next few decades in American politics could be the decline of the major political parties at the expense of grassroots (and "cyberroots") initiatives. As Boomers yield power to Millennials, the political movements that succeed will look less like the Southern Baptist Convention and more like your local non-denominational church. They will be browner, more comfortable with rapid change, higher tech, more upbeat and unworried by tattoos.

Although the independence of the Millennials is often misread as apathy, my college students are deeply engaged both spiritually and politically. They care about things of the spirit, and they are eager both to vote and to volunteer. They are suspicious, however, of large, cookie-cutter organizations that want to corral and "brand" them. Do they trust people over 30? Absolutely. They just don't want to join their clubs, their political parties or their churches. They don't want a place at the table. They want a chat room of their own.

Stephen Prothero is a religion professor at Boston University and the author of the forthcoming book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.

USA Today
March 29, 2010

No comments: