The dramatic generational shift away from the church is primarily in reaction to the religious right
Religious pollsters and demographers have long warned that young people were leaving churches in alarming numbers. According to a much talked about LifeWay Research survey, for example, 7 in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 who regularly attended church during high school said they quit attending by age 23. What’s been less clear is why they’re leaving.
But according to Notre Dame professor David Campbell and Harvard professor Robert Putnam, the fusion of faith and partisan politics – particularly the conservative type – is at least partly to blame. “The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right,” they wrote in the latest Foreign Affairs in an essay titled “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both.” They explain: “And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined.”
Mr. Putnam and Mr. Campbell point to the statistical growth of “nones,” those persons who claim no religious affiliation. This group has historically comprised between 5 and 7 percent of the American population. In the aftermath of the religious right movement in the 1990s, however, the percentage began rising. In the mid-1990s, it reached 12 percent. By 2011, it was at 19 percent. Between 2006 and 2011, the rise in young people aged 18-29 who reported never attending religious services was three times higher than the increase among those over the age of 60.
“In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I’m outta here…”
Jonathan Merritt is author of soon to be released “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He has published more than 300 articles and columns in outlets such as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmerritt.