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Religious right drives young from churches

All the media attention to conservative churches' political views has redefined religion in the minds of young people, most of whom can't buy anti-homosexuality dogma.

University Baptist Church

University Baptist Church Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

A new book by well-known Harvard Professor of Public Policy Robert D. Putnam and co-author David E. Campbell makes the case that the alliance of religion with conservative politics is driving young adults away from religion.

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us reports on Putnam and Campbell’s Faith Matters national survey of 3,000 Americans. Among the conclusions is this one: “The association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.”

That shift is the decline in participation by all Americans, but particularly young adults, in churches. In 1990 only 7 percent of Americans indicated “none” as religious affiliation. By 2008 that number had grown to 17 percent. But among young adults, in their twenties, the percent of “nones” is reaching nearly 30%. The new “nones” are heavily concentrated among those who have come of age since 1990.

The reason, according to Putnam and Campbell’s research, is that since the 1980s the public face of religion has turned sharply right. Led by Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and James Dobson, among others, religious conservatives became politically active in ever-growing numbers. These leaders rallied people around a string of issues including school prayer, opposition to abortion and condemnation of homosexuality.

One consequence, according to Putnam and Campbell, is that after 1980, both church-going progressives and secular conservatives became more rare. Prior to this, progressive Democrats were common in church pews, while many conservative Republicans did not attend church. But with the Religious Right’s prominence that changed. In the 1990s and into the first decade of this century, moderates and progressives moved away from religion and churches.

But this trend is most evident among those coming of age in the 1990s. While some of the twenty-somethings do hold deeply conservative views, as Seattle has seen with the growth of Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland and Mars Hill, a majority of the Millennial generation are liberal on most social issues, particularly homosexuality. According to Putnam’s research, the percentage of twentysomethings who said homosexual relations were “always” or “almost always” wrong plummeted from about 75 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2008.

As a recent study suggests, some of the strength of the more conservative churches in the Northwest seems to come from their entrepreneurial attitude rather than the appeal of their message to young people. Evangelical Protestantism is beginning to feel the effects of disaffection among the Millennials. In the 1980s the percentage of people aged 18 to 29 who identified with Evangelical Protestanism grew from 20 percent to 25 percent. Since 1990 that number has fallen, to 17 percent.

Conservatism on social issues is not, however, characteristic of all Christians or all churches. Still, it is true of those who have put or found themselves in the media spotlight, whether leaders like Falwell and Dobson or groups like the Southern Baptists. Studies of media reporting have shown that right-wing religious leaders and groups have received vastly disproportionate attention (in proportion to the percent of the population they represented) from the media in the 1980s and 1990s. The effect has been to skew public perception of religion as largely socially conservative.

Meanwhile, other churches have taken a very different position on a host of social issues, and in particular homosexuality. As early as the 1970s the United Church of Christ, with two dozen congregations in the region, publicly supported the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons. In 1975 that denomination became the first to ordain an openly gay man. Today, a significant number of Seattle area congregations of the United Church of Christ are led by clergy who are gay or lesbian.

Other denominations have also mounted efforts to welcome and include gay and lesbians, and some have ordained gay and lesbian persons. But, by and large, these groups public presence in the media has paled in comparison to the attention focused on conservative groups and their policies.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting. Presumably the tendency of churches to drive paritioners away has become noteworthy because it has come to affect straight people. Organized religious denominations began driving gay paritioners away as soon as they could identify them - decades ago. It is amusing that the very people responsible for this exodus are also those most likely to bemoan what they perceive as an increasingly secular society. You reap what you sow.

tomsj

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

It sounds like an interesting book, and I don't think I can dispute any of the figures used, but I do think that there are important parts of the story that put the thesis into question.

The influence of the Christian Right has declined quite a bit, and in fact has been in decline since the end of the Reagan years. The Jerry Falwell image is hardly the only public image of Christianity today. Individuals such as Jim Wallis, who present a more liberal and less explicitly partisan viewpoint, are much more prominent today than they were in the past.

Also, younger evangelicals don't think like their parents. They tend to have a much broader range of concerns: poverty, health care, and immigration in addition to the older concerns such as abortion. They are also less closely wedded with the Republican Party.

I know quite a few people of my age group who fall into the "none" category. The primary reason, based on my highly unscientific sample, seems to be dogma. They simply find themselves unable to believe the central claims that define Christianity or any other religion. Perhaps there is a parallel problem with the role of fundamentalism and a misperception that Christianity means the rejection of science.

However, the phenomenon that Putnam and Campbell describe is a real one. I would hope that people don't give up on religion on the basis of an increasingly outdated stereotype.

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks Tony, for bringing this research to our attention. Certainly is thought-provoking and worthy of genuine discussion. I am happy to share it with my Christian Church (Disciple) colleagues. May the discussion continue.

marveck

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

I have suggested this before, but why doesn't a mainstream, liberal church release a corrected version of the Bible? It seems there is just a lot of hand waving about the difficult parts in the Bible, like Leviticus 18:22. Why is that still in the Bible?

Releasing this corrected Bible would send a very strong message.

andy

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Are you suggesting expunging certain verses from the Bible, Andy?

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Putnam's and Campbell's Ivy League prestige does not ensure that their findings, which contradict that of others, are correct. It remains highly likely that, rather than being repelled by the Religious Right, our youths' secularism is a result of their unwillingness to accept the existence of a figment in the sky.

busterg

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 4:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Benjamin, yes. It seems to me that is a reasonable thing to do. How many moderate Christians believe that Leviticus 18:22 is the word of God? Expunge it.

andy

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 8:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Thomas Jefferson constructed his own Bible by cutting out all of the passages that dealt with miracles and keeping those that dealt with morality. It's an interesting approach, but censoring out passages with unpleasant messages might not be the best solution.

The Bible presents a view of God that is complicated, perhaps even contradictory. But that's the reality that we have to face, and it in fact makes Christianity a religion worth practicing. No matter what we may believe, there are passages that are tough to deal with. Even people who consider themselves the most hard-headed Bible believers will become uncomfortable if you quote the right passages at them. It's the same challenge that people of any faith, including non-faith, have.

When I was growing up, the deal-breaker for me was the idea of eternal damnation. My idea of fairness has always been that a punishment has to be in proportion to the crime, and punishment from a loving God would have to be redemptive instead of merely vengeful. No matter what earthly crimes are committed, an eternal punishment could not be proportional, and if Hell is eternal, then there cannot be a redemptive quality to it. I was unable to reconcile this idea with my sense of justice, yet it's there in Bible.

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 9:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The Bible is complicated. The Old Testament is the story of a nomadic people who came to settle as agriculturalist. It is also a history book told by those who were privileged to tell history as they wanted it told. It is book full of poetry. It is the story of a people who through their faith were able to remain as a nation despite being conquered time and time again.

To many believers the miracles are true stories that serve as evidence of God's power. To others, the miracles are stories that are meant to convey a message about man's relationship with God, and that is more important than whether the miracle is in fact true.

The New Testament is the story of a man who had a vision of the kingdom of God which was in direct conflict with the powers of his day. He was bold enough to confront the powers and expose the hypocrisy of their deeds as compared to their professed ideals. And that vision and the threat that is posed to the established powers was the cause of his violent death. The message though could not be destroyed by death and served to strengthen the Galilean people as Rome savaged their country to punish their insurrection. It also provided hope to the gentile community of shopkeepers, craftsmen and ex-slaves known as the god-fearers who labored under the oppressive and hierarchical class structure that was Rome.

Such stories cannot be re-written without jeopardizing the complexity of the Bible.

Posted Thu, Oct 21, 11:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Andy: The Five Books of Moses (the Torah, which contains Leviticus) is a Jewish scriptural book, more than a thousand years predating Christianity. Christians use their particular translation of it, but that does not give them or anyone else to make deletions from it. Your suggestion that they do so is incredibly patronizing.

sarah

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Great article. Thanks for sharing those numbers. I was just talking with a friend who thought the trend was still skewing conservative among young people, and it's interesting to see that it is not.

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow, I seem to have touch a nerve with my suggestion. Sarah, I find your comment incredibly telling. It tells a lot about the state of some religious people that "dangerous" ideas must be shot down with a personal attack lacking any sort of reasoned argument.

Who hands out the rights of which you speak --god? I (and you) have many rights simply because I am human. Your attitude is the exact problem with religion and why it is slowly fading away. The other commentators had reasoned arguments that made me think more about the subject. I am very disappointed in yours.

andy

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

The more I think about this, the more I am amazed that people are defending these passages in Bible and the Torah. With the news out about gay teen suicides and Dan Savage's excellent "It Gets Better" project, it is no wonder the youth are rejecting religion for reasonable humanist thinking.

If I went out into the hall in my workplace right now and paraphrased the bible, I would be fired for using hate speech.

Fine, you don't want to expunge this biblical hate speech, but at least come out with a paper or position condemning it and definitively stating it is not the word of god. I challenge religious people to do this.

The time for all this theological hand waiving is over.

andy

Posted Fri, Oct 22, 5:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Um - Andy. Evangelical Fundamentalists DO believe in Biblical Inerrancy. What you apparently aren't aware of is that this idea is relatively recent in Christianity as a whole and is certainly NOT a core belief of many Mainline Protestant Christians. Not only is it an absurd idea to expunge "objectionable" portions of the Christian cannon, it is simply unecessary. "Moderate Christians", as you put it, are able to understand the Bible without taking it literally.

As the author mentions, there are Christian Churches, one of which I belong to, that welcome Gay and Lesbian persons for who they are. Of course, Progressive Protestants aren't really newsworthy - unless Glenn Beck gets mad at us - as we're not useful in pushing the American agenda. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were useful to the right for organizing purposes and to the left for dramatic purposes. Sadly, the only United Church of Christ minister anyone is likely to be familiar with on the national scene is Jeremia Wright - again a useful characture for the conservative machine.

I do hope that Progressive Protestantism seizes upon this study as a motivation to become more outspoken so that people like Andy and Pepper are aware that we exist.

Posted Sat, Oct 23, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Um - Martin, I am well aware of your points. Calling my suggestion 'absurd' is in itself an absurd argument. You fail to mention why it is absurd.

What YOU may not be aware of is that your moderate churches are acting as apologists for the fundamentalists. Why not come out and expressly deny these hate messages in the "holy" books? Simply refusing to answer this question or a calling it 'absurd' or 'patronizing' is insulting. Calling these passages 'complicated' or 'historical' is just a mealy mouthed, passive-aggressive horse poo poo.

Anthony, the problem you write about: the 'right driving young from the church', is very minor compared to the problem of gay teen suicides caused by bullying. What you may not realize is that much of this bullying is religious bullying. "God hates you because you are gay" or "you are going to hell" are common bullying tactics by christian teens engaging in bullying.

Do you think Jesus would just stand by and say "it's complicated"?

andy

Posted Sat, Oct 23, 5:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Andy: I don't believe the Torah is the word of God. Human beings wrote it, just as I assume they wrote the New Testament. I'm not defending what's in there.

The point is--and I'm amazed you don't get it--is that these are sacred texts. Don't like them, don't believe them, don't use them, don't quote them, fine. Write other books that refute them (many people have; go read them). I don't care.

But you do not have permission to change other peoples' sacred texts just because you don't like them. Period.

If you quoted whatever bible in your workplace, you wouldn't be fired for quoting hate speech. You'd at least be warned for bringing a sectarian issue like religion into the workplace. Your work colleagues would not appreciate you doing so.

sarah

Posted Sat, Oct 23, 10:36 p.m. Inappropriate

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." - Leviticus 18:22.

When I contemplate the hatred and violence that an interpretation of this and other verses has caused over the years, I reconsider the conventional or orthodox approach, and then come at it from another perspective. Maybe an outsider's perspective is helpful.

One problem this verse may be attempting to address could be with a form of liaison that is only physical, and particularly one that ignores other aspects of a person's life. When you consider how a person's health involves "mind, body, and spirit," maybe the problem isn't "with mankind," but to "lie... as with womankind." I noticed the use of the term (in KJV) "lie," which I took to mean something exclusively physical. It doesn't say "love", but "lie."

So my sincere interpretation of the above verse isn't a condemnation of of 'homosexuality', but relationships that do not go beyond the physical aspects (and which ignore the more abstract attributes) of a partner.

Maybe Paul was attempting to address this matter with this verse, Romans 8:1: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."

So it would seem to me that it is mandatory for a romantic relationship to encompass the spiritual.

But spiritual could easily mean something more abstract, more comprehensive, to encompass in a relationship, whether one subscribes to a particular belief system, or not.

And hopefully, this post also addresses why I wouldn't support a simple expungement of text from scripture. The problem isn't with the verse, it is with its interpretation and application therefrom.

Posted Sun, Oct 24, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for that thoughtful post, Julian. You give me hope that there are still some reasoned voices amongst the religious.

Perhaps what you are saying is that there is a slow, steady progression toward a less literal interpretation of the scared texts. Perhaps someday they will no longer be regarded as sacred cows that cannot be updated.

Perhaps what is needed is more patience, but I find it difficult to be patient when kids are dying as a direct result of the literal interpretations.

How long do I have to wait until the religious, even the moderates, take some responsibility for these deaths and take action?

andy

Posted Mon, Oct 25, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

andy - we Mainline Protestants simply don't read or use the Bible the way you imagine we do.

It is clear from you posts that you are not practiced in Biblical interpretation. Nor are you remotely interested in changing that. That's fine. By the way - Jesus did say that "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled". He also advised that only those without sin cast stones or that only the perfect can enforce the law. So yeah, if you're really trying to understand what Bilical texts meant then and mean now - it can be complicated.

What you have done, however inadvertantly, is underscore the point of the article. The public image of American Christianity has become almost exclusively that of Evangelical Fundamentalism. The fact is that Mainline Protestants DO condemn the misuse of scripture in the ways that you mention. It's just that such actions aren't really useful to the pre-determined media narrative so you never really hear about it. In other words, the Keep Fear Alive folks seem to be trumping the Restore Sanity gang.

Full Disclosure - I attend the author's former congregation and am aquainted with his work in supporting Mainline Protestant congregations. I find it amazingly frustrating to read comments week after week that are written in response to an assumed fundamentalist position when that couldn't be further from the truth.

Again, I think that Crosscut would be the perfect place to have a comparative religion column. What's Casey Treat's take on these numbers? (I'm guessing he'd say that the world is a lost and dying place and these numbers are just more proof that the end is near and you'd better come around to his way of thinking).

Posted Mon, Oct 25, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Julian - True, I do not practice Biblical interpretation, but I think I understand what you Mainline Protestants are trying to achieve with it. Also, true, as an annoying agnostic-atheist, I am not interested in starting up a practice. I guess I can also look forward to an eternity in hell, or have you MPs gotten rid of that, too? ;)

With all of the problems currently caused by religion, I am just impatient with the progression (or regression) of religion on its path toward enlightenment.

andy

Posted Mon, Oct 25, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh, I meant Martin!

andy

Posted Mon, Oct 25, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Sometimes we Progressive Protestants do feel a bit like Dr. Suess's Whos - No matter how much we try, it seems that most folks just don't believe we exist.

As for problems caused by religion, I don't really think that there have been too many problems caused by "religion", but there have been quite a few caused by "the religious"

Hell? Hell, we've damn near gotten rid of Heaven! ;)

Posted Wed, Oct 27, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Would someone please explain to me why the right gets all excited about homosexuality, but not about cotton/polyester blends. It seems the latter is just as much of an abomination before God and is just as clearly prohibted a few pages away.

Goforride

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 5:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Andy, we need not change texts which were written millenia ago. Most religions are interpretive, not literalist, and you, of course, as an atheist, can simply ignore both the religions and the texts. People cause harm to other people, not texts. You could do a lot of good talking to people who practice hate instead of insisting on changing very old words on paper.

And surely as an atheist you don't believe in hell so you need not worry about it. As a Jew, I don't either, nor do many Christians.

sarah

Posted Sat, Oct 30, 10:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Here locally we have Pastor Joe,

http://www.cedarpark.org/about/pastorjoe/

who enthusiastically supported the war criminal and torturer G.W. Bush.

The right wing Christians are our version of the Taliban. If they truly believe in the teachings of Jesus and heaven and hell they should tremble in fear at where they are going when they die.

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