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Religious right drives young from churches

University Baptist Church Credit: 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.

Now, it seems, the consequences of this movement are being felt, both by liberal churches and by conservatives ones as well. Twenty-somethings are, as Putnam, puts it, “walking away from church.”

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