Sunday, October 24, 2010

Losing Faith

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.
Robert Putnam & David Campbell

Continuing to sound the trumpet for conservative social policy on issues such as homosexuality may or may not be the right thing to do from a theological point of view, but it is likely to mean saving fewer souls.
Robert Putnam & David Campbell

It is, of course, not "news" that many younger Americans are walking away from organized religion (or "the institutional church"), but sociologist Robert Putnam is releasing a new publication in the coming months that assesses why this trend continues. It seems that an overly politicized religious terrain is keeping the 20-something and 30-something crowd at home on Sunday mornings and, to be specific, it is an overwhelming push to the political right that they find so distasteful. Putnam puts together his analysis through Harvard's Faith Matters national survey of 3000 Americans who were interviewed twice about a year apart.

Today, 17% of the American population chooses the "unaffliated" label as their choice of religion, up from 7% back when I was a high school sophomore during the elder Bush Presidency. Since then, megachurches have exploded and the Evangelicals propelled their very own, the younger Bush, into the White House for two terms. But these past 10 years have done a number on those raised both inside and outside the Christian faith. The Evangelical President, his GOP advisors & congressmen, as well as the Evangelical pastors who supported him, launched a War on Terror that included torture by lying about the whole mess. In addition, his campaign guru Karl Rove "masterfully" placed anti-same-sex-marriage initiatives on ballots in several states in 2004 to rev up the "social conversative" vote (ie, Evangelical Christians). The homosexual issue is actually what Putnam highlights as the dealbreaker:

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.

Putnam points to a severely growing unease with damning gays and lesbians: 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. This is tremendously welcome news for our society and for an opportunity for the conservative branch of the Body of Christ to rethink the complexity of sexuality issues. For instance, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church grew his church from a dozen to tens of thousands by surveying his neighbors to see what they were longing for in a church community. As he speeds past middle age and looks to the younger generation to continue growth into the next generation, will he continue to forsake this vital issue? Part of the problem, however, is that--let's face it--those 40% of twentysomethings that say homosexual relations are "always" or "almost always wrong" are conservative Evangelicals who grew up fondly in the church and/or live in the South.

However, even though it is backed by statistics and other hard core data, Putnam's summation just seems a bit too simplistic. Are young people really leaving church mainly because their church got too political? What about fundamentalist brands of Christianity (like this) which are sustaining a lot of growth? Here are some other key contributors that professional religionists must come to grips with as they dare to swim in the challenging, adventurous waters of the generation born after Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House roof (solely based on first-hand conversations):

1. They are more comfortable communicating behind a screen.
2. They do not trust adults easily.
3. Not only are they interested in what adults have to say and, more than ever, they simply do not have to listen (a lot more choices).
4. They are more compelled by movies and music (produced by "unaffliated" artists).
5. For them, "community" is created and sustained through networks, not hubs (or, through links, not brick-and-mortor).
6. They simply do not see a compelling lifestyle difference between people who "go to church" and those who don't.
7. They yearn for spirituality, community and social justice, but they experience them more in "the flow" of their lives (in this light, church is "out of the way").
8. They are listening to great sermons from dynamic pastors, theologians and Biblical scholars from the comfort of their own IPOD.
9. They are just tired of too many fake or awkward pew conversations week after week.
10. They resist the overwhelming hero-worship of pastors and worship leaders within the church.

These, no doubt, are over-generalizations and represent just some of the trends and themes present in this younger American generation. To be sure, "they" can be divided into various groups. Some got "burned" (through guilt, laziness, hypocrisy, abuse, etc) by the church and want nothing to do with Christianity anymore. Some just aren't feeling the church vibe anymore, but want to be faithful to the gospel with their lives. Some are just far too consumed, distracted, busy and burdened with jobs, relationships, hobbies and other ventures (how often do I hear from friends about how they are just trying to survive). And, many, moreso than any era of American history, never started with a faith in the first place.

Putnam's work is useful, but like most studies, can work to make complex trends too simplistic. His analysis on the pejorative nature of right-wing political dynamics certainly resonates with EasyYolk's own post-fundamentalist journey of faith and his Aunt Suan Effect (every Christian's got an Aunt Susan, who does not believe, but lives an attractive, compelling life of good works, dismantling the penchant to demonize the "unaffliated") reveals a kinder, gentler Evangelicalism. However, those of us who call ourselves "Christian" should adamantly resist the urge to quarantine the church from "politics." Public policy and decision-making from the top continue to exacerbate injustice and violence from our homes through our neighborhoods to the uttermost ends of the earth. The Church must maneuver itself into the nonviolent trenches of resisting those who continue to fight for more power and privilege with their own power and privilege. Perhaps only during a time like this, where Christianity has fewer and fewer participants in the United States, will we see a brand of "radical" (from the Latin "roots") Christianity--both within & without traditional church settings--that finds the original voice of Jesus.


  1. Dale and I just read this!!! Very thoughtful again of course. And Dale is honored that you linked him as the great sermons. WE miss you guys and your insightful and challenging conversations!!!!

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