Religious Right leaders of late have been getting worked up over a new poll that shows that young Americans aren’t as enthusiastic about things like patriotism, belief in God and having children as religious extremists would like.
The poll was conducted by The Wall Street Journal and is behind the newspaper’s paywall, but you can read a summary of its findings here.
In a nutshell, millennials (generally defined as people born between 1981 and 1996) and members of Generation Z (those born after ’96) were asked whether certain values were “very important” to them. Forty-two percent said patriotism was very important, 32 percent said the same about having children and 30 percent identified belief in God as very important. Those figures are down from the last time this question was asked 21 years ago.
The American Family Association is among the groups dismayed by these results. The group fingers the usual suspect: public education. An article about the poll issued by AFA’s fake news site OneNewsNow was headlined: “Last 2 decades of God-less education blamed for eroding values.” The article quotes an evangelist named Alex McFarland who asserts that public schools have replaced God with secular humanism, religious extremists’ all-purpose bogeyman.
The truth is probably a little more nuanced. To begin with, complaints about younger generations and how they don’t honor tradition are as old as the hills. You can literally read examples of ancient Greeks carping about “kids these days.”
Patriotic feeling can wax and wane depending on several factors. But is it any surprise some people might be feeling less patriotic these days given the embarrassing national leadership emanating from the White House? It’s also understandable that some young people might be wary of having children when they wonder what sort of world those kids will inherit (or indeed if there will even be one for them to inherit).
I suspect what’s really bothering the budding theocrats at the AFA is that last figure – only 30 percent saying that belief in God is very important to them. Religious extremists have never been able to appreciate that religious freedom means the right not just to join the house of worship of your choice but also to reject them all and discard faith entirely if that’s what you want.
We’ve read about the rise of the “nones,” people who, when asked to name their religious preference, answer “none.” It’s a growing segment of the U.S. population. There are now as many nones in America as there are Catholics and evangelicals. Growing numbers of Americans are choosing not to affiliate with houses of worship, and conservative evangelical churches have not been immune from this trend.
Scholars of religion speculate about why this is happening, but there’s solid evidence that young people are leading the charge. They’re tired of churches that have aligned themselves with far-right politics and serve as apologists for Trump. They’re weary of sermons laced with anti-women, anti-science and anti-LGBTQ content. They’ve had it with churches that preach hate and division. There are, of course, plenty of progressive churches that preach inclusion, emphasize social justice and welcome all. Some younger folks may gravitate to these institutions, but others have decided to step away from religion entirely.
American religion has been compared to a free marketplace. Many “products” compete for your attention. Instead of blaming “godless” education for the young people who are turning away from their houses of worship, right-wing Christians would do better to look inwardly. Perhaps the product they’re offering just isn’t very appealing.