December 2010 Church & State | People & Events

Politicized churches are driving young people away from organized religion, two scholars have asserted.

Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, and David E. Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, say the spike in the number of young people saying they have no religion (often called “nones”) is not due to an uptick in atheism. Rather, the two say, young Americans are weary of right-wing politics in church.

“Very few of these new ‘nones’ actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology,” wrote Putnam and Campbell in the Los Angeles Times. “But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics.”

The scholars, authors of the recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, note that the most visible manifestations of religion in America turned to the right in the 1980s. At the same time, “Political allegiances and religious observance became more closely aligned, and both religion and politics became more polarized.”

Continue the two, “[A]fter 1980, both churchgoing progressives and secular conservatives became rarer and rarer. Some Americans brought their religion and their politics into alignment by adjusting their political views to their religious faith. But, surprisingly, more of them adjusted their religion to fit their politics.”

The 1990s saw a backlash, say Putnam and Campbell. They write, “The fraction of Americans who agreed ‘strongly’ that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions nearly doubled from 22% in 1991 to 38% in 2008, and the fraction who insisted that religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote rose to 45% from 30%.”

At the same time, the two assert, younger Americans were adopting more liberal attitudes on social issues, especially homosexuality. They grew disenchanted with the right-wing cast of many churches and simply stopped attending.

“Increasingly, young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic,” write Putnam and Campbell. “If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them.”

This trend, the two say, has also affected evangelism Protestantism – a religious expression that saw rapid growth in the 1980s.

The two say evangelicalism “has been hit hard by this more recent development,” observing, “From the early 1970s to the late 1980s the fraction of Americans age 18 to 29 who identified with evangelical Protestantism rose to 25% from 20%, but since 1990, that fraction has fallen back to about 17%. Meanwhile, the proportion of young Americans who have no religious affiliation at all rose from just over 10% as late as 1990 to its current proportion of about 27%.

Conclude the scholars, “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.”