American Christianity has begun to shrink.
That’s what the headlines claim, at least, and data says they’re not entirely wrong. For years now, studies have indicated that millennials, usually defined as adults aged 18-34, aren’t filling Sunday morning pews. This trend puts them starkly at odds with previous generations, and it has spurred an unprecedented national discussion on the future of American religion.
The Barna Group, a Christian research organization, reported in 2011 that young adults showed signs of marked irreligiosity. According to its data, 60 percent of active Christian teenagers eventually left the church. And converts weren’t making up the difference. An earlier Barna study identified a few possible reasons: 75 percent of young non-Christians believed Christianity had been over-politicized. Another 78 percent condemned the faith as old-fashioned, and a towering 91 percent characterized it as “anti-homosexual.” Eighty percent of young church-goers themselves agreed with that latter judgement.
Fully one-third of all millennials now reliably identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated, or “nones.” According to Pew Research Center, millennials are now more likely to identify as nones than as evangelical Protestants or Roman Catholics.
The loss is felt most keenly in Catholicism and mainline Protestant denominations, but even conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention are struggling to retain young members. Last year, the denomination’s Pastors’ Task Force on Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms reported that 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches had baptized one or zero adults between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2012.
Despite the decline, most millennials are still religious. And millennials who aren’t haven’t necessarily become atheists. According to another Pew study, 75 percent of nones identify themselves as “nothing in particular” rather than atheist or agnostic. Many report that they still engage in spiritual practices like prayer.
Nevertheless, most observers agree that the Religious Right in particular faces a challenge if these trends continue. In a 2014 editorial for The Huffington Post, Daniel Cox of the Public Religion Research Institute wrote that culture war issues just don’t move younger generations.
“Younger Americans are less committed to traditional institutions like organized religion, and their view of American society is informed less by the country’s largely Judeo-Christian past than by its multicultural present,” Cox noted. “Younger Americans understand religious culture in the United States to be broadly pluralistic rather than predominantly Christian. Only 29 percent of Millennials believe America has always been and is currently a Christian nation, a belief held by the majority of seniors (56 percent).”
That has implications for some of the Religious Right’s most prominent causes. Cox reported that 60 percent of millennials believe religious schools like the University of Notre Dame and Wheaton College should cover contraception access for students and staff.
“Engaging in culture war fights of the past is not high on their list of priorities. American culture is changing, and for the most part millennials are fine with that,” Cox concluded.
Some far-right organizations have realized the problem and are targeting millennials for conversion. The American Family Association, a Religious Right organization based in Tupelo, Miss., that is known for its annual “Naughty or Nice” list of Christmas-friendly retailers, recently launched EngageMagazine.net. It’s branded as the group’s official millennial outreach.
“Created by Millennials for Millennials, EngageMagazine.net is using the platform of AFA to reach their generation with the gospel and provide them with the tools necessary to build a biblical worldview for themselves and bring understanding and meaning to life in a fallen world,” the group announced in a press release.
The Family Research Council has also started to dedicate resources to targeting young adults. It recently published an “issue analysis” that characterized the generation as “ripe for conversion.” Author Jonathan Monroe, a former intern and current senior at conservative Patrick Henry College, argued that millennial apostasy could be traced back to the church – or, more specifically, liberal Christianity.
“If the church is to connect with the Millennial generation, it must change how it acts toward them,” Monroe wrote. “In an effort to not offend people, churches have, with good intentions and lack of a broader Biblical worldview, watered down the power of the Gospel and created an impotent god.”
“If current trends continue, future generations will substantially abandon the concept of the traditional family as a relic of the past,” he concluded.
In The National Review, Alliance Defending Freedom’s Alison Howard and Chris Beach of Bill Bennett’s “Morning In America” radio show echoed Monroe’s conclusion. The decline, they argued, could be blamed on churches themselves. They specifically criticized churches for “separating Millennials into enclaves by age” and for being too lenient on social issues.
“[C]hurches should not be afraid to tackle controversial issues such as homosexuality, sexual impurity, and divorce,” they wrote. “To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the church must push back as hard as the age that pushes against it. This means that the church should address controversial issues head-on and paint them in clear, bold lines, not grayscale. The Gospel is most effective when it is bold and undiluted.”
That argument seems to defy the available data. But though Monroe, Beach and Howard are generational outliers, they’re hardly alone in their dedication to the Religious Right’s doctrinal and political positions. Several young fundamentalists have already positioned themselves as the future leaders of the movement.
Ryan Anderson is an example. Anderson, 33 is the Heritage Foundation’s William E. Simon Research Fellow in American Principles and Public Policy. He’s also the author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage And Religious Freedom and a vehement opponent of marriage equality.
Via his regular platform at Heritage in addition to numerous television appearances, Anderson has promoted the argument that the federal government should leave the question of marriage to the states – and that the owners of secular, for-profit businesses should be allowed religious exemptions to local ordinances that prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination. He’s also a frequent sight on the debate circuit, as documented by The Washington Post in a lengthy profile last year.
Although the devout Catholic has unimpeachable academic credentials – he holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and an A.B. in music from Princeton University – critics accuse Anderson of relying on shaky social science to make his points.
In his book, Anderson cites a 2012 study produced by University of Texas at Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus as evidence that children fare worse in homes headed by same-sex couples. That study immediately ignited criticism, not just from LGBT rights advocates but from Regnerus’ academic peers.
In 2013, The American Sociological Association (ASA) filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court in opposition to state bans on same-sex marriage. The brief cast grave doubt on Regnerus’s work, which had been cited by a number of Religious Right groups and states seeking to defend restrictions on marriage equality. According to the ASA, Regnerus hadn’t actually studied children who were born into or adopted by same-sex couples. Instead, he’d relied on children themselves to report whether or not one parent identified as gay or lesbian at some point over the course of their upbringing. The study was criticized for failing to truly examine the outcomes of children raised by same-sex parents.
The ASA also criticized research by another Anderson favorite, Simon Fraser University economist Douglas Allen. But Anderson still stands by the work of both men. His website, Public Discourse, publishes Regnerus’ editorials with some regularity.
Despite this, conservative figures still value Anderson’s conclusions. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence M. Thomas cited Anderson’s work in his dissent from the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges last summer; in 2013, Justice Samuel A. Alito did the same in his dissent from the majority in United States v. Windsor, which struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Two other millennial figures, David Daleiden and Lila Rose, are known for fervent anti-abortion activism. Both devout Catholics, Daleiden, 26, and Rose, 27, favor the use of undercover videos to expose what they believe to be exploitive and even illegal practices at Planned Parenthood clinics. Critics, however, point out that the resulting videos are deceptively edited to prove the activists’ claims.
Rose, who founded the anti-abortion group LiveAction at 15, became nationally known in 2007 when conservative media seized upon videos of her “infiltrations” of Planned Parenthood clinics. At the time, she worked frequently with James O’Keefe, a conservative activist who pioneered the use of misleadingly edited videos to take down ACORN, a progressive organization.
Posing as a 15-year-old girl, Rose would claim to be pregnant by O’Keefe, who in turn identified himself as her 23-year-old boyfriend. (In most states, a sexual relationship between a 23-year-old and a 15-year-old is legally considered statutory rape.) According to Rose and O’Keefe, Planned Parenthood staffers urged the young woman to hide her age from authorities.
Later, in 2011, Live Action sent a male agent posing as a pimp in an attempt to prove that Planned Parenthood covered up evidence of underage sex trafficking. The resulting videos once again stoked conservative ire, but there was a catch: The videos had been heavily edited to look as if clinic staffers had agreed to keep the alleged pimp’s activities a secret from authorities. The truth proved somewhat less salacious. Clinic staff had actually reported his claims as potential evidence of trafficking.
Nevertheless, Rose remains a fixture in the Religious Right. She makes frequent appearances at the Values Voter Summit and last year, Christianity Today named her one of its “33 Leaders Under 33.”
Daleiden has been in the media spotlight lately for a high-profile attack on Planned Parenthood. In 2013, Daleiden quietly founded a group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) and a front group, Biomax Procurement Services. Biomax branded itself as a biomedical research company, but it was really an undercover operation run by Daleiden and other anti-abortion activists looking for proof that Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal tissue to researchers.
Last summer, they claimed they’d found it. CMP released a series of videos that ostensibly showed Planned Parenthood physicians soliciting fees in order to profit from the sale of fetal tissue. This would have violated federal law: In states that permit fetal tissue research, health care providers can be financially reimbursed for transporting the tissue, but they aren’t permitted to make a profit.
Daleiden’s videos spurred outrage from the Religious Right. Supporters in the media and elected office claimed that the videos proved Planned Parenthood “sold baby parts” to fund itself. States moved to defund the health care provider, and so did the U.S. Congress. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the measure.
The videos were soon debunked after forensic analysis produced by Fusion GPS showed that Daleiden, like Rose, had heavily edited them. Daleiden has not yet released the unedited footage, but his central claim – that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts – persists. It has been repeated by a number of GOP candidates for president, and it inspired the creation of a special congressional panel targeting the health care provider.
Daleiden’s work may have inspired other, more drastic, reactions. In late November, Robert Lewis Dear walked into a Colorado Springs, Colo., Planned Parenthood clinic armed with assault rifles and propane tanks. He is alleged to have murdered three people and injured nine. CNN reported that after he surrendered to police, he told them “no more baby parts.”
A final millennial leader for the Religious Right is Eric Teetsel. Teetsel, 31, is the faith outreach director for GOP presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Before he joined the Rubio campaign, Teetsel ran the Manhattan Declaration, which describes itself as an attempt to “build a movement of Catholic, Evangelical, and Eastern Orthodox Christians” dedicated to opposing marriage equality, restricting abortion access and promoting a conservative definition of religious freedom.
“We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s,” its website states.
The Manhattan Declaration was and remains a small enterprise; it is primarily a statement intended to marshal social conservatives rather than a political operation. Yet it enjoys some significant support. Religious Right operatives like Gary Bauer, Chuck Colson and James Dobson are among the signatories, and Teetsel’s role there arguably earned him a measure of visibility among conservative Christians. In 2014, Christianity Today named him one of its “33 Leaders under 33,” an honor he shared with Lila Rose.
Teetsel also married into a prominent political family. His wife, Abby, is a daughter of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R); the couple held their wedding reception in the governor’s mansion. As governor, Brownback has consistently opposed LGBT rights and abortion. After the U.S. Supreme Court extended marriage rights to same-sex couples nationwide, Brownback issued a sweeping executive order that prohibited any form of retaliation against clergy and religious organizations that choose to discriminate against LGBT people. Gay rights groups claimed that the order was written so broadly it would allow adoption agencies that receive public funds to refuse to place children with same-sex parents.
Brownback’s positions on LGBT rights, abortion and religious liberty are well in line with his son-in-law’s. At First Things, a conservative religious blog, Teetsel bemoaned the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision because it removed “an impediment to sin.” In The Federalist, he praised the high court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell as an “encouraging early milestone as people of faith seek to preserve religious liberties incompatible with expanding sexual mores.”
As a Rubio campaign staffer, Teetsel is poised to wield real influence over the candidate’s approach to religious liberty. His hire is a clear indication of where Rubio stands on religious liberty and what policies he’s likely to support as president.
The evidence is in: The Religious Right might struggle to fill its ranks from now on – but that doesn’t mean it will lack for leaders or that it’s finished as a political force.