Younger Believers Leave The Culture Wars Behind, But It’s Unclear How Far

They’ve slung electric guitars, and started boxing clubs; served up lattes and built skate parks. Congregations across the U.S. have refashioned themselves as hip again and again, struggling to bring those coveted young adults back into their fold. A new study confirms what most congregations could easily relay: this generation is leaving institutional religion in droves.

But plenty young Americans still hold steadfast to the beliefs of previous generations. And, while they may be breaking from the cultural conservative mold, it’s difficult to tell where many young believers stand.

The report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is part of colossal study measuring the pulse of the “Millennials,” Americans between the ages 18 and 29. Compared to older generation blocs, Millennials are overwhelmingly more “unaffiliated” with particular faiths. Over a quarter of the population self-identify as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” Those that are strongly religious, and even those loosely affiliated, however, preserve many of the old standbys of popular theology. They believe in the afterlife, miracles, and absolute moral standards, at nearly the same levels as their elders.

But religious Millennials depart from their progenitors in a few critical ways.

The report demonstrates that the heyday of strict biblical literalism may be done. “Less than half of young evangelicals [47%] interpret the Bible literally,” Pew writes, “compared with 61% of evangelicals 30 and older.”

The onetime battleground issues of the cultural wars also appear to be waning. Or at least growing shades of gray. Millennials in all of the study’s major Protestant groups—Evangelicals, Mainliners, and Historically Black Church members—displayed a greater tolerance for homosexuality, evolution, and abortion.

The trend, however, is not extraordinarily telling. Specifically, the survey asks if homosexuality is a “way of life that should be accepted” or “discouraged by society.” “Acceptance” is a rather imprecise term. It does not indicate an endorsement (or even a tolerance) of same-sex marriage, civil unions, or adoption by gay parents. Nor does it explain if this acceptance is compatible with a view of homosexuality as sinful. The responses may reflect the softer, savvier wave in evangelism—more forgiveness than condemnation, more Rick Warren than Jerry Falwell.

But Pew does not dive into these semantics. And this lack is one of the study’s shortcomings in nailing down the rubrics for measuring the evolving, mercurial state of American religion.

For instance, Pew does not explore the perplexing stance Millennials of faith have on pluralism. Religious Millennials allow for a broader interpretation of truths in their own faiths. They are, though, oddly more wary of truths in other religions than older believers. Asked to select if their “own religion” or “many religions” can lead to eternal life, Millennials choose the former at a higher rate than respondents over 30. It’s not an alarming rise—the majority of believers, even among Evangelicals, support a pluralistic interpretation—but it is significant trend that can reveal how the newest generation of Christians view and interact with other faiths.

Coverage of the Pew study has focused on how Millennials’ still cling to certain beliefs and traditions. The study itself contributes to this idea that religion is largely rooted in the ethereal. It asks detailed questions on belief in miracles et al.—but offers only vague prompts on more substantive political views.

“More than half of young adults,” the report concludes, “say that houses of worship should speak out on social and political matters, slightly more than say this among older adults.” But the respondents aren’t asked what these matters are. Could it be the global humanitarian efforts, like combating AIDS, where evangelicals have stepped up their involvement of late? What about religion’s role in the ongoing U.S. wars? Torture? Civil rights?

Millennials, the report suggests, are more susceptible to an active government. Yet the implications are messy and murky when government and morality mix.

The findings offer no sense of where young religious adults fall along the fault lines of religion’s public role in many contemporary pressing issues. Nor does it explain if Millennials of faith define or prioritize these issues in a particular way.

Some of these faults are limitations of a longitudinal study, where political issues are too slippery to grasp over time. Yet these qualifiers on the questions are vital to detailing how Millennials really approach religious engagement in the public sphere. It may be the smallest figure in generations, but the three-quarters of the population that still flock to congregations can’t be ignored.

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