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Dec 15, 2010

Walking Away From Church

by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell


The most rapidly growing religious category today is composed of those Americans who say they have no religious affiliation. While middle-aged and older Americans continue to embrace organized religion, rapidly increasing numbers of young people are rejecting it. 

As recently as 1990, all but 7% of Americans claimed a religious affiliation, a figure that had held constant for decades. Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new "nones" are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation. 

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.

During the 1980s, the public face of American religion turned sharply right. Political allegiances and religious observance became more closely aligned, and both religion and politics became more polarized. Abortion and homosexuality became more prominent issues on the national political agenda, and activists such as Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed began looking to expand religious activism into electoral politics. Church attendance gradually became the primary dividing line between Republicans and Democrats in national elections.  

This political "God gap" is a recent development. Up until the 1970s, progressive Democrats were common in church pews and many conservative Republicans didn't attend church. But after 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. 

We were initially skeptical about that proposition, because it seemed implausible that people would make choices that might affect their eternal fate based on how they felt about George W. Bush. But the evidence convinced us that many Americans now are sorting themselves out on Sunday morning on the basis of their political views. For example, in our Faith Matters national survey of 3,000 Americans, we observed this sorting process in real time, when we interviewed the same people twice about one year apart. 

For many religious Americans, this alignment of religion and politics was divinely ordained, a long-sought retort to the immorality of the 1960s. Other Americans were not so sure. 

Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, the increasingly prominent association between religion and conservative politics provoked a backlash among moderates and progressives, many of whom had previously considered themselves religious. 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%. 

This backlash was especially forceful among youth coming of age in the 1990s and just forming their views about religion. Some of that generation, to be sure, held deeply conservative moral and political views, and they felt very comfortable in the ranks of increasingly conservative churchgoers. But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. 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. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.) 

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. 

Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer of UC Berkeley were among the first to call attention to the ensuing rise in young "nones," and in our recent book, "American Grace," we have extended their analysis, showing that the association between religion and politics (and especially religion's intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift. In religious affinities, as in taste in music and preference for colas, habits formed in early adulthood tend to harden over time. So if more than one-quarter of today's young people are setting off in adult life with no religious identification, compared with about one-20th of previous generations, the prospects for religious observance in the coming decades are substantially diminished. 

Evangelical Protestantism, which saw dramatic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, has been hit hard by this more recent development. 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%. 

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. 

Nevertheless, predictions of the demise of religion in America would be premature. More likely is that as growing numbers of young Americans reject religious doctrine that is too political or intolerant for their taste, innovative religious leaders will concoct more palatable offerings. Jesus taught his disciples to be "fishers of men," and the pool of un-churched moderate and progressive young people must be an attractive target for religious anglers. 

To be sure, some of these young people will remain secularists. Many of them, however, espouse beliefs that would seem to make them potential converts to a religion that offered some of the attractions of modern evangelicalism without the conservative political overlay. 

Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, and David E. Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, are the authors of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." Information about a talk Robert Putnam will be giving on Oct. 21 in Los Angeles can be found

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

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  1. Gravatar

    I, a middle aged man, have become increasingly disillusioned by the fact that if you are a Republican you must be a good Christian and if you are a good Christian you must be a Republican. The line between Christianity and Government, ie Church and State, is very clouded. I see Jesus as neither siding with the religious elite nor the political elite of His time. Why do we think that we have to be grouped with either? Why do we as Republican Americans think we have the corner market on God. Yes I consider myself a republican and a Christian and an American, but lately have started to call myself a Jesusian! Someone said one time that if we are ever going to make a difference we must be different! Yet we seem to be trying to conform to the world around us instead of being transformed by renewed minds.

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    The past 8 yrs I have noticed what I call "leaving Egypt". The city of ruling over others and unjust labor. I left because I was told to leave. Many have forgotten that we are to be lead by the spirit and not by man. Many of these people are found on Pal-talk sharing their stories of how they awoke to following the Spirit of Christ and not the pride of man. The only thing that I have noticed however, is just like the children of Egypt many have left and came out to the desert and have brought alot of "religious" baggage with them. I do not believe homosexuality plays a large role in the movement. I believe that it is as written in the scriptures that I saw a horse rider taking scales from the earth to heaven.....those scales were covering the eye's of people who now can "see",& what is it that they "see?" For me they see in part, the obomination of desolation, standing in the HOLY place where it not ought to be. He comes to steel,kill & destroy... he is the beast and his name is MAN .

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    The Christians early name for themselves was simply as 'Followers of The Way'. Not sure what it is in Greek - hodosian or something like that if I remember correctly. Perhaps Christians could simply adopt that name for ourselves, although it would be difficult as the name 'Christian' is now so firmly entrenched in peoples minds it would be very difficult to remove it.

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    After reading this article, I am put out by it all. After all, organized religion is not what we are about. Politics should never be mixed with the Spirit of God, but as Americans, we can only vote our conscious and faith! Problem is, that our options are always the lesser of two evils! As far as the homosexual community, we cannot be silent about sin, but we must emphasize that ALL things are sin, and not measured on a SCALE! If two young people live together and are not married, that is as much sin as homosexuality!!! Love them all, but denounce the sin, as Jesus and Paul both instructed us! I believe they all stay out of the "church" because it is full of hypocrites and greedy selfish individuals (for the most part) I am as disillusioned as the young folks and I am almost 50! I neither stake the claim to Republican, BUT CONSERVATIVE!

  5. Gravatar

    How ironic that the religious right's effort to get into politics and legislate morality has made more people turn AWAY from the church -- not run to it. And politics was part of the reason I left the church. I once followed a woman in traffic who had a bumper sticker that said "God is not a Republican!" If I hadn't been in a hurry to get to work, I would have followed her to find out where she got it!

  6. Gravatar

    Unpopularity (RE: young and other people leaving church) does not necessarily mean one is wrong. Christ Jesus actually taught the opposite; He said that His way is strait (narrow), and that few people will find it. And that the way to destruction is broad, and many will go that way. I cannot tell here if Free Believers Network takes a Biblical stand on moral issues, or not. By that I include all moral issues -- fornication, adultery, same-gender sexual acts, as well as abortion, since abortion is so closely tied with immorality. I sincerely hope the FBN has not abandoned the Word of God on these, or any other, issues.

  7. Gravatar
    Rein Zeilstra

    Interesting stats for the USA, would be similar here in NZ and Aus. Church denominations and religion are so divided and iverse in doctrine that it is difficult who are authentic. We are commanded by the Lord to remember his death until he comes again, and his followers could do this as often as they met together. In the NT christian communities it was customary to meet on the first day of the week. Different social conditions exist now. But this was a outward sign as to their identity. In terms of their behaviour it was remarked by outsiders that they loved one another. Here was the outlines fot the church to come. Why it succeeded is that they could see that the love of God to them was also present in the love they had for each other, they loved the very essence of each other, as they endeavoured to gauge the unfathomable love of God in their own lives. Fathom the essence of each other and the irritating habits we all have will become irrelevant.

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    Thought you might benefit from a Christian anarchist's view on all this. I grew up in a very conservative church and neighborhood. I was always taught that being a christian = being conservative, but I never was. I found myself being pushed farther and farther from my church and community because I wasn't a good little republican. At 25 I can say this has turned out to be very good. I found God in a real way, not the way my church preached. It was precisely because my church disowned me because of my beliefs that I was able to look critically at the church and discover the truth about it. I think this is such a good think-that these churches are becoming so polarized that none of my generation wants to go. There are more Gen Y and millennials coming to Christ outside the church these days than ever did inside it. We can thank the Right and those Christians pushing a political agenda for making it happen. My generation will know Christ, but outside of "church."

  9. Gravatar

    God says men are all lairs. If you want to know the truth go to him. Jesus came to say Gods Kingdom is at hand, he did not say any church name of what ever building that people attend to. He did not say Republicain nor Demacrate Or for that Fact A American, Canadain, or from what we think we are. If one wants to know how to follow Christ he must want to pick up his Cross and Follow Him from what i can read.Read the Red Letters. For the ones that left these so called churches is good for the most part but i hope that they still seek God for there answers in how to live freely not in the flesh but in Spirit. The flesh has to die if one wants to know how to live in spirit.And i am only starting to learn this my self your life is a journey and we learn to know how to hear him and let the Holy Spirit guide us. If you Read what Jesus Spoke you willlearn that he was not concerned with what the Romans were doing Nor what the Jews were doing Except for what the father wanted him to do and say

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    Out of church and church out of me, I now follow, fear, and being taught of the LORD.

  11. Gravatar
    sergey fox

    I am 22 yrs old and all these statements are proving the article facts.. All the comments are confirming the facts of the articles. I am a progressive Christian who is more liberal. I have questions about the homosexuality but I know now they cannot control their feelings or orientations so I cant inflict pain on them for feeling a certain way. Jesus knows these people and understands they do no choose to be this way. If its wrong he has to deliver them. That is my opinion. They will not go to hell

  12. Gravatar

    They are not just mere facts. The facts are also being interpreted for you. So this article is not fact based, it only apears to be, because it uses facts. I hope to be a progressive christian, because I believe we all should be. We are on a Journey wich Gods leads. Don't forget God leads the church as an institute as well. Ther would be no FBN without the institute. Our ancestors made it to secure out faith and it worked. Just see how many Christians are still left in the USA! Yes, things have to change, questions that this time and culture asks must be answered. Don't think they are trying to pin people down because they think it is a fun thing to do or because they want to control people. Keep on thinking about and rethinking morals is a thing the church needs to do, so don't shoot them if they do. I think you will find there is more to the institute if you would take the time to get to know the people who attend. Gods Bless.

  13. Gravatar

    If more churches would focus on teaching the word of God as though their only mission is to train disciples for Christ, no one would have to ponder the surmizings of this article. But it is because churches are more focused on being relevant to a changing culture and building teams for themselves, that this is even an issue. We don't need to engage one another weekly so as to build a team whereby we can march confidently out to a fallen world with our message of forgiveness in Christ. What we need is to know Him intimately, so that He can speak to those in need who come across our path. And that is not accomplished with pep talks that make us feel good about ourselves as we go upon our worldly way. Rather it comes by knowing the word, doing what IT says and believing Christ is with us to strengthen us at every moment. And that is the faith that quenches all fear. When I find a church that believes THAT, I might just be willing to go there... Robin

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