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The Young Are Becoming De-Churched

...according to Putnam. Robert thinks that's because they've identified religion with the vices of the "far right." This trend isn't good for social capital and citizen participation. Putnam's hope is for religious innovation that will address the needs of the young. I do think there's been a fairly rapid increase in religious indifference and disbelief, although one that's not unprecedented in our country's history. I also think that social or cultural libertarianism is becoming more pronounced among many or most of the young, and the spiritual reaction against the excesses associated with the Sixties seems, in general, to be ebbing. Still, the study doesn't pick up the fact that the young who remain religious are often more serious about it than their parents, and unsatisfied relational and spiritual longings remain. Not only that, the young remain more pro-life than their parents. The always good advice is to detach religion from the political agenda of both the left and the right, but that's hard to do in a time where everything seems politicized. The idea that the problem the churches face with the young could be solved by becoming more politically progressive and culturally permissive is as ridiculous as ever. If the problem the churches are having with the young has any connection with similar problems the Republicans are having, it would be along the lines of quality of leadership and moral and intellectual self-discipline.
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Discussions - 15 Comments

Take a look at the younger people in the armed forces. Do they share in this trend of irreligiousness? The prospect of getting yourself all blown up by an IED is apt to concentrate the mind. Civilians, especially younger civilians, have all kinds of distractions available, distractions decidedly unavailable to those on patrol. Thus younger civilians aren't likely to give God, judgement and the hereafter much thought. And in a way, that's not unhealthy. It's normal. Be a bit odd for a young 20something to be all morbid like over the "four final things." So why not wait a while, before arriving at any conclusions?

Cultivate some patience. They've a ways to go yet, and some of their encounters on their way are likely to get them thinking.

Is it possible for Christianity to absent itself from the public square when issues of clear immorality present themselves, such as cloning for instance, or decadent interpretations of marriage? How can a Christian church that takes itself seriously not speak up, not seek to be heard? Sure, Dobbs and Franklin Graham, Haggee and others offer a creepy vision of organized Christianity? They're pushy, given to dreary repetition and tone-deaf to boot. But when has their number not been found in the ranks of Christianity? Even despite them, the Holy Spirit makes himself heard, makes his presence felt. Sometimes it takes years, decades even, for a deeper thoughtfulness to take hold.

A week or so ago, I was at a funeral, a funeral of an older man who played a huge role in my life. Baseball and football coach, employer, learned to play cards at his dinner table, learned to drink, learned to handle my drink, {a much more important skill}. His wife took pictures of me carrying the ball, breaking off tackle, up at the plate, making contact, rounding the bases, gunning some guy out at second. A good chunk of those pictures taken of me when I was younger she took, and gave 'em to my family for free. I knew her well too. They were a couple of characters, both larger than life. And at the funeral I saw many a friend I hadn't seen in over a decade. Besides meeting them, I had the chance to hear a bit about some of those not present, people I used to know of, semi-acquaintances if you will. And what did I hear? A litany of woe. For I heard of careers completely shattered, businesses liquidated, grudges and estrangements, broken families, divorces, multiple divorces, abortions, multiple abortions, drug and alcohol addictions and burgeoning addictions. Suicides too. Even that. Experiences hardly uncommon throughout the West. What were their ages? Mid 30s to mid 40s. Just a bit older than those younger people mentioned in the lead post.

One of the many things I've taken from Steve Hayward's seminal work, THE AGE OF REAGAN, is how political and cultural trends can alter, and alter RAPIDLY. Steve's book takes as its point of departure a time of unquestioned dominance by the Democrats. Yet in less than a decade, the political topography was quite different, and by the time Reagan ran in 1980, more different still. As in politics, so in religion. There's an ebb and a flow present, and when you're assessing the state of religious belief in "the land of the free, and the home of the brave," you have to allow some leeway; you have to make provision for that ebb and flow, for those tidal forces, deep and powerful, even if not easily discernible amongst the many distractions of this, our time.

The more the distractions available, the greater the shock when confronted by essentials and fundamentals. The more fervour poured into this "Obamamania," all the more powerful the "withdrawing roar" that is inevitable, and already begins!

It's not American youth I'm worried about; it's the damage still unfolding from the 60s generation.

If you're familiar with Putnam's earlier work Bowling Alone, which was briefly celebrated back in the 90s because Hillary Clinton mentioned it in a speech or something, a suspicious pattern emerges, to wit:

He identifies a social phenomenon that he claims is fading (back in the 90s, it was the American habit of "joining" in voluntary associations of various kinds, today's it's traditional religious belief and practice among the young), and then frets about it, fearing that its attenuation might have bad social effects.

But then, as if worried that his analysis is pointing toward conclusions that might make people in Harvard Yard uncomfortable (and hence upset with him), he finds some politically safe object of blame that won't scare the liberal horses.

In BA, he strained mightily to avoid any serious scrutiny of the possibility that the rise of feminism and large numbers of women working outside the home might have been playing a role in the decline of voluntary associations of various kinds, and blamed TV watching instead.

Now he blames conservatism and "the religious right" for the decline of religion among the young. This claim of Putnam's may be hard to square with the massive decline of slavishly liberal "mainline Protestant" religion over the last few decades, but it shields the good professor from the unwelcome prospect of having his fellow left-of-center types at Harvard look askance at him for implicitly seeming to promote or defend traditional religion by lamenting the deleterious social consequences of its decline.

In short, there's reason to think that Putnam is a shifty character who is more worried about catering to Ivy League prejudices and covering his own ideological you-know-what than about honest and searching social analysis. This is not to say that there are no useful insights in BA or, for all I know, in this new book on relgion, but it does mean, I think, that one is well advised to take anything Professor Putnam says with a large grain of salt.

I don't know if it's any consolation, but more young people are signing on with The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Here's a tragicomic example (see point #7) of how an intergenerational, interfamilial religious divide can manifest itself, with a little help from those journalistic masters at National Review. Nice job by the mother airing the family's troubles to score some political points. Nice job on the part of NR for printing it (for the same reason).

"The always good advice is to detach religion from the political agenda of both the left and the right, but that’s hard to do in a time where everything seems politicized."

Quite true, but The Religious Right has been the much more salient intermingling of spiritual/supernatural beliefs and politics over the last 25 years or so. The Religious Right practically has a stranglehold over the GOP, and it appears that the GOP isn't terribly interested in loosing itself from that grip.

More and more of the younger people that I've talked with about this issue just seem to be getting completely fed up with what they're starting to identify as opposing superstitions; they're as turned off by the Muslim-hating Christians as they are by the Christian-hating Muslims, and the 101 other varieties of that same formula. And they're increasingly indignant at the notion that they've got to choose to be on one of these angry teams that doesn't seem to offer them much useful in their day-to-day lives. At least the Flying Spaghetti Monster can give them a laugh from time to time.

Race is right on the mark -- look how long it took Putnam to admit that racial/ethnic diversity actually diminishes social capital. He wants to borrow the concerns of the Right, but shoehorn them into a liberal explanatory framework so as not to discomfort his oh-so-PC colleagues. The man's simply a sophisticated parasite.

As far as I can tell, our schools of education train people partly as teachers and partly as preachers of liberalism. (Of course, they believe it's not religion. It is a faith that calls itself "reason.") Is it any wonder that many kids learn not to like what traditional religions have to say?

Dan in comment #1 speaks with (rare) wisdom in describing the Hagee-evangelicals as creepy, pushy, dreary, and tone-deaf. Also wise is the expression of the ebb and flow of religious trends and political life in general. Blogs have a way of 'hyping' every trend, and seizing upon every piece of news as supporting their views. But the suggestion that military service would curb the trend of irreligiousness? Don't re-creep what you were just trying to de-creep.

I actually agree with Ren that the trendy obsession with trends (which is not just a blog phenomenon) has a tendency to create the impression that everything is in constant flux AND that we're always on the precipice of some grand historical shift. At least in part, the original cheerleading of the Enlightenment included anticipations of sweeping secularism--the rise of scientific rationality would ultimately overcome our more susperstitious inclinations. But as Mark Lilla has remarked, the Twighlight of the Idols has clearly been postponed. And while, of course, religious sentiment is going to strengthen and weaken over time, we might go a step further than Lilla and agree with Tocqueville, that at least generally, the religious impulse is an "invincible inclination". A real problem today, still, is that the religiousness of young people gets refashioned acording to their social/cultural libertarianism demoting genuine religious life to some amorphous pantheism, or to some civil shell of personal faith (think Mill here, for eg).

The Religious Right practically has a stranglehold over the GOP, and it appears that the GOP isn't terribly interested in loosing itself from that grip.

Shut up, you ignorant jackass. We can now add both religion and internal Republican party politics to the ever growing list of topics you are utterly clueless about.

I think it is more that the religious right has no where else to go other than the GOP who is willing to accept their vote, but not to do anything to deserve it. The whole no athiests in foxholes thing seems to me to be a troubling example in that it condemns faith as much as praises it. In a way, that example is suggesting a sort of faith out of necessity that comes from extreme state of mind. In other words, I think I might die today so I had better cover my bases. I really don't know if it is widespread but both my grandfathers came back from the war and were not overly religious. If anything, extreme horrors of war can turn people away from faith just as much as turning them towards it.

I think the problem with the young once again just stems from the young's preference of absorbing ideas and opinions rather than formulating them. Interview young people who consider themselves to be politicly active and see what you get. I think you will basicly get a mishmash of kieth olberman and sean hannity.

Last thing: I would like to see the transcripts of the interviews he did. I have never heard a young person say they don't go to church do to the intolerance. The entire thing is just another step toward global socialism so why question it I guess. The young are against intolerance and for progressive ideas, now by young, we mean who: the actors in the anti smoking adds?

John M, that hurt my feelings. How am I supposed to go on living knowing that an esteemed member of the dignified, respectable Right thinks so little of me?

Isn't that a LeAnn Rimes tune, "So tell me now, how do I live without you....... I want to know....... how do I breathe without you ........ if you ever go........."

You do need a new act though Scanlon. There seems to be very little "ebb" to your endless "flow" of snark. Even you have got to be getting bored with it. Doesn't it give you a headache?

I think you've put your finger on a huge problem with Putnam's analysis, Brutus.

If the alleged "intolerance" or "mean-spiritedness" of *conservative* religionists is what's turning young people off when it comes to churchgoing and other types of institutional religious activity, why aren't the pews of the conspicuously permissive *liberal* churches packed with these kids and young adults, and why are the more conservative and demanding churches the ones that are declining less, holding their own, or even growing? The liberal-Protestant mainline denominations have been liberal and p.c. to a fare-thee-well for decades now, AND they are withering away before our eyes. But based on Putnam's premises it seems hard to figure how this could be so.

I'd like to see interview transcripts, too.

Ivan K, do you have any works specifically about the Tocqueville, Mill connection(I think the force is strong here, in other words for Tocqueville the "invincible inclination" is towards Mill's On Liberty(or the multiplication of varieties on the theme)?

Only I would say that it is the beginning of a Robust Utilitarianism, the true Mill.

In other words Tocqueville might be closer to Mill, differences perhaps due to the fact that one was English and the other French. In other words Tocqueville is more aristocratic because he is more catholic, more wedded to Chivalry, more sensitive to French Greatness as opposed to Brittish Commercialism?

But come on, if things go this way, I am going to start quoting passages from Victor Hugo.(This would actually be pretty good!)

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables and perhaps Mr. Hayward's environmentalism study which curiously cites the increasing usage of the term "tipping point"...maybe some technical charts on inflection points...the original genesis of the term in Urban Economics, and some selections from Putnam.

That is what I would like to see as a econ/history/sociology/political science cross...If you want to add a language make it french and make the students read the books aloud in french into a microphone that records the result.

But this is my independent study.

Craig, I don't know who these "Anti-Muslim" Christians are but Islam has come up almost never in our church. We are focused on our own eternal souls and sin to worry about that, though we do pray for our soldiers and an end to terrorism and war. As for offering something "useful" for kids' daily lives, a focus on the state of their souls, eternal salvation, and a moral framework for life should be more than enough to chew on. Christianity doesn't offer another gadget to stay connected, but it does offer something more deeply and richly satisfying to an increasingly lost generation.

In comment 3 at the bottom Craig described the American political system, and yet from what I have read of your postings you seem to have no problem picking a side in that struggle. I am not bashing your viewpoint at all, just wondering how you see religion in the way you described as different from politics?

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