Whatever the outcome of today’s elections …

Christian leaders would be wise to reflect on this recent study on religion, politics, and young Americans. Quotable:

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.
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.
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%.
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.