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 zocalopublicsquare.org.