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James L. Evans: Where have so many young Christians gone?

Two experts in political science have sounded a warning bell for conservative evangelicals. Robert D. Putman, professor of public policy at Harvard University, and David E. Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, wrote an op ed piece in the Los Angeles Times this past week warning that young people are rejecting conservative Christianity — and in big numbers.

The two professors point out that as recently as 1990, 93 percent of Americans claimed a religious affiliation. That figure today is down to 83 percent, and almost all of the new non-affiliated are concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. In other words, the twentysomethings, or the so called Millennials. Between 25 and 30 percent of this group say they have no religious affiliations.

So what is turning this young group away from conservative Protestantism? Putman and Campbell say it is politics, and in particular the politics of anti-homosexuality.

According to Putman and Campbell, the public face of American religion turned hard to the right in the 1980’s. Political ties and religious practices became closely entangled. The result, among other things, was both religion and politics became more polarizing.

“Abortion and homosexuality became more prominent issues on the national political agenda,” the two professors write, “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.”

Putman and Campbell note that throughout the 1990s, right down to the present day, the growing association between religion and conservative politics prompted a backlash among moderates and progressives. The percentage of Americans who agreed “strongly” that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions nearly doubled from 22 percent in 1991 to over 38 percent in 2008. The Millennials, or twentysomethings, were very much part of this backlash.

Ironically, some in this group are fairly conservative in their political views; they are simply uncomfortable having their churches serve as venues for political forums.

It’s like a perfect storm. As these twentysomethings moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many influential religious leaders moved to the right. And while the tactic of using homosexuality as a tool to mobilize conservative voters worked in the short run, the long-term impact is the alienation of an emerging block of potential believers.

“Increasingly,” Putman and Campbell write, “young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic. If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them.”

Putman and Campbell warn of the long-term effects of these attitudes. They point out that habits formed in early adulthood have a way of becoming hardened over time.

“So if more than one-quarter of today’s young people are setting off in adult life with no religious identification,” Putman and Campbell write, “ the prospects for religious observance in the coming decades are substantially diminished.”

The real irony in all of this is that the majority of these non-affiliated young people do not regard themselves as atheists. Many of them hold very traditional views of God and the Bible.

What they reject is an institutional faith that aligns itself with a political party or platform. They have seen the polarizing effect of these unholy alliances and are choosing to have nothing to do with them.

Church leaders seeking to reach this group with God’s message of love, acceptance and grace would do well to heed this warning call.

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