The Election and Why Millennials are Leaving the Church Margins

by Kerry Pimblott
[Cross-posted from Kerry Pimblott's blog Marginalife]

One of the most interesting findings about our electorate this election cycle is the growing number of people identifying as religiously unaffiliated or "Nones".

In October, the Pew Research Center identified that "Nones" were on the rise with one-in-five adults polled indicating that they had no religious affiliation. The trend toward religious disaffiliation was particularly pronounced in my age bracket - "the Millennials" - with one third identifying as such.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

While a significant group of "Nones" identify as atheist or agnostic, a larger proportion continue to maintain a belief in God or spirituality but do not identify with a particular faith tradition. As I have suggested in previous work, this growth in the religiously unaffiliated has been most pronounced among white millennials and has contributed to a slow but steady decline in the white mainline and evangelical Protestant communities.

Millennials and Religious Affiliation
In fact, if we look at college-age millennials (18-25 yrs) a recent survey indicates that more identify as religiously unaffiliated (24.7%) than as Catholics (20%), white mainline Protestants (12.6%), or white evangelical Protestants (12.3%). The latter is particularly significant and reinforces our understanding of the "generation gap" growing in evangelical Protestant churches where more than 80% of congregants are over thirty and 45% are over fifty years. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that most millennials (89%) have been raised in religiously affiliated families but are actively choosing to leave the faith traditions of their youth in droves.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The Causes of Religious Disaffiliation
A number of factors appear to have contributed to the recent growth of the "Nones". Interestingly, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated college-age millennials view Christianity as having good values and principles (76%). However, there is a growing frustration at the close ties between Christianity and Conservatism. In addition to being young and white, the majority of the religiously unaffiliated identify as politically liberal and dislike modern Christianity's oppositional stance on issues like gay marriage and abortion. In addition, a majority of all "Nones" consider churches to be too concerned with money and power (70%) and too involved in politics (67%).

Millennials of all religious traditions are also likely to perceive modern-day Christianity as "hypocritical" (58 percent), "judgmental" (62 percent) and "anti-gay" (64 percent).

Race and the Rise of Millennial "Nones"
These significant generational shifts in religious affiliation are most pronounced among white millennials. In fact, no similar decline in religious affiliation has been identified among African American millennials. Commentators on this trend have tended to note the high church participation of Black millennials as well as the historically central role of Black churches as both social and religious community institutions. One overlooked factor in explaining this disparity is the distinctive political milieu of most Black Protestant congregations which overwhelmingly lean toward the Democratic Party. The liberal lean of Black Protestantism presents few of the political conflicts for Black millennials that  white mainline and evangelical Protestantism presents for white millennials.

The "Nones" and the 2012 Election
The growth of the "Nones" has had both a religious and political effect. Over the past few days, the Pew Research Center has released a new survey on religious affiliation and the 2012 election which indicates the growing strength and significance of the "Nones" to our political culture. As the chart above shows, the religiously unaffiliated now match white evangelicals in size and potential political influence. While almost 8 out 10 white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney, 7 out of every 10 "Nones" supported Barack Obama.

Sarah Posner over at ReligionDispatches argues that this might represent a "Great Religious Realignment" that threatens to overturn the religious underpinnings of the political coalition formed by the Republican Party during the Reagan years.

When Millennials Leave the Church Margins
The 2012 election has only served to exacerbate tensions between the Religious Right - whose influence is shrinking with each new election - and progressive millennial voters who have either left the church already or are on their way out the door.

After spending the first thirty years of my life living on the margins of multiracial and predominantly white evangelical congregations, my partner and I finally decided to leave the tradition three weeks before the election prompted by our pastors veiled declarations of support for Romney and the mass of cheers that ensued.

Over the past ten years I have struggled to remain within a tradition where I represent a distinct minority in terms of my politics on democracy, gender, class, nation, sexuality, race, science, the environment, and Biblical inerrancy. However, those struggles have become more pronounced since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as an older generation of white evangelicals became "radicalized" in opposition to his presidency. The polarization has become so intense that it raises fundamental questions about the "brotherhood" of Christ and our sense of shared community.

The rise of megachurches has compounded these tensions within evangelical congregations by destroying the possibility of meaningful congregational relationships and community. Differences in political affiliations and even values can sometimes be overcome in the context of intimate meaningful relationships. However, in the absence of these relationships our differences loom large and we find ourselves asking what keeps us together and why we continue to try so hard to create a shared community. Church cultures become more homogenous and those on the periphery are left isolated and alienated.

Many of us are being pushed from the margins of evangelical culture to the door.

[Cross-posted from Kerry Pimblott's blog Marginalife]


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