Van Ens: Millennials turn their backs on organized religion
Some religious groups habitually use right/wrong categories to judge motives and actions of people with whom they disagree. This either/or, us/them, my way/you take a hike mentality attracts followers. Separating people into enemy camps is simple, direct and easy to understand.
It also is a major reason why American church membership is in a free-fall. In early April 2021, a Gallup Poll reported only 47% of Americans affiliate with a church, synagogue or mosque. This is the first time this number has plunged below 50% since Gallup began asking this question in 1937.
A prime reason for organized religion’s steep membership drop is because Millennials, aged 25-40-years-old, believe same-sex marriage is a civil right. These young adults born between 1981 and 1996 regard abortion as an often messy, complicated and personal decision between a pregnant woman, her doctor, family, spiritual counselor and God.
Case Western University’s professor of religion Timothy Beal describes why young adults, such as Millennials and college students, part ways with organized religion in the U.S. They shun conservative groups that regard abortion and same-sex marriage as morally reprehensible. Millennials say such heavy-handed judgments shrink personal liberties.
“… I’ve found that the specific ‘religious teaching’ and related ‘positions’ they [young adults] object to most often concern sexuality and science,” reports Beal. “Many of them question what they perceive as religion’s negative views about women’s reproductive rights [regarding abortion] and … [non-straight] sexuality, especially same-sex marriage and transgender rights” (The Wall Street Journal, “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans,” Nov. 16-17, 2019).
The rate of young Americans ditching organized religion has accelerated since 2000 when evangelical George W. Bush was elected president. He confessed sins caused by binging on booze. Bush testified how Jesus Christ ranked as his top philosopher and personal Savior.
During Bush’s first term, conservative churches gained political power. Many states enforced sodomy laws, and the anti-abortion movement grew. By the end of Bush’s second term in 2009, however, public acceptance of same-sex marriage increased. More Americans believed having an abortion was a woman’s personal decision, and sexual identity was on a biological continuum rather than defined by fixed categories — male and female.
During this sudden, massive flipflop of moral values in the U.S., the Gallup Poll reported young people distanced themselves from organized religion. In 1937, Gallup tracked 73% of Americans holding church membership. This rate fluctuated little until 2000. In 1999, 70% of Americans affiliated with houses of worship. Now, this rate is in a free-fall at 47%. The decline parallels a significant shift during the Bush II presidency (2001-2009) when moral values about sexuality and abortion became less judgmental and more accepting among Americans.
People come to church for two divergent reasons. One group seeks right answers, accepts doctrinal judgments and expects sermons that confirm their convictions. Others affiliate with churches to reflect deeply on moral dilemmas that defy easy explanations. They expect churches to pose the right questions rather than give traditional answers.
Should organized religion offer a set of non-negotiable rules supported by biblical proof texts that lock morality in tight places from which it never changes? Or is religion a quest in which followers probe complex realities that lack clear answers? Millennials feel at home in a culture shaped by ethical complexity, which collides with simplistic moral universe of some religions.
Millennials bond with cattle ranchers who favor keeping herds from wandering by erecting fences rather than digging wells. Millennials reject moral codes that build moral fences dividing people. They offer “hospitable wells” to suage the thirsts of people with different ethical tastes.
The Apostle Paul recognized divergent ethical ways of thinking. There is “knowledge that puffs up” based on fixed answers. In contrast, “love that builds up” (I Corinthians 8:1-2) respects moral codes that evolve because scientific and religious insights change.
Religious authorities grilled Jesus, posing thorny moral problems. Jesus offended these critics because he regarded the quest for God’s truth as less a set of rules and more a web of relationships embracing imperfect people.
Ranging from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the Bible, readers meet travelers on life’s journeys. God called Abraham to go on a risky pilgrimage, radically different from today’s group tours with predictable itineraries. Jesus left his boyhood home in Nazareth, setting out to Jerusalem.
This traveling metaphor treats life as a journey, stopping with Robert Frost at forks in the road, adjusting to travel surprises, and not knowing for certain what lurks ahead.
Jesus practiced building relationships with people who stumbled on their journeys. The religious authorities defended rigid rights and wrongs that define two camps — correct, proper folk against wrong, condemned sinners.
Most Millennials think organized American Christianity spends less time feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless because they are preoccupied with abusing women by closing abortion clinics and limiting rights for LGBTQ people.
Christian Century magazine’s publisher, the Reverend Peter W Marty, describes religious strengths Millennials admire: “The world is in greater danger from people claiming to know too much rather than too little, Reinhold Niebuhr observed [teacher of ethics and politics at Union Theological Seminary who Time magazine featured on its cover in the 1950s].
“Few things seem to have boiled the blood of Jesus more than religious people who behaved as if they knew all things. That self-righteousness didn’t sit well with One [Jesus] who desired that people point their lives towards the truth, not claim entire possession of it,” (“Cultivating Uncertainty,” Dec. 18, 2019).
Millennials, who skip attending church, agree.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.