At the NAICU president’s conference, we were introduced to Robert Putnam, author of American Grace: How Religion United and Divides Us. Putnam is also the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Professor Putnam’s book examines current religious commitments of Americans and how that connects to their political leanings. His book and talk were enlightening to me.
We have all heard that America is entering a “post-Christian” era. Religious expression is declining among most of the population, and the culture is becoming hostile to people of faith. Putman does not take on this perception, but he provides a more nuanced picture of America today. He notes, for example, that America is the most religiously devout developed nation in the world by far. In terms of the number of are religiously observant, we rank No. 7 in the world. In fact, Putnam noted that religion has always played an important role in the cultural and political life of the United States, and it continues to do so.
He does suggest, though, that there have been some very interesting trends that universities, like George Fox, should note. Although we remain a devout country, in terms of religious practice, since the 1980s, and particularly since 1990, we have become increasingly polarized.
Putnam noted that,for the first time in American history, in the 1980s religious commitment began to be associated with one political party – the Republicans (he refers to this as the “God gap”). Prior to that point, people of the Christian faith found themselves in both political systems. He said the attack on traditional moral values and commitments by the so-called liberal elite in the 1960s and 1970s led to the establishment of a political wing of the conservative religious movement that allied with the Republican party. For a period of time, this group, sometimes referred to as the Moral Majority, gained power and membership in its churches. Coupled with the growth in the conservative religious system was the growth of its evangelical colleges – places like George Fox. At the same time, the liberal elite groups responded by forming their own movements to counter the religious conservatives. The result, according to Putnam, is an electorate that has little middle and large groups on either end, thus leading to polarization.
Why is this trending important for George Fox? It is important to recognize what is going on in the broader culture because we are trying to bring kingdom values into the culture we are a part of. But beyond this general note, his comments about the trending of Evangelical young people will be surprising to many. Although conservative Evangelicals remain the largest single religious force in the United States, about 1 in 4 Americans, they are no longer increasing in number. Perhaps most importantly, the data show that the movement is aging rapidly. In 1990, 1-in-4 young people between 18 and 22 said they were Evangelicals. During his survey from 2009, that number had fallen to 17 percent.
When asked why they did not wish to be identified with the Evangelical movement, they consistently answered that the church they were part of had become too political and could no longer distinguish between their religious commitments and those of the political party they supported. Putnam notes that, not unlike the mainline church movement (although for vastly different reasons), the conservative Evangelical movement may become far less significant in the future because of its inability to appeal to younger constituents. By the way, it is not that the young people say they have become agnostics or atheists. They remain believers in Christ, but they are disenchanted with the church of their parents.
Putnam’s study and conclusions fit well with the work of many others who have been studying the role of religion among young people in the United States. The challenge for George Fox is to find a way to both listen to our students and help them craft a new way to engage the world with the Gospel of Christ. It is yet another place where the “old wine skins” need to be replaced.
I would encourage you to read Putnam’s book, American Grace. He was rather upbeat on religion generally. He concluded his comments by noting that religious people in the United States are more likely to volunteer, to serve both secular and religious causes, and to give to all kinds of chartable works when compared to those who do not express religious practices. Our communities are making a difference.