If you can remember back that far, the 1950s and early 1960s were the hey day of institutional religion. I was, as I've noted, born at the end of the 1950s, grew up in the 60s and 70s and came of age in the early 70s. I was born into a mainline church, but left it for a more "charismatic" and conservative religious orientation in the mid to late 70s. Over time I grew disenchanted with my charismatic context, in large part due to the anti-intellectualism that I found there. I will add, that I also found a lot of hypocrisy in that group as well. We were very competent in covering our ways in spiritual language. But, I didn't go "liberal" overnight. I went to a premier evangelical seminary, though in evangelical circles Fuller is considered liberal, and while I continue to value my education at Fuller, I continued to chaff under the evangelical sub-culture that seemed unable to wrestle in meaningful ways with the intellectual challenges of the age. That's my story, but there is another story of a more dramatic aftershock to the conservative aftershock of the 1970s and 1980s.
Well, if the later Baby Boomers (sometimes called the Jones Generation) and the GenXers were more conservative, leading to the first aftershock, there is a new generation coming of age, and they are both more liberal and increasingly disaffected from institutional forms of religion. I know one of these people quite well --he's my son!
One of the key changes in this new generation is the growing presence of what have come to be known as the "None's." They're a bit like the growing numbers of Americans who choose as their political party affiliation -- Decline to State. Putnam and Campbell note that in the pre-boomer years maybe 5-7% of the population would have claimed no religious affiliation ("nones"). That doubled among boomers (10-15%), and that has doubled again to 20-30% among those who have come of age in the past two decades. The authors note that there is no evidence to show that as these younger generations age they're becoming more attached to institutional religion. Here is the kicker:
Since 2000 generational succession has meant that cohorts of whom barely 5 percent say they have no religious affiliation are being replaced by cohorts of whom roughly 25 percent say they have no religion, massively increasing the nationwide incidence of nones. (American Grace, p. 123).
It's not that they don't believe in God or seek some kind of spiritual sustenance, as the authors note there are few atheists or agnostics in this bunch. The New Atheists are making a big splash, but they're really not making many converts! Many of this new cohorts of "Nones" emerge from homes that were not religious to begin with -- that is children of Boomers who never got introduced to the church or synagogue, but they are also increasingly present among children of the devout, even among the evangelicals.
And, note this:
The new nones are heavily drawn from the center and left of the political spectrum. Hout and Fischer have shown that the rise of the new nones closely corresponds (with a lag of about half a decade) to the visibility of the Religious Right in the public media, suggesting that the rise of the nones might be some sort of backlash against religious conservativism. Our Faith Matters surveys confirm that few of the new nones come from the right half of the political spectrum. (American Grace, p. 127).
Although there are more progressive alternatives to conservative forms of religion, it would appear that the younger cohort isn't paying much attention to these alternatives. Institutional forms of religion seem to them to be inherently politicized, and they'll get their politics elsewhere.
So, what does this bode for the church? Although evangelicalism continues to have some presence, the trends don't look good for them either. Evangelicals could be in much the same place that Mainliners were four decades ago. And the movements that are tapping into all of this change are what have been called Emergent or Emerging churches.
I think that the past two election cycles are good examples of this. In 2008, President Obama and the Democrats had an amazing year, sweeping the Republicans out of the White House and creating huge majorities in Congress. They did this with a lot of help from young voters. In 2010, the situation reversed itself. But all of the polling suggests that the electorate of 2010 was much older than the general population. Will this reverse itself in 2012? It's too early to say, but I think it's interesting to note that the Fox viewership mirrors the 2010 electorate, it's getting older. Younger adults, who didn't show up at the polls in 2010, are turning to Stewart and Colbert! Oh, and I thought interesting that the median age of viewers for Sarah Palin's Alaska was 57 years old, 15 years older than the typical TLC audience.
The second aftershock is only now making itself felt -- the question that political parties and religious institutions need to consider, is how this shift will affect their longevity!