William Schweiker on the ‘Great American Slumbering’

A man kneels in prayer at Trinity Church in Boston in 2013. Photo by Charles Clegg/Creative Commons

William Schweiker is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. This article originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

For the purposes of marketing and political polling, it has become fashionable in recent decades to demarcate and name generations of the nation’s citizens — Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials (also Gen Ys) and Gen Z. Even if these generational boxes seem cramped and sometimes create false divisions, we owe a lot to social scientists for the insight they have brought to our common national life with these generational groupings.

What is more, the generational demarcations that have proven useful for marketing and polling purposes also enable us to catch sight not only of similarities among these particular age groups, but also the rough outlines of trends important for our civic life.

Now and then, they even give us sightings of religion, and, correlatively, non-religious trends with helpful designations, say, in addition to Baby Boomers (etc.), the “Nones,” that is, the growing demographic of people with no formal religious affiliation. As the United Methodists are being torn apart, as the clergy crisis continues among Catholics, the Nones keep adding numbers so that they are about one-quarter of the population.

It is to this situation that Nicholas Kristof, a well-known columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote a fine opinion piece, “We’re Less and Less a Christian Nation, and I Blame Some Blowhards.” His point was one that has, in part, been made by many observers of the American scene, namely that millennials are leaving the churches and not returning. Kristof relies on a Pew Research Center study that found that only 49% of millennials think of themselves as Christian as opposed to 84% of Americans in their seventies and older.

Of course, our nation is, happily, becoming more diverse racially, religiously, ethnically and linguistically. And generational and life-cycle issues are very much in play here, as others have noted: millennials are busy working, advancing careers, starting and having families, in some cases are in their second marriages, and, given those realities, are often opting out of membership in religious institutions, ostensibly (hopefully) to return later. But they’re not returning.

Why not? That is the question.

Kristof’s conclusion, which this author thinks is at least part of the explanation, is that the “central issue is that faith is to provide moral guidance — and many moralizing figures on the evangelical right don’t impress young people as moral at all.” As he notes, LGBTQ folks have significantly greater approval among millennials than evangelicals. So, the nub of the problem is, not surprisingly, the age-old question of the relation of faith and morality, religion and ethics.

While Dostoevsky worried that without God everything is possible, it seems now, for millennials at least, that with God everything should be expected. And while religion in the U.S. has always been of a rather moralist stripe, owing not only to those strict Puritans but to others as well, that seems to be shifting under our feet, for good or ill.

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Source: Religion News Service