I suspect that many people will consult Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers primarily for chapter 8: The Divided Generation: Religion in Public Life. How will the religious views of the younger generation affect the political process? Religion is public, and it tends to follow a three-fold process of adapting to social conditions.
Production – opportunities to worship and practice religion are produced.
Selection – process of competition through which some options survive and others die.
Institutionalization – most groups eventually gain some autonomy from their environment.
Is the younger generation ready to carry on the culture wars? Let’s take a look.
First off, polarization is more widespread today than before. More young Americans are identifying themselves as very conservative or as very liberal today than in 1984. Religiously speaking, liberalism outweighs conservatism.
But religious conservatives are much more active religiously than liberals. Thus, the division is behavioral, not just ideological. Many young adults now consider themselves religiously and politically in the same categories.
Do young Americans follow what is often considered American civil religion? Younger adults are less likely to believe that the U.S. was founded upon Christian principles. Likewise, they are less inclined to agree that America is strong because of its faith in God. Evidently, we are seeing a larger cultural shift in which younger adults are growing up in a different environment – one that does not presuppose a strong link between Christianity and America. (Those who attend church regularly are more likely to see the civil religion connection.)
Young adults look favorably upon mixing religion and politics. They tend to be more favorable towards references to God in public speech. However, they are less comfortable with political pronouncements coming from the pulpit and with religious leaders running for office. Young adults do not agree with civil religion in terms of a cultural establishment for Christianity. However, they are fine with politicians who speak of religion as a voluntaristic form of free expression.
What about the hot button issues of abortion and homosexuality? Regarding abortion, young adults are more polarized than ever. Some have become more open to legal abortion, while others have become more opposed. The overall trend has been a growing opposition among young people.
Regarding homosexuality, young adults across the board have become more tolerant. The biggest shift has been in evangelical circles. Young evangelicals remain overwhelmingly opposed to homosexuality, although they believe homosexuals should have certain rights (excluding marriage).
Regarding the Religious Right, many young evangelicals have a positive view of pro-life groups and the Christian Coalition. Young evangelicals resemble older evangelicals in their attitudes toward leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Still, the younger generation has softened its views toward gays and lesbians and organizations like the ACLU. Regarding issues of war and peace, young adults and older adults are quite close.
Wuthnow’s conclusion? Young evangelicals care about the future of America and politicians’ religious convictions still matter in public life. Young evangelicals are more likely now to identify themselves as conservative Republicans. The statistics do show, however, a widening gap between religious conservatives and religious liberals.