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Declining Religious Affiliation And The Impact Of The Millennials

Nearly a quarter century ago, demographers began to discuss and to debate the characteristics that would define the largest generational cohort in American history.  The massive Baby Boom generation was about to be replaced as the nation’s record-holder by its children, who, coupled with millions of immigrants, would top out at somewhere between 77 million and 90 million individuals, which is to say roughly 1% to 20% larger than the Boomers.  Then called the Baby-Boom-Echo – for obvious reasons – analysts and researchers soon began to refer to this new and mammoth cohort as the “Millennium Generation,” and they soon began to ponder the challenges and problems that these Millennials would pose.

Among other things, demographers understood that the Millennials would be different from previous modern generations in their attitudes and loyalties.  An exceptionally-large portion of the cohort would either have immigrated to the United States or would be the children of parents who had.  Moreover, unlike previous generations of immigrants, the Millennials would be encouraged – by their families as well as the “multicultural” society at large – to retain strong connections to their native lands and to resist traditional assimilation into their new home.

Additionally, a far greater percentage of Millennials would be raised in single-parent homes, or other non-traditional environments, and would have a weaker link to the particularities of tradition and stability.  All of which is to say that even as long as two decades ago, researchers understood that the Millennium Generation would be unlike any that had preceded it in American history, particularly with respect to attitudes toward, and respect for, the social status quo.  In an exceptionally prescient July 1998 piece for the Washington Post, Dale Russakoff put it this way:

“This is a revolution in waiting,” said Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.   “This generation will redefine society in the 21st century just as baby boomers shaped social, political and economic changes in the last half of the 20th century.” . . .

“We have been happily looking at a small decline in the teenage birth rate,” said Kristin Moore, president of Child Trends, a nonprofit research firm.  “But if you just look at 14-to-17-year-old girls, there will be 1 million more of them in 2005 than in 1995.  It’s going to take a really major decline in the birth rate to keep actual numbers from going up.  The magnitude of the increase has escaped people who think we’re winning this battle.  And you can extend it to crime rates, drug use and all the other issues.”

Childhood in America has become an increasingly diverse experience since 1980, when the first members of the Millennium Generation were born. . . .

The Census Bureau projects that children of immigrants will account for 88 percent of the increase in the under-18 population between 2000 and 2050.  Without immigration, the bureau says, the population of children in fact would decrease slightly from 2000 to 2015….

Such a large generation of children marching toward adulthood has provoked intense interest among adults – particularly business and political leaders – in how today’s children may run the world when they take over.  Celente, of Trends Research Institute, has a grim forecast for the existing power structure.

“The Millennium Generation has no loyalty of any kind – no family loyalty, no corporate loyalty.  Party loyalty?  Are you kidding?” Celente said.

I mention all of this today because the Millennium Generation, its background, its history, and especially its proclivities, help to explain a great deal about the state of religion in America.

As you may have heard, last month Pew Research released its survey on religious beliefs, practices and affiliation in America, and the results were, to some, quite shocking.  According to Pew:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center.  Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.  While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages.  The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

Let us start by noting that this is not good news.  No matter how one looks at it or how one slices up the data, this is distressing.  At the same time, however, this is hardly the end of Christianity in America, and one should look at the numbers in context before declaring – as Rod Dreher did over at the American Conservative – that Christianity in America is “in collapse.”

For starters, it is important to note – as countless others have throughout the commentariat – that the headline number here deals with religious affiliation, not necessarily with religious practice.  The religious practice number – which is to say the percentage of people who claim to attend church services weekly – is actually quite stable.  As Ross Douthat noted in his blog/column for the New York Times, “Using Pew’s own numbers, you’ll see that 39 percent of Americans reported attending church weekly in 2003; in 2013 it was only down two points, to 37 percent.”  Moreover, this religious practice number has remained at or around 40% for most of the last century.  The number has fluctuated a few points up or down over time, but has generally been pretty stable – and remains so now, Christianity’s “collapse” notwithstanding.

It is also important to note that the biggest fall-off in affiliation – the “shocking” headline number about the survey – can be found among Millennials, the youngest cohort considered “adults” in this report.  As Pew reports:

One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the “nones” is generational replacement.  As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations.  Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33).  And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers.  Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism.  Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants.

Again, while this is unfortunate, it is not necessarily cause for despair.  Indeed, as I noted above, this was an entirely predictable outcome of the Millennials’ maturation.  The Millennium Generation is, more or less, “unaffiliated” in all of life’s pursuits – and was always going to be so.  Religious leaders may or may not take solace in this fact, but contemporary partisan political leaders, technology developers, and countless others who have long staked their jobs and reputations on stability and customer loyalty are equally vexed by the Millennials, who, as Gerald Celente predicted, are generally lacking in affiliations or “loyalty” of any kind.

Additionally, and perhaps just as importantly, for a variety of reasons – some of which were foreseeable twenty years ago, some of which were not – the Millennials, as a whole, have yet to reach the stage of life in which stability is important.  Again, as Ross Douthat noted:

Historically in American life it’s been normal for people to drift away from church or organized religion in their twenties and then circle back once they get married and (especially) have kids.  (Catholicism, in particular, gets an awful lot of reverts, another under-studied part of why its overall numbers have held up.)  And at least part — not all, there are clearly big ideological and theological issues, but part — of what we’re seeing in the Pew figures is that as the period of drifting has expanded into people’s late 20s and early 30s, with marriage and family getting pushed ever-further back, the drifters themselves become less likely to formally affiliate with their parents’ church, and more likely to see themselves as actually lapsed, ex-Christians, what-have-you, instead of just as people taking a long young-adult break from churchgoing.  So the question facing institutional religion, then, is connected to the questions facing the institution of marriage and hovering over the future of the family: Namely, will the Millennial generation eventually enter the unions that they haven’t entered yet, have the babies that they’re delaying having, and end up reconnecting with their parents’ religion (or some other) when they do?  Or will a lengthened adultescence plus the impact of the Great Recession ultimately lead to fewer marriages, fewer kids, and less re-entry into religious community over the course of the life cycle? 

Is the United States nearing a tipping point of sorts, a point at which Christian affiliation collapses entirely and never recovers?  I don’t know, obviously.  I do know, however, that the recent data released by Pew Research is not necessarily reason to panic or to start making plans to hide away in the catacombs.  The Millennium Generation skews Pew’s headline numbers, both because of its size and its unique character.  The key to understanding the current data, and the key to predicting religious affiliation in America going forward, lies in the currently-unknowable answers to two questions.  First, as Douthat asks, “How and when and whether the Millennials [will] grow up?”  Second, what comes next?  Will subsequent generations share the Millennials’ sense of dislocation?  Or will American society stabilize enough to allow them to assume more traditional patterns of constancy and loyalty.

Only time will tell, of course.  Stay tuned.