Thursday, May 17, 2012

R is for religion

Religion is a tricky subject, with the field of debate usually occupied by strong-willed antagonists. There should be room for people to disagree without being disagreeable—yes, even on the Internet—but that often doesn’t happen. Religion enters into many debates, most obviously on political issues, especially the “culture wars” issues that make headlines and raise money for both sides.

There’s no doubt that religion is important to the USA. A 2009 Gallup reported that 65% of Americans said that religion is an important part of their daily lives. More recently, they reported that Mississippi is the most religious US state with 59% classified as “very religious” for answering yes to the same question. Overall, half or more of the populations of eight US states were classified as “very religious” (for comparison, Vermont and New Hampshire were the least religious at 23%).

A map of the most religious states matches pretty closely with states that tend to vote Republican, especially in presidential elections. Not everyone is happy about that particular comingling of religion and politics.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently reported research that found 54% of Americans thought that churches should stay out of politics. Naturally, there’s a partisan divide: 60% of Democrats felt that way, but only 44% of Republicans agreed. However, 58% of Independents—who often determine the outcome of elections—agreed with Democrats.

What all of this means is that even among religious Americans, the majority don’t like the mix of religion and politics. Nowhere is that more obvious than among young adults.

Rachel Held Evens recently wrote a blog post entitled “How to win a culture war and lose a generation.” In it, she asserts that twenty-somethings like her are “tired of the culture wars”. Citing research into the behaviour of young adult Christians, she wrote that “one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends.” She also cites research that found that among 16-29 year old Americans, the top word or phrase they felt best describes Christianity is “anti-homosexual”, chosen by 91%—and also by 80% of young churchgoers.

No coincidentally, younger people are also far more likely to support marriage equality than are their parents or grandparents—even though they aren’t necessarily any different religiously. There are plenty of folks on the religious right who argue that their religious belief isn’t a matter of popular opinion, but that’s simply not true: Religious people in America once argued fervently that their faith justified keeping slaves, forbidding women the right to vote and interracial marriage, but none apart from the most extreme would make those arguments now.

All the research to date indicates that “socially liberal” views on subjects like gay and lesbian people don’t change as people age, even if other beliefs become more conservative. This is why so many pundits say the “culture wars” are a last-gasp, last stand as the overall culture inevitably shifts toward the views of younger people.

This leaves older conservative religionists in a double bind: They don’t believe their religious beliefs allow them to change their views on social issues, but if they don’t, they’ll drive away younger people who will change the culture, anyway. It can’t be an easy place to be.

In western societies, religion and politics always sit uneasily beside each other. It’s the reason the founders of the US wanted the two separated—but that’s a topic for another day. Right now, the important thing is that regardless of where one is on the political or religious spectrum, things are changing. That’s not so tricky after all.

The photo at the top of this post was taken by father, and originally accompanied this post.

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Roger Owen Green said...

Religion in the US is a lot more contentious than it was even when you first went to NZ; it depresses me.
ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Absolutely. While overall religiosity has declined somewhat, the fervour has certainly increased. I bet you that a survey of young Americans taken 20 years ago, say, wouldn't have resulted in "anti-homosexual" as being the best word to describe Christianity, even after the "culture wars" of the 80s. Something has definitely changed, and not for the better, in my opinion.

Ann said...


best not to talk about your R word, especially at work. LOL

Hannah said...

Hmm yes, intense but good talk here. Where the word religion gets so messy I believe in and practice spirituality. Smiles to you!