Christianism Leads to Atheism


As I get around the country there is one question I hear from church leaders more than any other: How do we reach young people? They don’t need research from Barna, Lifeway, Pew, and Gallop to tell them young people are leaving the church. They see it every Sunday as the congregation gets a little more gray.

But the evidence is mounting that reaching or retaining the young is going to take a lot more than new music styles or even a systematic rethinking of church leadership and organizational structures. There is the larger cultural matter of politics.

An eye-opening article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam titled “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both,” is a must read. Using research among young adults, Putnam and Campbell ask why the next generation is increasingly identifying their religious affiliation as “none.” They conclude that politics is a significant reason. They write:

“The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right. And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined.”

Their last point is an important one. Those raised in the evangelical tradition under the age of 30 have no experience of Christianity separated from conservative politics–what some are now calling “Christianism.” And the most visible Christian leaders in the media for the last three decades have been political activists fighting for conservative cultural causes. A 50 or 60 year old pastor may have fond memories of the Jesus Movement, campus ministries, or the innovative spirit of American evangelicalism of the 1960s and 70s. But my generation associates faith with Jerry Falwell, the Religious Right, political crusades, arguments about abortion and homosexuality, and a combative posture toward “liberal” neighbors. (I suggest reading Jonathan Merritt’s article in The Christian Science Monitor on the impact of the current GOP primary on young people in the church.)

Even for those raised in apolitical congregations, like me, this has been an inescapable part of our experience as a Christian. My college years made this abundantly clear. I attended a secular state university. When my identity as a Christian was revealed to my peers, I often spent the majority of my time fighting the assumption that I was a homophobic, judgmental, Republican, racially insensitive, misogynist. To be honest, I grew so tired of fighting these stereotypes that I was often tempted to “hide my light under a bushel.” I was eager to talk about Christ and his Good News, but getting to that subject required crawling through the sewage of so many political and cultural issues that I sometimes concluded “why bother.”

One might conclude from Campbell and Putnam’s article that the church simply needs to jettison partisan politics. Reject the religious right, keep your mouth shut about politics and controversial social issues, and the young people will stop leaving the church. But it may not be so simple for two reasons.

First, even where churches avoid politics, the general perception of Christianity as politically conservative in our culture is still firmly established. Just as this view took decades to establish, it will also take decades to dismantle. And, second, there is no evidence that churches avoiding Republican partisanship are having any greater success reaching the younger generation.

Peter Berger responded to the Campbell/Putnam article with a more nuanced explanation for why young people have left the church. He writes:

Let me, with all due respect for Campbell and Putnam, suggest a hypothesis of my own: Most “nones” have not opted out of religion as such, but have opted out of affiliation with organized religion. Among Christians (the great majority of all survey respondents) there are different reasons for this disaffection. The two authors are very probably correct that, broadly speaking, those who are turned off by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics do so because they don’t like the repressive sexual morality of those churches (the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has not helped).

But the “nones” have also exited from mainline Protestantism, which has been much more accommodating to the liberationist ethic. Here, I think, there has been frustration with what my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann long ago called “secularization from within”—the stripping away of the transcendent dimensions of the Gospel, and its reduction to conventional good deeds, popular psychotherapy and (mostly left-of-center) political agendas. Put differently: My hypothesis implies that some “nones” are put off by churches that preach a repressive morality, some others by churches whose message is mainly secular.

So, we are left with a narrow path. Veer too far to the cultural right and the young will dismiss the church as a puppet of Republican politics. Veer too far to the theological left and the power of the Gospel is lost amid cultural accommodation.

The younger generations, and our culture as a whole, needs evidence of a third way to be Christian. It will require more than individual voices, but an organized and identifiable community of believers that reject Christianism and stands for Christ’s Good News, manifested in good lives, and evident in good works.

  • Jenn

    Thank you for this post.

    The last paragraph is so true, but so difficult. It’s a concept I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to “be a Christian” on either side of that line than it is to actually live out the faith in community. People are messy. Community is messy. And so we default to what is easy, forgetting how Christ actually called us to live.

  • Adam

    I’m sure you saw this piece of research just out:

    I think it points to another reason why the church is seeing a decline.

    The research looked at levels of civic engagement among Millennials. They found Millennials to be less engaged than GenXers (although the pace of decline has slowed).

    So, it may not simply be disillusionment with politically-biased churches specifically. It may just be disillusionment with politics in general. And if they’re getting preached to about politics, they’re just uninterested.

    If this is the case, then the church is simply one context where they express that disillusionment–by disengaging. Or perhaps they see the church as another “civic organization,” such that it is seen of a piece with other more overtly political, governing, or community bodies.

    If civic engagement is dropping, the fact that Millennials might see the church as just another civic organization may be partly why the church is experiencing the decline at the same time.

  • Jason Vana

    I work heavily with college and high school students in my ministry, and I have seen that many have become disenchanted with organized religion. They see what Christ taught in scriptures and wonder why their church tells them going to the bar is wrong (those of age, anyway), or why they need to convince their homosexual friends to give up their lifestyle, instead of loving them and inviting them into their lives. One of the core values in my ministry is community – students come to our groups on campus not because of a Christian duty, but because they have found a place where they can ask the tough questions, be themselves, share their faults and failures and successes, and find the real power of the gospel to change. That is what this generation is looking for – not stale, go through the motions, spruce up your service with lights and a fog machine kind of religion.

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  • Mark Aamt

    Well said Skye!

    Authentic relationship and experience of the living Jesus Christ, individually and in community…whether our young Sisters and Brothers inside or outside the church say it that way or not…THAT is what they want. Like all young people in all generations over time are, young people today have keen radars for even the most subtle hypocrisy among their “elders.” They don’t want to be tricked into belief and faith; and they also don’t want to be threatened into belief and faith.

    Whether they are Biblically literate or not, I believe most or all young folks are hard-wired by Daddy to sense the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When and where they sense these fruits genuinely at work, they will stick around. We all will, right?

    Isms and schisms can never bear that kind of fruit. Where can you find true love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in the sectors of the church that were hijacked by right-wing politics back in the 70s? But – to be fair and healthy – the answer is not found in an equal and opposing left-wing version of Christianity either. The answer is the extremely non-ismatic Jesus His Self!

  • George H. Gaqrdner

    Oh Yeah, our problem in America is surely the result of too much conservatism. Since we Christians now understand clearly that there in no hell, we might as well create our own here on earth. Right? The education of our youth, bottom to top, has been placed into the hands of a large union of radicals who believe in the lordship of humanity. America is almost certainly under God’s judgment, as was ancient Israel. Large portions of Scripture have been shelved as being outdater and irrevelent. Tolerance and inclusiveness have become the buzz words for acceptance. There is a vast difference between discernment and judgment, as Christians are called to discern sin, no matter who is doing the sinning. Judgment belongs to God alone. Young people reject and shun others who lean to the conservative side, but that’s OK…they’re educated . You want to look into the future of Christianity?? Watch the PC/USA self-destruct. God fearing pastors and parents…where have they gone? Now, I’ve discerned what I preceive to be your errors; tell me where I am wrong. But if you have a rebuttal, please remember how sensitive I am. I’ll need a trophy and an A+ grade so my feelings are not hurt. P.S. Do you suppose you can pick out the Democrats who have posted to this blog. hahaha