Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
The American religious landscape is evolving rapidly. During the last decade, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has more than doubled—21 percent identify as unaffiliated today, compared to eight percent in 2003. Millennials are three times more likely than the oldest generation to identify as religiously unaffiliated (32 percent vs. 10 percent).
The fact that most Millennials who are now religiously unaffiliated were raised in a religious tradition raises important questions about the forces responsible for this recent shift. PRRI’s latest survey finds one reason for high rates of disaffiliation among Millennials is their perception about how religious institutions treat gay and lesbian people. Among Millennials who no longer identify with their childhood religion, nearly one-third say negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people was either a somewhat important (17 percent) or very important (14 percent) factor in their disaffiliation from religion. In contrast, fewer than 1-in-5 Baby Boomers (19 percent) and Silent Generation Americans (17 percent) who have disaffiliated report that this was a somewhat or very important reason for their leaving.
Moreover, the implications of religious institutions’ ideologies about, and treatment of, gay and lesbian people are viewed similarly by Millennials and Americans overall. Most Americans agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. Nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent) Americans agree that religious groups are alienating young people, while roughly one-third (35 percent) disagree. Millennials remain most likely to believe that religious groups are alienating young people. Seven-in-ten (70 percent) Millennials believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. In contrast, only roughly 4-in-10 (43 percent) members of the Silent Generation believe that religious groups are alienating young people, while nearly as many (44 percent) disagree.