Faith and politics: a toxic mix?

The increasing mix of religion and politics may be pushing more and more young people away from faith.

That's the bottom line of a compelling analysis in the Los Angeles Times by political scientists Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell from Notre Dame.

They note that the percentage of Americans who say they have "no religion" has soared in the last twenty years -- and are heavily-concentrated among people who have come of age since 1990. Their studies show between 25 and thirty percent of twenty-somethings today say they have no religious affiliation -- about four times higher than any previous generation.

The reason behind this, Putnam and Campbell write, is the increasing influence of religion on conservative politics -- and visa versa. To many young people whose sole view of the faith landscape comes from the last twenty years, being religious means being conservative. Period.

Let's be honest -- it's always hard to keep people in their twenties involved in faith, and hand-wringing about this has been going on, well, at least since I was in my twenties. But Putnam and Campbell are on to something, if only because of the increase in young people who keep formal religion at arm's length.

When I was in my twenties, there were choices in religion -- and we Americans love our choices. Many Catholics were more fully involved in the church thanks to Vatican II reforms; courageous priests and nuns worked for social justice here at home and in places like Central America. Many paid a high price for their progressive beliefs. More conservative Catholics had the church's traditions to rely on, and various groups like Opus Dei to look to for spiritual guidance. The church was, to use a hack political phrase. a "big tent."

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But, Putnam and Campbell imply, as religious leaders have gotten more involved in elective politics, they've followed in the footsteps of politicians. Forget the big tent. Consensus and compromise are discarded and devalued -- only the loudest voices are heard, and those loud voices come mostly from the right. Every time some bishop somewhere refuses a progressive Catholic congressman communion because of his latest vote on some bill, a headline ensues. Young people shake their heads and say: "Not for me."

Twenty-somethings (or Millenials, as demographers call them) are very concerned about the tone of American society and what it means for their future. It was one of the things that brought them out to the polls for Barack Obama in 2008 -- and have left them disappointed and discouraged in 2010. Many of them may be casting about for a solution to this sad state of national affairs; many may be looking for faith to provide the healing balm. But what they see instead is an embarrassing imitation of stale political arguments, conducted in pews instead of polling places.

In Matthew, Jesus said: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." Maybe he wasn't just talking about paying the tax-man his due. Maybe Jesus was warning religious people to keep fleeting hot-button issues of the day far away from the deeper inquiries faith demands. If so, too many haven't been listening. But young people have, and they've taken this as their cue to walk away.


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