Recently the Washington Post published an article entitled “America is giving up on political parties and organized religion. Thanks, millennials.” This is, by now, a familiar sort of address for most Americans under 40. The nation is going to hell in a hand basket, and it’s all your fault. Let’s take a look at this accusation, unpack it, and see how it rates on validity and logic.
First off, the most reasonable answer, it seems to me, is, “You’re welcome.” Because the fact of the matter is that these changes haven’t developed out of nothing; there has been, shall we say, fertilizer to feed these roses. The two-party system in the United States has long been recognized as a problematic structure — it creates gridlock and conflict, and it limits thinking to that which aligns within restrictive categories created by parties and constituents. Whether political parties are actually growing more polarized is an arguable point — but what is clear is that frustration with both has been at record highs in recent years. Religion has gotten its own bad press — though problems with religious and political ideas are hardly new. It’s possible younger generations are simply more hesitant to be categorized.
Let’s look and the evidence supporting these claims. Are they accurate? Apparently the answer is a cautious yes. Polls would suggest that it is true, at least as far as you trust the wording of the polls themselves to elicit accurate responses.
In particular questions of religious identity are difficult to phrase correctly because there are many Americans who might, for example, be raised Catholic, identify as Catholic, have a family background of Catholicism, but have a belief system they would consider to be only spiritual generally. Depending on the question, how such an individual responds could be very different.
Putting that to the side for the moment, there have been a number of polls showing a decreased religious identity, and an increased number of Americans — particularly young Americans — who identify as independents rather than siding with one party or the other. According to Pew Research there has been a drop in party affiliation between 1992 and 2014, from 33% Democrat to 32%, and 28% Republican to 23%. There has also been a rise from 36% independent to 39%. More significant is the change in independents over a shorter period of time, however, with Democrats and Republicans at similar levels in 2004, but independents having risen 9 percentage points since then.
According to Pew Research, between 2007 and 2014 the percentage of the population it found to be identifying as anything other than unaffiliated or non-christian faiths all dropped. Evangelical Protestants fell from 26.3% to 25.4%, Catholics dropped from 23.9% to 20.8%, and mainline Protestants fell from 18.1% to 14.7%. Conversely, those calling themselves unaffiliated rose from 16.1% to 22.8%, a difference of 6.7 percentage points and the greatest change by far.
Non-Christian faiths — i.e. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other — rose from 4.6% to 5.9%. On the other hand, according to Salon, 38% of Americans say they attend regular religious services, while 93% say they believe in god or a higher power. Which is perhaps where the “organized” religion becomes more of the issue than simply identifying as religious. But that distinction also matters; it shows that there may be a problem with churches and organizations with more structured beliefs and views — with rules that are written in stone rather than more gently applied by personal taste.
These stats on religion and politics may seem unrelated, but only to the naive. The United States has a historic and still present relationship between the two in ways that are sometimes indirect, but at times only too obvious. Same-sex marriage and equal rights have come into conflict with legal protection of religion freedom — or so the argument has been constructed by members of the Republican party in particular. Policy is affected by religion on everything from contraception to education, and politicians are absolutely aware of the influence it has. For some, it laces their rhetoric — as we’ve seen quite often with presidential contender Ben Carson. For others, it helps determine their political constituency, as we see with Mike Huckabee and Evangelical Christians. And in a less direct way, it’s clear to many candidates that non-religion, or a less popular set of beliefs, might make their pathway to political power considerably more difficult, even in today’s age.
Religion in politics appears to be alive and well in many ways, but given our nation’s historical commitment to the separation of church and state, that isn’t something I can bring myself to apologize for. And organized religion does seem to have a way — not in all cases, but in some select examples — of bringing out political involvement. The Pope made a good example of this recently, and based on his comments, Carson believes he is literally being dragged into a presidential run by God.
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