Robert Putnam has convinced me I’m weird. Of course, I have been convinced of this on any number of occasions for a whole host of reasons, but reading Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us has demonstrated to me that I represent a combination of religious, political, and social characteristics that has become, well, weird in contemporary America.
Putnam and Campbell chronicle the state and configuration of religion and religious belief in American society at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Some of their findings (probably including those I’ll mention in this post) won’t surprise anyone, but the book is still quite interesting and compelling, and some of their findings do surprise.
One of the things Putnam and Campbell talk about is the process by which religion and politics have become aligned over the past thirty years. This is the much talked about “God gap” in politics, wherein more religious and more devout people are much more likely to vote Republican while the unreligious or non-devout are more likely to vote Democrat. There is one major exception for this, which is African-Americans, who are among the most devout and the most Democratic groups in the country, but as a general trend, this correlation holds fast.
Putnam and Campbell are certainly not the first to point out this correlation, but they do point out that it has not always been a given in American history. Fifty years ago, there was almost no correlation between one’s religiosity or level of devotion and their political affiliation. Putnam and Campbell also explain that the current alignment of religion and politics results almost entirely from the salience of abortion and gay marriage as political topics. Putnam and Campbell also interestingly demonstrate how Americans as individuals have changed their religious views to fit their political views (rather than changing their political views to fit their religion). The politically liberal have become less religious, while the politically conservative have become more religious. Finally, Putnam and Campbell comment on the strength of the correlation. I heard Putnam speak last week, and he asserted that he could tell a whole host of political and other factors about the audience member just by their answer to the question of how often they said grace before meals.
So this is the first reason I’m weird, according to Putnam and Campbell: I’m religious and devout, but I’m politically liberal. Abortion and gay marriage are not the political topics that drive my voting habits. Whatever predictions Putnam may have made about me last week when I raised my hand to indicate that I say grace daily were largely incorrect.
What makes me weirder, though, is that I’m young. While there’s been a general trend within the US population for religion to come to coincide with politics, that process has been hyper-accelerated among young Americans. A third of Americans in their twenties (a category I just miss being in) now claim no religious affiliation, an astoundingly high number by historic standards. Many of those disaffiliated are young people who have been turned off by the equation of religiosity with Republicanism and, being averse to Republicanism, have opted out of religion as well.
All of this leaves me as something of an oddity in the country right now: a young, liberal, devout Christian. I’m a bit sad about this situation: sad that people have allowed their politics to dictate their religion instead of the other way around, sad that young people especially have been driven away from faith because of political reasons, sad that there are so few voices standing up to point out the ways in which the gospel opposes unjust systems.
Yet I know that, although I may be weird, I am not alone. Indeed, many of you reading this blog post are probably also young, liberal Christians. Furthermore, I know that God does not call us to be in the majority. God calls us to be faithful. So, if I have to be part of a faithful minority in society, that’s not the worst thing. It may at times be frustrating to repeat, “No, really, it is possible to be young, liberal, and religious – See? I’m doing it!” but being a faithful witness that the Spirit does not always blow in conservative directions is a ministry, too.
So leave a comment below and let me know what you think: Am I weird? Are you weird, too? What are the prospects for being young, liberal, and religious in America?