Why being young, liberal, and devout makes me weird

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?


Cassie posted on March 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm

If you’re weird, I am, alas, weirder (shocking, I know). I’m a socially liberal Christian while at the same time being predominantly politically conservative because of my fiscal and governmental views. No wonder I spend most of my time frustrated with the political choices and ready to swear off both religion AND politics.

David Shane posted on March 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Well, I’m a young, conservative Christian, so perhaps I’ve no place commenting here. I do agree with you that liberals are weird though. (Oh is, is that not what you meant? 🙂 ) The timing of this post is ironic for me, as I was considering writing a blog post myself on why I think it’s reasonable that most Christians are also political conservatives – hasn’t happened yet though.

To address your post though, I’d say, first, that abortion wasn’t a hot topic 80 years ago. If it was, and if one political party distinguished itself as the pro-life party, then this alignment of politics and religion might have happened earlier. (I think politics has changed in other relevant ways too… but that can wait for a blog post.) And if you do think that abortion is the murder of an innocent human being, then it’s perfectly reasonable to let that be the primary driver of your politics, at least your national politics. People criticize the supposed hypocrisy of the pro-life movement because it doesn’t fight against capital punishment or war with nearly the fervor it fights against abortion – but I think those issues are much murkier morally. In neither of those cases are we intentionally ending an innocent life. With abortion we are.

Speaking directly to you, if you are pro-life and don’t allow that to be a big driver of your voting habits, I think you’re being inconsistent. If you aren’t pro-life… well, I think you should be. My preferred argument is actually an argument from ignorance that doesn’t explicitly invoke the Bible at all – briefly, unless you can prove that the fetus *isn’t* a person, caution (and a high regard for life) dictates that we act as if it (he/she?) is and protect it. And you cannot prove that it isn’t. The Bible verses people cite in support of the pro-life cause are, for me, additional but actually not necessary ammunition.

The perceived union between Christianity and Republicanism does trouble me though – I may be both (usually), but I think it’s way way way way more important to be a Christian. But, unlike you, I also think that political conservativism is the most natural politics for a Christian to have, and I can’t pretend that I don’t believe that just so I don’t scare potential Christians away. So I don’t know what to do about that, except to keep emphasizing to people that Christianity is way way way way more important than politics.

Amy B posted on March 8, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Given the percentage of my friends that are politically liberal young Christians, I really can’t speak to whether you or I are weird for this reason. Without having read this book, I can’t speak to the particular argument. But it seems to reflect an assumption that I’ve see elsewhere: that there are only a few issues to which Christian faith has any relevance to. Most of my very liberal political beliefs are rooted in my Christian faith. I believe that military action is almost always wrong and almost never accomplishes what it is intended to. I believe that the death penalty is never appropriate, because I think that we called to preserve the lives of the guilty that they might live to repent as well as the falsely-convicted innocent who our justice has failed. I don’t believe that abortion should be illegal, not because I think having an abortion is ever a good or right choice. But think the moment the human personhood of a fetus begins is an open question, and I don’t think the constitution permits us to make judgements for all citizens on the basis of the religious beliefs of some, or even the majority. It’s not that I don’t vote based on my religious values…they just aren’t the values that are stereotypically Christian.

David Shane posted on March 8, 2012 at 11:34 pm

Amy, speaking politically, I don’t think the problem is that conservatives only see Christian faith as relevant to a few issues. I think the problem is that politics is complex, therefore, on most issues, you cannot draw a straight line from “if you hold this Christian belief” to “you should hold this political belief”. Except, I think, on abortion – and *that* is why that issue has become *the issue* for (most) churches to get involved in politically. Because it’s one of the very few political issues, perhaps the only issue in fact, where most Christians think you can draw a straight line from religious belief to political position. We don’t think faith is irrelevant to other issues, we just don’t think we can speak dogmatically about how it is relevant.

And to reiterate something I said above – if you believe that when personhood begins is an open question, then that is in fact a reason to make abortion illegal. I like to use the analogy of a child playing in a cave, let’s say, and the cave collapses. The child could be alive or dead, there is no way to know. How does our society react? Do we ask the mother if we should bother rescuing the child or not? No, in our ignorance, we behave as if the child is alive, and try to save them. And that’s exactly how we should treat abortion – the fetus *might* be a person? OK, then abortion should be illegal.

And notice that that isn’t really a religious argument – making abortion illegal is not really a judgement based on religious belief, (except inasmuch as believing all people have a right to life is a religious belief).

David W. Scott posted on March 9, 2012 at 5:24 am

Thanks for the great comments, Cassie, David, and Amy!

Whatever the reason, Amy and David, you’ve both picked up on an important part of the religion/politics alignment: whether it’s because it’s the only salient issue or the only clear issue, abortion trumps all other political issues for many Christians.

Yet I don’t think that the right to life is the only clear social value or political stance in the Christian message. Arguably, a concern for the poor is the most prevalent and consistent social/political message in the Bible, both Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Indeed, as shown in the prophets, how the wealthy use their money and how the poor are treated is one of the most important factors in determining the political fate of Israel and Judah (along with idolatry). And the Bible doesn’t just portray concern for the poor as a matter of private charity; it’s also about installing just laws that will ensure they’re cared for (like the gleaning laws in the Torah). Jim Wallis and others found that money was the most-talked about topic in the Bible. If that’s true, shouldn’t how we use money and express our concern for the poor as a community be our primary political motivation as Christians?

Amy B posted on March 9, 2012 at 7:58 am

David Scott, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I was cut in responding by the small child who was first trying to steal my iPad and then needed to be put to bed. The first point that I was trying to make is that “life” issues are the only thing that media often recongnize as moral issues, and people of faith can have different opinions on this issues and vary in the importance that they place on these issues. But I think there are very few politial beliefs that I hold that don’t reference my religious convictions in some way. I believe as a Christian that all people are created in God’s image, and as an American that people are endowed by their creator with certain inanlienable rights which include (but are not limited to) life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Furthermore, if we actually believe that we need to take the entire bible seriously, then we have in the Hebrew bible a description of how God’s people should organize their nation. I think there are some things about the society as described in the Hebrew bible that Jesus challenged (“let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone”) but others, such as the treatment of the poor, that Jesus reinforced. And the society prescribed by the Hebrew bible goes as far as prohibiting permanent sale of land (we don’t know if the year of jubilee was ever practiced, but it is in there). Now, I’m not saying that American Christians have a right to impose the socialism of Hebrew bible law and early Christian community on our whole society, but I think we are challenged by scripture to encourage the government that we participate in to work toward fair distribution of resources.
I desparately want to respond to Mr. Shane’s metaphor, but I need to make breakfast for the aformentioned child then get to work. to be continued.

David Shane posted on March 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm

But that’s what I mean David – we both agree that the Bible stresses concern for the poor. But we probably disagree about the appropriate political response to that concern. I think the best way to help the poor is to foster an environment of economic freedom – low taxes, little regulation, high respect for private property and the sanctity of contracts, etc. But plenty of people think that a more socialist system is best for the poor, which means, in many cases, that they would oppose the policies I support, and I oppose the policies they support. We both want to help the poor, but we have totally different ideas about what policies are best to accomplish that. That’s what I mean by saying that you can’t draw a straight line from religious belief to political position. And the problem is that politics and, in this case, the economy, is complex. There are a 1000 relevant variables. A tweak here with the best intentions might set up an incentive over there you hadn’t considered and now french fries suddenly cost $10 a piece. That’s why Christians can disagree about politics.

Jamie Ayrton posted on May 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm

I have not read his more recent work, but in Bowling Alone, Putnam does suggest that our generation (that being 23-35 range right now, I think) is far more community/socially conscious than any other has been since the community-minded boom of the 50s. We are more likely to join a group or club, we are more interested in conservation, and we are far more active in community service. Granted, this is not always directly a religiously-based interest, but there is something to be said for a connection between those two.
Anyway, I have thought alot about that fact and wondering why that would be. I have since come up with a few possible reasons that our generation would be different that the trends had previously been for decades.
1. Generation X was the low point – no offense to my slightly older generational brethren, but Pauly Shore movies pretty much sum this point up. Did we purposefully rebound from that embarrassment for a youth movement?
2. The Internet is a social breeding machine – social networking is the obvious point here, but honestly it is the next upcoming generation that really suckled this teet from the beginning and will prove what those outcomes are. Regardless, we are the first to truly embrace the internet as a means of seeing the world, commerce, communication, and entertainment. And that means we were always reliant on the web (or social architecture) to provide those aspects of life.
3. Impact of our grandparents – we are largely the grandchildren of the Great Generation (the ones that won a World War then came back home and freakin built a world-power by sheer perseverance, oh and help from the rotary club). So in the 1980s, while our baby boomer parents were both working, they were helped out alot by their recently retired parents that taught us what it meant to care about the community around you rather than insisting that greed is good and individualism is the only means of expression.

David W. Scott posted on May 9, 2012 at 9:37 am

Thanks for your comments. Gen X may be both the bottoming out and the seeds for the change that Gen Y is demonstrating. I think you’re right that community reached its nadir, but I think some among Gen X saw the drawbacks in that, creating this counter-movement in support of community that’s provided some of the ideological, social, and technical infrastructure that Gen Y has been able to use on a wider scale. I think you’re right that it will be interesting to see what the outcomes of a generation raised on social media will be, but I imagine there will be some good ones along with whatever doom Boomers predict Facebook will wreak upon society. And I’m always willing to give a shout out to the Great Generation, including my own grandparents, and the values they’ve taught us.

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