A more religious nation ahead?
GOD IS ALIVE AND WELL: THE FUTURE OF RELIGION IN AMERICA By Frank Newport
President Obama won re-election earlier this month partly on the strength of a Democratic social platform that protects contraceptive and abortion privileges. At least one Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock, torpedoed his own campaign because of his theology of conception. On ballot measures, three states legalized gay marriage and another two legalized marijuana for recreational use. In response, religious conservatives are looking at 2012 as the crystallization of a historic shift in the nation’s moral code. “It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to The New York Times. “An increasingly secularized America understands our positions and has rejected them.”
Mr. Mohler’s perspective of an “increasingly secularized America” encapsulates well what many conservative evangelicals and Catholics see right now. But Frank Newport, the editorin-chief of Gallup, argues that those perceptions are incorrect. Mr. Newport’s new book, “God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion In America,” contains the published results of interviews with more than 700,000 Americans on the subject of their religious life. His thesis might be surprising to culture observers who are doing some serious hand-wringing: “The evidence in this book points convincingly to … an America that will become a more religious nation in the years ahead.”
How does this assertion square with religious conservatives’ consternation over the future? The most important thing to remember while reading this book is that when Mr. Newport classifies America as religious, he doesn’t mean an America full of Jesus-worshipping, Bible-believing, church-onSunday Christians. His threshold for who is “religious” is low — rooted in questions like, “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” (Ninety-one percent of Americans do.)
Mr. Newport also depends heavily on historical patterns of religious identification at various ages to predict a religious future. Historically, across earlier generations, age 23 is “the death valley of religious topography,” while people generally get more religious between ages 24 and 40, plateau off from about 40 to 64, and again become increasingly religious as they get older (and increasingly, Mr. Newport theorizes, contemplate their own mortality). With a wave of baby boomers entering retirement, Mr. Newport confidently predicts a regression to the mean; an overall religious uptick is in order.
This may be true in the immediate future, but Mr. Newport underweights other, long-term trends that clearly challenge historical norms. For one thing, the number of “Nones,” people with no religious identification, continues to increase. In 1957, the number of Nones was just 2 percent of the population. In 2010, it was almost 18 percent. Moreover, many of those Nones are in the nascent millennial generation (those born from 1980 to 1999), 25 percent of whom don’t identify with any religion.
Moreover, the number of those younger than 30 who doubt God’s existence is growing quickly. Perhaps the most damning evidence comes from eastern Germany. Pollsters who conducted a survey of religious attitudes there couldn’t find a single person younger than 28 who believed in God. Undoubtedly there are some, but their scarcity in a Western nation, not too dissimilar from our own, challenges Mr. Newport’s sanguine outlook.
Perhaps most captivating about his book is what Mr. Newport has discovered about who is religious: women more than men, married more than unmarried, the poor more than the rich. Mr. Newport generally has nuanced and fair reasoning about what’s behind Americans’ decisions to be religious (or not), but his understandings of correlation and causality are confused occasionally.
For instance, Mr. Newport notices the relationship between religious behavior and physical health but then suggests that in the future, “average Americans, seeking ways to improve their health and well-being, may increasingly turn to religion for these same reasons.”
At times, Mr. Newport’s clear but formulaic pattern of statisticexplanation-consequence is too prosaic. Would that he had injected some anecdotes from the hundreds of thousands of people surveyed that would illustrate the panoply of the American religious experience.
Still, “God Is Alive and Well” is worth reading, a clear and valuable resource that will variously affirm and challenge commonly held perceptions of religion in America. David Wilezol is a producer for “Morning in America,” a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.