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Zirpoli: The politicization of religion contributes to a declining flock | COMMENTARY

It has long been said that politics and religion should not mix because of the negative consequences for both politics and religion. It seems that the data have proved this point.

In a recent Gallup poll, 47% of Americans say they are a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque compared with 70% in 1999. According to Ryan Burge and Perry Bacon writing for fivethirtyeight.com, this is “the first time that a majority of Americans said they were not members of a church, mosque, or synagogue since Gallup first starting asking” in the 1930s.

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According to Gallup, “this increase is powered by young people. Indeed, only 36 percent report a house of worship membership.” Another “31 percent of this group report no religious affiliation.” Pew Research puts the no religious affiliation at 38 percent for Americans between the ages of 23 and 38 years. This compares to 12 percent for Americans 70-years and older.

A growing number of Americans, especially young Americans, are not finding a connection with organized religions. Specifically, Pew Research found that between 2009 and 2019 the percent of American adults describing themselves as Christians decreased by 12 percentage points from 77% to 65%. A similar decline, 51 percent to 43 percent, over the same time period was measured with adults identified with Protestantism.

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I believe the politicization of religion over the last 40 years has contributed significantly to this decline.

Before you wonder about the morality of the younger generation who are not part of an organized religion, consider that “today’s young people are uniquely conscientious — less likely to fight, drink, use hard drugs, or have premarital sex than previous generations,” according to Derek Thompson writing for The Atlantic. “They may not be able to quote from the Book of Matthew, but their economic and social politics — which insist on protections for the politically meek and the historically persecuted — aren’t so far from a certain reading of the beatitudes.”

Many young people have found progressive religious communities and find fulfillment in their acts of community service and social justice. But their numbers are shrinking as outlined here.

Burge and Bacon found that the number of people who have disengaged from religion is pretty much across the board by race and education. They note an 11% decrease among Blacks, a 10% decrease among Hispanics, and a 12% decrease among white adults. “The number of college graduates leaving the faith (-13 percent) is similar to those who do not have degrees (-11 percent).”

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Historically, according to Thompson, the proportion of Americans who said they didn’t associate with any established religion remained under 10 percent for decades prior to the 1990s. Since then, however, that proportion has steadily increased. Thompson cites several reasons for this decline, especially among younger adults, and agrees that a significant reason is the marriage between religion and politics, especially conservative politics, over the last several decades.

“The marriage between the religious and political right,” writes Thompson, turned off Democrats and moderates who “prefer a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”

Many Americans have lost faith in their faith leaders and no longer view them as moral leaders. Americans are seeing their faith leaders associate themselves with the teachings of political parties or personalities over traditional religious values. Promoting policies that help the rich instead of the poor is an example of this.

Several well-known bad apples have contributed to the poor reputation of faith leaders. Google “Richest Evangelical Christians” and see how some religious leaders in America have enriched themselves by taking money from their flock. They live in million-dollar homes and travel in private jets. These characters seem to serve themselves literally at the expense of their flock.

Instead of reflecting on their own behavior and values, I hear some religious leaders blaming their flock for declining participation in religious services or membership to a house of worship. Perhaps they should consider how their own behavior, politics, and lifestyles have turned away members, especially younger members.

Many people have stopped attending church because their faith leaders preach more about intolerance than about love. Young people, especially, are tired of the ongoing battles over gay rights, marriage issues, the treatment of immigrants, and respecting other faiths. They do not share the intolerance they hear. Indeed, the belief that we are all God’s children seems to have been lost on some of today’s faith leaders. A majority of young Americans hear the hypocrisy loud and clear and have voted with their feet.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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