The 2012 general election is just getting started, and already the questions have begun: will the youth vote turn out in 2012? Who is the 2012 youth vote? What do they believe? This week we’re joined by Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, fresh off the release of a new national survey of 18-to-24-year-old Americans conducted with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs: A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values and Politics among College-age Millennials.
You don’t want to miss his insights into the striking views and opinions college-age Millennials hold about organized religion – particularly modern-day Christianity. Several of those views are perhaps a sign that the of some denominations’ relentless focus on social issues are turning off a large percentage of the next generation of believers.
PRRI has also just completed the survey Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012. You’ll hear Dr. Jones explain how respondents ranked working for social justice even above religious practice as being central to Jewish identity for them.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: DR. ROBERT P. JONES, PRRI[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Even as inappropriate religious involvement in politics is finally receiving some well-deserved pushback from the pews, a new study of millennial generation Americans suggests that that same political messaging is a prime reason many young people feel alienated from organized religion. Conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, this new national survey of college-age Millennials (Americans ages 18-24) offers insights on this generation’s views on faith, values, and the 2012 election. PRRI has also just released the 2012 Jewish Values Survey, and I’ll talk about both of these matters with the CEO and Founder of that Institute, Dr. Robert P. Jones, who joins me now by phone – Robby, welcome back to State of Belief Radio! [DR. ROBERT P. JONES, GUEST]: Thanks Welton. I’m very happy to be here, as always. [WG]: Listen, there is so much to consider in this new Millennial Study. One thing that I noticed, though, right away, is that the respondents are fairly balanced in their support for President Obama and for a GOP opponent in this year’s election, 48 to 41. Isn’t that why the spread – when you’re talking about young people, who might be assumed to have more progressive values – but I found the views on organized religion, specifically on modern-day Christianity, to be striking. Talk about that if you will. [RJ]: Sure. Well, you’re right, what we see is, among 18 to 24 year olds – it’s important that we’re talking about that demographic, not the 25 to 29 year old crowd, because interestingly enough, what we see in this 18 to 24 year old demographic is, as you said, a much tighter race between Barack Obama and a generic Republican candidate. He gets 48% support among registered voters in this group versus 41% support among those who say they prefer a Republican candidate, and that’s considerably less support then the older sector of millennials. And we think some of that’s about, this group really wasn’t around, I mean some of these folks were only 14 when Obama ran for president the first time, and about six in ten of them weren’t even eligible to vote in 2008. So these are really new voters who are showing considerably less enthusiasm for President Obama than voters who were really eligible to vote, were, kind of, part of the Obama movement in 2008 among younger people. But you also mentioned, you’re right, that we found really interesting views, and really ambivalent views, about present-day Christianity. And one of the reasons we asked this question is because one of the marks of this generation is that they have moved away from the religion of their childhood into being currently religiously unaffiliated. So, just for example, only 11% of this group was raised unaffiliated, but fully 25% of this group currently identifies as unaffiliated; so that’s a 14-point jump in a fairly short lifespan that these groups have made. When we look at what people said in terms of present-day Christianity, they’re just decidedly mixed: on the one hand, about three-quarters say that present-day Christianity has good values and principles, and about six in ten say that Christianity consistently shows love for other people; but on the other hand, strong majorities also agree that modern-day Christianity is hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay. [WG]: Robby, I can’t help but ask specifically about the numbers of Christian and the numbers of unaffiliated respondents, how do those numbers differ from those of the general population? [RJ]: Yeah, well in the general population, the number of religiously unaffiliated people has been growing, and it’s doubled since the early 1990’s until today. So today it stands about 19 or 20 percent in the general population, and we’re looking at, you know, 25 percent so, you know, a markedly higher number among this younger generation. And there’s a number of other things that we can look at. That’s not so unusual that the younger generation would be more unaffiliated, but it’s also true that this generation is more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations were at this point in their life cycle. So that’s also an important thing to say, that even if some of them return, you know, to churches when they have kids – which is a fairly common effect – it’s less likely that as many will return, because the number starts off higher. [WG]: So, Robby, what were the numbers of Christian unaffiliated respondents like in comparison to each other? [RJ]: Right. Well, when we looked at our evaluations of present-day Christianity, you know, we did see significant divides, as you might expect, on how the religiously-unaffiliated viewed present-day Christianity versus how Christians themselves viewed present-day Christianity. Some of the biggest gaps were around whether Christianity is relevant to your life, maybe not surprisingly, but the other places where there were, you know, 30-35 point gaps were, like, on the issue of whether Christianity consistently shows love for other people. Three quarters of Christians say “yes” to that statement, only 41 percent the religiously unaffiliated say they agree with that. On the other side of things, one interesting place where there is actually some convergence here is, kind of two places: one, Christians and the religiously unaffiliated basically agree that present-day Christianity teaches the same basic idea as other religions; and one other, perhaps surprising, place where they agree, where the gap was, sort of, more narrow, was that present-day Christianity is anti-gay. So, 58% of Christians agree that present-day Christianity is anti-gay, and 79% of the religiously unaffiliated agree that present-day Christianity can be described as anti-gay at least somewhat or very well, that that describes present-day Christianity. [WG]: Robby, I can’t help but think that at least part of the negative view of organized Christianity today has to do with the way conservative faith leaders have injected themselves into the political dialogue in the country. Do you see the politicization of religion as contributing to some of these negative views among young people? [RJ]: Well, one thing we know about this generation is that they are less likely to grab labels, so when we ask about partisanship they are more likely to identify as Independent, than they are to identify as either a Democrat or a Republican. When pushed, they lean more Democratic but, you know, when you just ask them outright, they’re much more likely to say: “I’m Independent.”
The other place that we see it, I think, it really is on gay and lesbian issues, where many Churches have weighed in fairly heavily and, you know, most prominently on the side against rights for gays and lesbians. And we did some previous polling and found, for example, that 69% of Millennials agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. So this is clearly a place where the millennial generation, sort of, is pushing back and saying, you know, this is not something that we really like to see in present-day religious groups.[WG]: Do you read these results as a pretty serious warning for Christian denominations? [RJ]: I think it spells a real challenge, you know, because on the one hand it’s not all negative, you know, that there’s some agreement on some positive things – that have good values and principles; consistently shows love for other people; but on the other hand, hypocritical; judgmental; anti-gay – I mean these are not things that bode well, I think, when coupled with this fairly early disaffiliation with traditional organized religion – those things don’t bode well for, you know, business as usual in the churches and in other congregations. I really do think there’s going to have to be a course correction here that really does reach out to this group in a way that’s, you know, just not the same-old, same-old – and it’s a little bit different than we’ve seen in the past. [WG]: Robby, you’re a busy person, and you have been busy again not only with this survey, but also releasing a survey of American Jewish values – and looked at the political implications of that. Could you give us just a brief summary of what you’ve found in the American Jewish Values survey? [RJ]: Sure, you know, I think the two things that stand out in our American Jewish Survey is, one, that Jews are, despite some speculation about where the Jewish group is in term of support for President Obama or a Republican candidate, Jews are still strongly supporting President Obama in our survey – 62% of Jewish voters supporting President Obama versus 30% supporting a Republican candidate – that’s roughly where President Obama was four years ago at this stage of the campaign, in, like, June of 2008 – his support among Jewish voters was nearly identical to this. It ultimately went up to 78% in the exit polls due to a surge in the last couple of months, and I would expect we’d see a very similar thing, you know, barring some unforeseen event, we’d see a very similar pattern this year. And I think the second thing that stands out is, really, the centrality of working for social justice and social equality that ran through, really, the entire survey. So, let me just give you one example, when asked, you know, “What is the most important thing to your Jewish identity?” more Jews said that pursuing social justice and social equality was important to their Jewish identity than, in fact, said that religious observance was important to their religious identities. [WG]: But that’s not real inconsistent with what you’ve found before, is it? [RJ]: Right, well this is actually the first time we’ve done a survey of American Jews, so we were – well, we’ve seen this question before, this question has been asked before, and has remained fairly consistent over time in other surveys as well: this commitment to social equality really does, sort of, come up as, you know, the most important thing, and the most central thing, to Jewish American identity. [WG]: Well, one more question, and then you can go on running to something else. What has surprised you in the surveys you’ve done recently? What have – say these two, if you want to – or another, but what surprised you? [RJ]: You know, I would say, one, the differences between 18 to 24 year olds and 25 to 29 year olds. I think we can lump these together, call them all Millennials, and it turns out that they have fairly different profiles – and that, I think, was the real surprise to us, that when we look at these 18 to 24 year olds, again, they weren’t part of, kind of, the Obama movement four years ago in 2008, their support for Obama is much lower, and one other thing I’d highlight is: there seems to be, even though we think of, you know, this generation is the most, kind of, racially and ethnically diverse generation that the country has ever seen, there’s also some evidence of some real racial tensions within this group, particularly around issues of affirmative action and government programs aimed at minorities – and that, I think, was a little bit surprising too; we tend to think of this generation as maybe the kumbaya generation with the, you know, they put their arms together and they’re all in harmony but they are still, you know, I think, racial tensions are still with us, even among the youngest generation. [WG]: Friends, you can and you should read both of these outstanding PRRI studies at publicreligion.org. It’s an outstanding way to better understand the society around us, and to see how organized religion influences individual members of that society.
Robby, I always tell you what important work you’re doing, and you have illustrated that once again. It is really helpful when you come and talk with us. We learn something. Thanks for taking the time again, and for being with us here on State of Belief Radio.[RJ]: It’s always my honor and pleasure, Welton. Thanks a lot.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.