Michael Gerson

This retreating tide of religion affected nearly every denomination equally -- except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious "entrepreneurs" such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right -- the first aftershock.

But this reaction provoked a reaction -- the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: "If this is religion, I'm not interested." The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable -- both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans now in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 percent or 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated (designated "nones," as opposed to "nuns" -- I was initially confused). Putnam calls this "a stunning development." As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn't changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, "more people are very religious and many are not at all." And these beliefs have become "correlated with partisan politics." "There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives."

The political implications are broad. Democrats must galvanize the "nones" while not massively alienating religious voters -- which is precisely what candidate Obama accomplished. Republicans must maintain their base in the pew while appealing to the young -- a task they have not begun to figure out.

But Putnam regards the growth of the "nones" as a spike, not a permanent trend. The young, in general, are not committed secularists. "They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren't like the religious right. ... There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones."

In the diverse, fluid market of American religion there may be a demand, in other words, for grace, hope and reconciliation -- for a message of compassion and healing that appeals to people of every political background. It would be revolutionary -- but it would not be new.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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