And Then There Were Nones: How Millennials’ Flight From Religion is Transforming American Politics

In 1979, Jerry Falwell launched the Moral Majority, a “pro-family” lobby group for evangelical Christians that was aimed at thwarting the secular forces set in motion by the counterculture of the 1960s. In a speech at the time, Falwell told a crowd of fellow evangelicals that America didn’t really have a Bible Belt. Rather, he bellowed from his podium to the cheers of the crowd, “There’s a Bible cloak in America that covers the whole blooming republic, and they’re everywhere ready for the leadership [that] preachers [like] you and I can offer them —and let’s give it to them!”

For several decades Falwell’s Moral Majority, which was succeeded by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and eventually by the religious right of the mega-churches and of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, did just that, galvanizing religious conservatives on issues such as abortion and homosexuality and influencing the elections of presidents, congressmen, and local school boards. Falwell and his successors assumed that within a distinctly religious America, evangelical Protestantism was growing at the expense of mainline denominations, and that they would be able to turn these impassioned believers into conservative Republicans who could take the country back from liberal-leaning Baby Boomers and crystal-gazing New Agers. And for a time, that strategy seemed to work. But in the last decades, the Biblical cloak that Falwell believed to cover America has begun to fray.

Just over thirty years after Falwell gave his speech, the United States is becoming more secular rather than more religious, with fully 25 percent of the population claiming no religious affiliation. The religiously unaffiliated, called the “Nones” because they check the relevant box on surveys about their religion, are made up of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, spiritual-but-not-religious types, and people who just don’t care. In 1979, they accounted for less than ten percent of the U.S. adult population. Since the mid-1990s they have grown dramatically. They are now the largest “religious” group in the country and the only one growing in all fifty states.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. (AP Images)

In fact, religious commitment has been loosening in America along all three measures of religion: belief, behavior, and belonging. That has had profound repercussions in the political arena. Falwell expected that the growth of evangelical religion would create a Republican majority that was infused with conservative Christianity, but that has not come to pass. If anything, the growth of the unaffiliated and unobservant has contributed to Democratic more than Republican candidates. In the 2016 election, the religiously unaffiliated voted 68 to 26 percent for Hillary Clinton and those who never attend church favored Clinton by 62 to 31 percent.

And in the future those numbers could grow and transform American politics. The trend toward secularization has been particularly pronounced among Millennials, those born roughly between 1981 and 1996. Millennials are less likely to affiliate with a religious group, profess a certain belief in God’s existence, or attend religious services than their parents or grandparents. And studies show that their distaste for organized religion is not the result of a fickle youthful dalliance but, rather, a permanent cultural change.
They are also more likely to favor Democrats. As Millennials age, and as the ranks of the unaffiliated swell, what might be expected is not only the growing secularization of politics, but also a growing tilt of the voting population toward the social liberalism of the Democrats. Through the Millennials, the unaffiliated and unobservant might become a kind of bulwark for the Democratic Party in the same way the white evangelicals have turned out for Republican candidates in such force for years.

After one of the most polarizing presidential elections in recent memory, a look at how and why the Millennials have abandoned religion is instructive. As President-elect Trump prepares to take office, we might look to the next presidential election, when Millennials will make up nearly 40 percent of all American voters, and ask what effect these young adults will have on religion—and politics—for the generations to come.

The Irreligious Millennials

According to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 39 percent of Millennials are religiously unaffiliated. In contrast, 13 percent of seniors said they were religiously unaffiliated. A similar study by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that 35 percent of Millennials are Nones. By way of comparison, the Pew study showed that the next largest group among Millennials, evangelical Protestants, came in at just 21 percent, with Catholics following behind at 16 percent, and mainline Protestants at 11 percent.

“But the measures of religious non-affiliation for Millennials are higher than they were for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers when they were surveyed at the same age, suggesting profound cultural changes at work.”

If Americans in their twenties had always reported similar rates of non-affiliation, these figures could be chalked up to the effect of a given stage of life. In fact, the typical religious life-cycle in modern America has always included a period of straying from faith during the late teens and early twenties. But the measures of religious non-affiliation for Millennials are higher than they were for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers when they were surveyed at the same age, suggesting profound cultural changes at work. While the unaffiliated make up almost 40 percent of Millennials today, they made up 10 percent of young adults in 1986.

The other aspects of religiosity – the practice of religion and a belief in God – are also plummeting among Millennials. According to a Pew study in 2015, 70 percent of Millennial Nones who were born between 1990 and 1996 say religion is not important to their lives; and they say they rarely or never pray. And 42 percent of the Millennial Nones say they do not believe in God. These are all larger shares than those for Nones of older generational cohorts.

And the Nones do not see themselves in transition. The vast majority say they are not seeking out a new religion. Those who were raised unaffiliated are not converting to religion as adults; and those raised religiously and who stray from their faith have been less likely to return to the fold once they marry and have kids.

In 2012 Pew researchers tried to tease out the degrees to which different generational cohorts believed in God. They found that, while 89 percent of the oldest Americans say they “never doubt the existence of God,” 68 percent of Millennials said they never doubted the existence of God, which was down from 2007, when 83 percent said they were certain God existed. Only 27 percent of Millennials believe the Bible is the literal word of God.

And church-going and other religious practices are down as well. David Voas, head of the social science department at the University College London, and Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke, believe we are in a process of secularization not unlike that of Western European nations in the previous century—only we’re secularizing more rapidly. The question is why – and why particularly among Millennials.

Growing Up Without a Common Religion

For the first clue about Millennials’ aversion to organized religion, look to the religious practices of their parents. Many Nones were raised by parents who, while they might have identified as religious themselves, didn’t make religion an important part of their children’s home life. Dan Cox, the Director of Research at PRRI, conducted a study in 2013 asking Millennials about their religious practices growing up. His survey asked whether respondents had grown up saying grace before meals, attending religious services as a family, or praying or reading scripture. He found that Millennials had a far less intense religious experience than older generations.

“They are much less likely to have attended religious services regularly with their family, to read the Bible, or to pray with their families,” said Cox. “They didn’t develop the same kind of familiarity with religion and religious practices that previous generations had, so they became adults in many cases with much weaker ties to religion and religious institutions.”

Several factors have contributed to this loosening of family religious practices. Millennials were more likely than prior generations to be raised by divorced parents. Research has demonstrated that family instability, including divorce and mobility, make it harder for families to hew to religious practices. According to a PRRI report, the children of divorced parents are 12 percentage points more likely to be religiously unaffiliated. Since many Millennials were born during a time of high divorce rates, they would have been widely affected by this trend.

“In other words, it’s not just religious institutions they don’t subscribe to. Their yen for religious non-affiliation is part of a broader trend of disavowing all labels and institutions. “

Millennials are also more likely to be raised in interfaith households. According to a Pew study this year, 27 percent of Millennials say they were raised in a religiously mixed household, compared to 20 percent for Generation Xers, 19 percent for Baby Boomers and only 13 percent for the Silent and Greatest generations. And 24 percent of Millennials say they were raised by at least one unaffiliated parent, up from 11 percent among the Silent and Greatest generations.

Americans raised in such households report lower levels of religious activity than those raised in a household with one shared religion. Only 40 percent of Americans raised in such mixed households say they attended services regularly as children. They are also less likely than those raised by parents of the same religion to have practiced religion growing up in the form of prayer with their families and attendance at Sunday school.

Pew’s 2015 report on the Millennials supports PRRI’s findings that that those raised without religious practices instilled by their parents are increasingly unlikely to seek out religion as they age. Pew found that two-thirds of Millennials who were raised as Nones remain Nones as young adults, a higher rate of retention than for most religious groups. In the past, an individual might leave religion in the college and early work years only to come back around after marriage and starting a family, but that is no longer standard practice. In fact, Pew found that even older generational cohorts are becoming less religiously affiliated through time.

Distrusting Authority

Millennials’ parents also handed down to them a political and social outlook that appears to have colored their view of organized religion. Many of their parents came of age during the tumultuous ’60s and early ’70s. Even if these Baby Boomers were not part of the counter-culture, they shared the distrust of institutions and authority that became prevalent in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Raised by Baby Boomers, many Millennials were taught to question authority, think for themselves, and not take institutions at face value. On surveys, Millennials now report high levels of distrust of institutions, including political, religious, and civic (such as marriage).

In 2015 Harvard’s Institute of Politics published a report showing that, of ten major societal institutions, only two—the military and science—were trusted by the majority of Millennials surveyed to do the right thing the majority of the time. It hasn’t helped that Millennials are also the first generation to do less well financially than their parents. The old ways, at least to them, haven’t worked. In other words, it’s not just religious institutions they don’t subscribe to. Their turning away from religious affiliation is part of a broader trend of disavowing all labels and institutions.

If anything, this distrust of institutions was reinforced by the experience of the Great Recession. Within this generation itself, there are signs that religious disaffection has grown rapidly since 2007. When Pew studied Millennials between the ages of 18 and 26 in 2007, 25 percent said they were religiously unaffiliated. But when they studied Millennials who were between the ages of 18 and 24 in 2014, they found that 36 percent said they were unaffiliated, an 11 percentage-point jump. In 2010, Pew found 73 percent of Millennials having positive feelings about religious institutions; by 2015, that was down to 55 percent.

A Political Backlash

Millennials, along with Generation X, appear to have been reacting to the religious right’s attempt to infuse politics with the tenets of conservative evangelical Protestantism. By distorting Christian teachings to target gays, women, minorities, and immigrants, Falwell and his successors sent many Americans, especially white mainline Protestants, fleeing from their pews.

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and co-author, with David E. Campbell, of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, believes that has been happening. “Just as the religious right was reacting against the sixties, your generation was reacting against Jerry Falwell,” Putnam told me in an interview for my book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. “It’s as if this generation said, ‘If religion is just about homophobia and abortion, and if to be religious means to be Republican, I’m out of here. That’s not me.”

Putnam was referring to Generation X. In the 1990s, as older Gen-Xers were leaving college and setting out for their first jobs, demographers noted the first increase of the religiously unaffiliated. The baseline figure of less than ten percent that had held steady for so long began to go up, subtly at first and then more dramatically. Putnam compared the graph showing the change to a hockey stick: “It was flat, flat, flat, and then starts sharply rising.”

It has continued to rise for Millennials at least in part due to their reaction against the rightwing politicization of religion. Geoffrey Layman, a professor of political science at Notre Dame and author of The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics, has run experiments with co-authors of a forthcoming book on secularization, David Campbell and John Green, demonstrating how the mingling of religion and politics leads people to disaffiliate from religion. In one experiment, the researchers share a story about two congressional candidates, randomly varying the amount of religion in the stories.

“What we find is that if we give the common scenario of a highly religious Republican and a Democrat who doesn’t say anything about religion, Democrats actually do become more likely to say they’re a None, and they are a little more likely to be less enamored with religion,” Layman said. “Namely Democrats, but Independents as well to a lesser extent, do become less positively disposed toward religion.” This makes intuitive sense, especially for Millennials, the largest and most ethnically diverse generation, and as such more accepting of gay marriage, LGBTQ rights, and immigration, all hot-button issues for conservative religion.

The Millennials’ unease with the politicization of faith can be seen even among evangelical Millennials. Randall Balmer is the chair of the religion department at Dartmouth and author of several books on the intersection of politics and religion, including The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America. In his research, Balmer has visited Christian college campuses around the country and believes that the students don’t share their parents’ overriding opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

“On some Christian college campuses we see a whole spectrum of issues we consider moral—hunger, poverty, torture, war, and especially the environment,” Balmer said. He believes that on the two social issues Falwell and his ilk fought hardest on—abortion and gay marriage—there is less passion among Millennial evangelicals. “When I talk to these younger evangelicals and I ask them about abortion, they say, ‘Abortion is wrong.’ There’s no passion behind that statement,” he said. Balmer thinks this is partly because the abortion debate has grown stale, with no side moving, but also because they care about a wider array of issues. “Abortion is not the issue that defines their lives or their political passions,” he said, adding that sexual identity is not even an issue for many of these students, and that they reject the narrative of homosexuality being a “lifestyle choice.”

A Christian Nation No More

All these factors and the complex braid of reactions they’ve brought about weren’t on Jerry Falwell’s mind when he promised his followers that hitching their religious conservatism to politics would turn back the shifting cultural tide.

“While Europe secularized slowly over the course of a century—a slow and steady “drip, drip, drip,” according to Putnam—the United States is now in a state of rapid secularization. The implications for these changes are nowhere more clear than in our politics. “

While Europe secularized slowly over the course of a century—a slow and steady “drip, drip, drip,” according to Putnam—the United States is now in a state of rapid secularization. The implications for these changes are nowhere more clear than in our politics. That’s because for decades evangelical leaders became so ingrained in Republican Party politics that voters had a hard time separating the two. As Mark Shibley, a professor of sociology at Southern Oregon University, told me, his students roundly reject the conservative evangelical strain of Christianity that capped the last century. “They just want nothing to do with it,” he said. “They don’t even know that evangelical Protestantism is just one aspect of religion. For them, that is religion and, [they think], “That’s it. We’re done.”

Randall Balmer rues the damage that Falwell and his successors did to the Christian name. “To me, religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power,” he said. “I think the religious right, and Jerry Falwell proved this again and again—that once people who espouse religion hanker after political influence, they lose their prophetic voice.”

The United States has long been the modern-world holdout that didn’t conform to the secularization thesis—the idea that as a country modernizes religion recedes in importance. But the mounting evidence is incontrovertible. Each new generation in modern America has proven to be less religious than the last, and none more so than the Millennials.

Gay rights activists shout and hold up posters against Rev. Jerry Falwell outside a Houston, Tex., hotel, Aug. 19, 1992 (AP Images)

But what will they do next? Geoffrey Layman’s research has led him to distinguish two groups of Nones. One is seculars who are politically active and nearly always vote Democratic. He estimates that this group makes up about one-third of the Nones, or roughly ten percent of the total population. The other two-thirds of the Nones are less committed to any party, and tend to identify as Independents. So it’s the committed seculars, says Layman, “who are to the Democratic Party what the committed evangelicals are to the Republican Party.” And the Millennial Nones are much more likely to be in the politically active group of committed, Democratic seculars. “Fifteen, twenty years from now,” Layman says, “this may be a group that rivals Catholics and evangelicals in size.”

The Republicans may have ridden a populist wave to the White House this time. The election itself, reflecting the rise of the unaffiliated, was probably the least overtly religious in recent history. But President-elect Donald Trump made private pledges to evangelical leaders to respect their agenda on Supreme Court choices. If Trump keeps his word and if he allows the evangelical right to play a large part in Republican social policy, he will face this committed band of unaffiliated Millennials. In the years to come, they could become a scourge on the Republicans in the same way that Falwell, Robertson, and their followers have made life difficult for the Democrats.

Katherine Ozment is the author of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, named a Best Book of 2016 by Publishers Weekly.