A recent Pew survey described an America that is more religiously diverse and less religiously observant than at any time in its history. In the two most publicized findings, Pew pointed out that for the first time ever, the number of Protestants in the U.S. population fell to less than half, while one in five Americans claimed no religious affiliation.
The implications of this change will be felt widely across U.S. politics, culture, and--based on Garrison Keillor's tongue-in-cheek reference to the Pew research ("If you are not Lutheran, how will you get casserole?")--even its eating habits. But nowhere will they be felt more strongly than by the nation's religious institutions.
Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples will have to develop strategies for coping with the increasing religious diversity and decreasing willingness of Americans to affiliate with a faith, if those institutions are to prosper or even survive in the decades ahead. And because the changes in America's religious landscape are being driven by the millennial generation (born between 1982 and 2003), those strategies will have to be focused on the nation's youngest adults if they are to have any chance of success.
Millennials are almost twice as likely to be unaffiliated with a faith (30 percent compared with 17 percent for older generations), according to the April 2012 Pew values survey.
Not only is the millennial generation the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in U.S. history, it is also the most religiously diverse. Only 57 percent of millennials (compared with 75 percent of all older Americans) are Christians. Furthermore, only 23 percent of millennials are white Protestants (compared with 38 percent of older generations) and just 8 percent are white non-Hispanic Catholics (compared with 15 percent of older generations). At the same time, the millennial generation contains about one-third more Hispanic Catholics and twice the number of non-Christians as older generations.
Some might argue that if the country's religious organizations only wait long enough, millennials will lose their youthful doubt and disbelief and seek out a faith. But, just as people are not invariably liberal in politics when they are young only to become conservative as they age, neither are they invariably skeptics about religion in their youth who convert to becoming believers in middle and old age. In fact, the opposite is the case.
According to Pew tracking surveys, millennials are twice as likely to be unaffiliated with a specific faith as were baby boomers in the 1970s when they were the age millennials are today. Similarly, millennials are one and one half times more likely to be unaffiliated than members of Generation X in the 1990s were when that generation was the nation's twenty- and thirtysomethings. Moreover, Pew's most recent research indicates that over the past five years, the lack of religious affiliation has actually increased slightly among Generation X-ers and Boomers.
While playing a waiting game is not likely to be fruitful for America's denominations in eventually enlisting unaffiliated millennials, taking a more proactive stance that reflects the values of the generation could be. According to generational theorists, the millennial generation is a group-oriented civic generation, an archetype that is tolerant of diversity and focused on fixing society.
Those traits are evident in both the attitudes and behavior of millennials. Pew surveys indicate that solid majorities of millennials accept gay marriage, interracial marriage, and gay couples raising children. A National Journal survey reports that six in 10 white millennials said they had at least some neighbors of other races and two-thirds had interracial friends. The number of millennials who have neighbors and friends of different religions is undoubtedly even higher.
Millennials are also busy making things better for their community, their nation, and the world. In 2009, for example, 93 percent of those entering college had performed community service in high school and half expected to do so in college, while 35 percent of adult millennials continued their volunteer activities after completing their education. In that year, applications by millennials to the Peace Corps and Teach for America rose more than 40 percent from 2008.
Pew's research indicates that large majorities of the disproportionately millennial religiously unaffiliated believe churches and religious organizations play a positive role in bringing people together and strengthening community bonds (78 percent) and in helping the poor and needy (77 percent).
Adopting a strategy that is based on those perceptions and is focused on the elements of its belief structure that emphasize service and inclusion rather than doctrine and exclusion could be the path to salvation for American religion in the millennial era.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are coauthors of the newly published Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America and Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics. They are fellows at NDN and the New Policy Institute.