The Divided Generation: Religion, Youth, and Public Life

Robert Wuthnow

[An excerpt from his new book, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Copyright ©2007 by Princeton University Press.]

Newspaper and television stories about religion often focus on specific issues, such as how religious groups feel about abortion or prayer in public schools. These are important, and they make for good news stories because some advocates on both sides of the issue can usually be found for a timely quote. Usually, though, the deep background is missed.

Relatively few young adults currently believe strongly in the kind of connection between Christianity and the American nation that in earlier periods defined our civil religion.

That background has to do with how Americans understand the history of our country and the principles on which our nation was founded. In the 1960s, Robert Bellah borrowed Rousseau’s term “civil religion” and applied it to the United States as a way of describing these deeper understandings.1

Our civil religion is most simply described as the use of God language with reference to the nation. It includes a myth of origin in which the religious beliefs and practices of early settlers, explorers, colonists, and founding fathers and mothers are emphasized. It also includes assumptions about the religious values that make America strong and about what our nation should do to be good and to avoid evil.

Bellah has suggested that civil religion in the United States is a pastiche of biblical ideals and what he calls civic republican traditions. The biblical ideas emphasize America’s Christian (or sometimes “Judeo-Christian”) roots, whereas the civic republican traditions focus on secular understandings of democracy, law, and justice.

A careful understanding of American history emphasizes the contribution of both. However, in popular discourse it is easier to focus on one or the other. That, in fact, has been one of the underlying tensions in recent debates about religion and politics.

The public registers a striking level of agreement with statements that reflect the core tenets of American civil religion.2 For instance, almost four people in five (79 percent) agree that the United States was founded on Christian principles, with 51 percent agreeing strongly, and only 18 percent disagreeing. Similarly, 80 percent agree that America has been strong because of its faith in God (54 percent agree strongly).

However, younger adults are much less likely to hold these views than older adults are. Only 37 percent of adults age 21–29 agree strongly that the United States was founded on Christian principles, whereas 71 percent of adults age 65 and older agree strongly. On this statement, the percentages who agree strongly rise steadily as one proceeds from younger to older age groups.

The same is true for other statements. Thus, 39 percent of adults age 21–29 agree strongly that America has been strong because of its faith in God, compared with 69 percent of those age 65 and older who say this.

Why might young adults be disinclined to believe that the United States was founded on Christian principles and that its strength depends on its faith in God?

A plausible interpretation would focus on the possible effects of rising levels of education. A person with little formal education might believe that America was founded on Christian principles, for instance, whereas someone who had been to college and learned about the Enlightenment, deism, and the complex sources of America’s founding principles would be less likely to emphasize the nation’s Christian roots. Because younger adults are more likely to have finished high school and attended college than older adults are, this might also account for how the different age groups respond to questions about civil religion.

Further analysis of these data shows, in fact, that these responses are influenced by levels of education. People who have attained higher levels of education are less likely to score high on the Civil Religion Index.* Among those who have been to college, those who majored in the social sciences and humanities are less likely to score high on the index than those who majored in other fields, such as the sciences, engineering, or business (where discussions of American history would have been less frequent). Those whose parents had graduated from college were also less likely to score high on the index.

Signs of a Cultural Shift

However, the fact that the differences between younger and older adults remain even when levels of education are taken into account suggests to me that we are seeing evidence of a larger cultural shift.

When people now in their sixties were growing up, it would have been easier to learn explicitly or to assume tacitly that the United States had been and still was a country based on Christian principles. Chances are, the religious convictions of the Puritans were emphasized in textbooks. In many schools, prayer in the classroom was still practiced. From reading the newspapers during the Cold War, a person could easily have gained the impression that America was a God-fearing nation pitted against godless communism. The Christian dominance in the culture might have been further reinforced by anti-Semitism or by expressions of intolerance toward atheists.

Younger adults nowadays have grown up in a very different cultural environment. Whether a person goes on to college or not, that person is likely to have attended a grade school and high school in which very little was said about religion. Certainly prayer would not have been part of the public school room. More of one’s cultural information would have come from television, and even the best documentaries and news programs would not have emphasized Christianity.

In short, the cultural climate has changed. And one of the big results of that change—whether one believes it was a change for the better or worse—is that relatively few young adults currently believe strongly in the kind of integral connection between Christianity and the American nation that in earlier periods defined our civil religion.

Understanding how views about American civil religion have changed also goes a long way toward helping us make sense of the current culture wars about the place of religion in the public life of our nation. For instance, consider the recurring debates about whether it is appropriate to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings or teach them to children in public schools. Young adults are less likely than older adults to favor these ways of bringing religion into the public square.

However, even among young adults, there are clearly differences of opinion on this issue. And those differences can be understood largely in relation to how young adults feel about American civil religion. Thus, 69 percent of those who scored highest on the Civil Religion Index strongly agreed that public schools should teach the Ten Commandments. In comparison, only 19 percent of those who scored lowest on the index thought this.

The fact that civil religion is no longer as popular as it probably was in the past has another important implication for young adults. It means that the main place in which this understanding of American history is reinforced is in religious contexts, not in the wider culture. Thus, young adults who attend church regularly are more likely to score high on the Civil Religion Index. And evangelicals are significantly more likely to score high than are mainline Protestants or Catholics.

It is little wonder, then, that young adults who are active church-going evangelicals feel that they are in tension with the wider culture. Just as self described religious conservatives feel divided from self-described religious liberals, evangelicals who believe strongly that America should be a Christian nation are divided from their contemporaries who do not feel this way.

Mixing Religion and Politics

Candidates from both parties have increasingly mixed religious rhetoric into their political discourse, although some have been more comfortable doing so than others. As the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy went out of his way to deny that his religious convictions had any bearing on his conduct of public office. Lyndon Johnson also seldom made public reference to his religious beliefs. Richard Nixon seldom did, either, although he frequently invited evangelist Billy Graham to the White House. After the Watergate scandal and the brief presidency of Gerald Ford, the public was eager for a president who spoke openly about the importance of morality in public life, and in Jimmy Carter not only received that but also elected a born-again Christian to the highest office. Ronald Reagan was more comfortable speaking about God than George H. W. Bush was. Bill Clinton sometimes referred to God in public speeches and in the 2000 election both Al Gore and George W. Bush made references to God.

Watchdog groups, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, typically voice concern about candidates and public officials bringing religion too visibly into the public arena. Yet the American public is generally supportive both of political leaders talking about religion and of religious leaders talking about politics.

Younger adults, having grown up during a time when political candidates brought religion into their speeches, are slightly more likely to regard this mixing of religion and politics with favor than older adults are. About eight in ten Americans (79 percent) in their twenties, thirties, and forties believe it is okay for political candidates to talk about their religious views in public and for religious leaders to express their views on social and political issues, but this number slips slightly (to 77 percent) among people age 46–64 and then drops further (to 69 percent) among people age 65 and older.3

Young adults affiliated with the various faith traditions do not differ from one another very much in how likely they are to consider mixing religion and politics in these ways acceptable. Evangelicals and black Protestants are somewhat more accepting than mainline Protestants and Catholics, but the differences are small.4 Not surprisingly, young adults with no religious affiliations are less eager for religion and politics to become intertwined.

The curious aspect of these attitudes about mingling religion and politics is that they run counter, at least in part, with young adults’ views about civil religion. Whereas young adults are less likely than older adults to think of America as a Christian nation, they are more likely than older adults to consider it acceptable for political leaders to talk about religion and for religious leaders to talk about politics. The two issues, though, are not the same. Civil religion implies a cultural establishment of religion, and especially of Christianity; in contrast, talking about religion and politics in the same venues can be interpreted as a voluntaristic form of free expression. The former can seem heavy-handed or inconsistent with historical reality, while the latter can be accepted as an opportunity for people of faith to speak about their various views.

Why It Matters

Political scientists point out that young adults in general may not be an important consideration in the political process because they fail to act on their political convictions. There is some truth to this claim. Yet in other ways, according to a survey, younger adults were not so different from older adults. About the same proportion in all groups had attended a political rally or meeting. And, probably because some of them were still working toward degrees, more in their twenties than in older groups had attended a class or lecture about social or political issues.5

In this study, religious tradition was associated with neither higher nor lower levels of political participation among younger adults. Evangelicals were the most likely to have contacted an elected official, mainline Protestants were the most likely to have given money to a political candidate or party, and black Protestants were the most likely to have attended a political rally or meeting and to have worked for a political campaign. In each instance, though, young adults affiliated with some religious tradition were more politically active than those affiliated with none. Those who attended religious services regularly were also more likely to have been politically involved than those who attended religious services less often.

The other argument that is sometimes made against taking religion very seriously (in politics) is that people in the middle are more than enough to counterbalance those at the extreme right or left. This is the same argument that critics of the culture wars thesis have made. It correctly draws attention to the fact that many mainline Protestants and Catholics make political decisions on an issue-by-issue basis. It also correctly emphasizes that black Protestants usually vote differently from white evangelicals, despite sharing many of the same beliefs.

Nevertheless, most of the evidence we have considered points to a widening gap between religious conservatives or evangelicals, on the one hand, and religious liberals or the unaffiliated, on the other hand. Whether mainline Protestants, Catholics, and other groups will be able to mediate between these extremes, or whether they, too, will be drawn toward the extremes, is one of the major questions that will shape American religion in the foreseeable future.


1. Bellah, Beyond Belief; Bellah, The Broken Covenant.

2. The data discussed in this paragraph are from my 
2003 Religion and Diversity Survey; further detail is presented in my book America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity.

3. These figures are from my Religion and Politics Survey.

4. The differences are on the order of about 6 percent.

5. This information is from my Religion and Politics 
Survey, conducted in 2000. Twelve percent of respondents age 21 through 29 had attended a political meeting or rally in the past year and 26 percent had attended a class or lecture about social or political issues.

Robert Wuthnow teaches sociology of religion and cultural sociology at Princeton University, where he currently serves as chair of the Sociology Department and director of the Center for the Study of Religion. His books include American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) and America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[*Editor’s note: Wuthnow created a Civil Religion Index giving people a point for each of four statements with which they strongly agreed. The statements were: the United States was founded on Christian principles; America has been strong because of its faith in God; our democratic form of government is based on Christianity; and in the twenty-first century, the U.S. is still basically a Christian society.]