The Youthful Split Between Left and Right

Robert Wuthnow

Well before anyone wrote about culture wars, it was evident that Americans were becoming increasingly divided along a conservative-to-liberal spectrum that included religious as well as political considerations.

A 1984 poll conducted by the Gallup Organization showed that a fifth to a quarter of the American public considered itself very conservative in religion and about the same proportion considered itself very liberal.

What was most disturbing was that religious conservatives mostly held negative views of religious liberals, as did liberals of conservatives, and the more contact each had with the other, the more these negative views were reinforced.

That study provides a baseline for comparing responses of young adults in a more recent study—a survey Gallup conducted in 1999 that drew on a similar sampling technique and asked the same question about people’s religious orientation. The results show a significant amount of religious polarization took place during this fifteen-year period. Simply put, more young Americans identified themselves as very conservative or as very liberal in 1999 than had done so in 1984.

Thus, the proportion who placed themselves at the most conservative point on the scale increased by more than two-fold from 4 to 9 percent and the proportion at the most liberal point almost doubled from 11 to 19 percent. This evidence suggests that young adults are more divided in their religious orientations now than they were in the early 1980s.

What also has to be considered is that the religious conservatives are much more active religiously than religious liberals are. for instance, among the religious conservatives in the 1999 study, 56 percent said they attended religious services nearly every week, whereas only 14 percent of the religious liberals did. To the extent that young adults are divided religiously, then, the division is along behavioral as well as ideological lines. On the one side are those who participate regularly in their congregations and hold conservative religious views; on the other side are those who seldom participate in congregations and hold liberal religious views.

These self-descriptions also correspond closely to the various measures of belief we have considered previously. for instance, more than 90 percent of religious conservatives say the bible is divinely inspired, while only two-thirds of religious liberals do. more than half of religious conservatives claim they read the bible at least once a week; about 10 percent of religious liberals do.

If ideology is reinforced by lifestyle, it is also worth noting the ways in which young adults who consider themselves religious conservatives differ from those who consider themselves religious liberals. Conservatives are more likely to be in their thirties and a large majority are either currently married or have been married, while liberals are more likely to be in their twenties and single. About three-quarters of religious conservatives are parents, while fewer than half of religious liberals are.

But what separates religious conservatives and religious liberals most clearly is how they view political and social issues. When asked about their political views, 70 percent of religious conservatives said they were also politically conservative (19 percent placed themselves left of center). In contrast, 77 percent of religious liberals said their political views were also liberal (19 percent described their political views as conservative).

Adapted from After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty- Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Copyright ©2007 by Princeton University Press.