At Christmas, most of us, whether Christian or not, turn our minds in some way to things religious. And one of the most interesting developments in religion in recent times has been the trend for an increasing number of young people to embrace traditional religious practice.
For some time it has been clear Christianity is following a growth curve outside the wealthy industrialised nations of the West, but in recent times there have been signs that, even in the West, Christianity is coming back into fashion, particularly among the younger generation in the trend-setting United States.
This trend is brought into sharp focus by the book The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy written by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Ms Campbell has challenged media perceptions that religion is in terminal decline and has drawn attention to the growing trend in the US for successful young professionals to turn to the practice of orthodox Christianity.
The fact that Ms Campbell’s findings contradict the views of many of her media colleagues has become one of the key talking points about the book. Ms Campbell says that as a young journalist she saw a disparity between media portrayals of her generation and the young adults that she saw all around her. “Their stories were not being told in the mainstream media, and many religion experts seemed to be tone deaf to their voices,” she says. “Many secular journalists still struggle to understand this trend: it’s counter-intuitive for those who assume religion is on the wane and orthodoxy is on life support.”
Surprisingly, given this media climate, Ms Campbell’s book has been well received. And she says that, to their credit, a fair number of baby-boomer journalists in the secular media have been willing to consider that the excesses of their own generation may have made today’s young adults reluctant to follow in their footsteps. To back this up, the book offers a mountain of sociological data and descriptions of movements and organizations that have grown out of a generation which appears to be rejecting the “post-modern, relativistic, and pluralistic America of their parents”. The statistics range widely, from a Gallup poll that shows a growing number of teenagers identifying themselves as “religious” instead of “spiritual but not religious,” to a UCLA freshmen poll that shows approval for abortion and casual sex dropping year after year.
An article in the Wall Street Journal summed it up: “Ms Campbell combines first-hand reporting with social-science metrics to examine a remarkable trend toward religious orthodoxy among Americans born roughly between 1960 and 1983.”
While Ms Campbell acknowledges that the “new faithful” still constitute a fairly modest segment of the American population, she maintains that their influence extends well beyond their numbers because so many are educated and successful with a disproportionate amount of cultural influence.
“They are rising stars in politics, the arts, the entertainment industry, in medicine and law and journalism,” she says. “They are the sort of bright, culturally engaged young adults that their peers tend to follow. And they are uniting – across denominational lines, in many cases – to bring the Gospel to every realm of American life that they touch.”
For instance, Ms Campbell writes that one study found that 42 per cent of those born between 1965 and 1983 were likely to attend church weekly, compared with only 34 per cent of their baby-boomer parents. The younger generation are also more likely to read the Bible (36 per cent compared to 30 per cent) and to pray (80 per cent compared to 70 per cent). Ms Campbell comments: “I met doctors, lawyers, Hollywood writers, and cloistered nuns who told me amazing conversion stories, stories of faith and hope and a love that reached out and grabbed them when they least expected to find God.”
One of the key questions that comes out of Ms Campbell’s work is: what is driving the new move towards religious faith? The Wall Street Journal has suggested that one reason is the exposure of the younger generation to the full-force of consumerism, secularism and “me-first” ideology. Other commentators have suggested that the high rate of divorce among baby-boomer parents has played a role. Some have suggested that the present generation, like past generations, is also skeptical of the dogmas laid down by their elders… “That seems just as true when the dogmas are relativism, permissiveness and militant secularism as when they are their opposites.” There is also the appeal of Pope John Paul II to young people which is mentioned frequently by both young Catholics and Protestants.
Ms Campbell has her own views on this question, pointing out that the new generation has suffered ill consequences from baby boomer experimentation in morality and religion, and they want their own children to experience a more stable life. “And they crave stability for themselves, as well,” she adds.
This message, particularly at Christmas time, will be seen as a positive development not only by Christians, but by people of many other faiths, as well as anyone with a concern for the stability of society. And given the tendency of the United States to set social trends that are followed by the rest of the Western world, these developments have clear relevance for other nations as well.
William West is editor of Perspective, an Australian magazine for families