The XX Factor

Are Millennials Killing Off the Religious Right?

Religious progressives are on the rise.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Are we facing down the end of the conservative death grip on religion in America? It’s true that religious progressives have always been a part of the conversation—it’s not just Republican politicians who pay fealty to God in their public speeches and appearances—but by and large, when faith is discussed in public forums, it’s almost always religious conservatives using it as a cudgel to attack women’s rights, gay rights, and secularism. That may be changing, however, as the numbers of religious progressives are on the rise, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. In fact, for people ages 18-33, religious progressives outnumber religious conservatives. ThinkProgress reports:

According to the survey, 23 percent of people aged 18 to 33 are religious progressives, while 22 percent are nonreligious and 17 percent are religious conservatives. By contrast, only 12 percent of those aged 66 to 88 are religious progressives, whereas 47 percent are said to be religious conservatives.

This demographic shift might go a long way to explaining why anti-choice politicians have chosen now to be the time to drastically dial up the number of attacks on reproductive rights. Abortion has been legal for 40 years, and until recently, anti-choicers mostly chipped away at access quietly and without much notice from the press. Lately, however, anti-choicers have turned up the volume, attacking abortion access—and contraception—with a frenzy that seems as if they think this is the last chance they’ll ever get. Numbers like the ones produced by this survey suggest that they aren’t wrong to think they’re running out of time. 

I’m sure religious conservatives had a hunch that they were losing young people long before this polling data confirmed it, just by looking at the people sitting in their pews. Evangelical leaders have been fretting about this loss for a couple of years now, and it’s an open secret that the youngest generation finds the reactionary politics and hostility toward science that marks religious conservatism to be repulsive. Some of the kids fleeing the flock just end up having no religious beliefs at all, but some clearly want to retain a connection to faith without having to sign off on the anti-feminism, homophobia, and creationism that comes with the more conservative churches. 

While it’s unwise to write off the possibility of yet another revival of conservative religious mania—conventional wisdom would say that the young progressives will get more conservative as they age, though that’s not necessarily true—for the time being, the signs point to a simmering down of the religion wars in the U.S. Religious progressives are politically aligned with the nonreligious, particularly in their opposition to the religious right’s impact on politics. What we’re seeing with the religious right, therefore, is a bunch of people grabbing as many goodies as they can before they’re kicked out the door.