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Saturday, November 27, 2004

Silent majority: Boomers & kids.

Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of politics and media at the American University in Washington, writes that the new "silent majority" in American culture is made up of baby boomers and their kids: people who have largely adopted the live-and-let-live liberalism of the sixties. The resurgent and triumphant Christian right, he says, is not really resurgent but is actually waning in numbers and influence. On religion, for example:

Indeed, the traditionally religious American — what the press has anointed the faith or moral values voter — may well be in decline. According to NORC's 2000 General Social Survey, only two in 10 Americans born from 1943 onward attend religious services once a week or more, while six in 10 attend infrequently — at most a few times a year — if at all. That's almost the opposite of older Americans, 55 percent of whom attend once a month or more and 36 percent of whom attend once a week or more.

In fact, the fastest-growing group of religious Americans are those who claim no religious identity at all; their number now almost equals the number of people who call themselves Baptists, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. These numbers track with findings by Independent Sector, a group that studies nonprofit trends, which show that the share of Americans giving their time to religious organizations declined from 28.6 percent in 1989 to 22.8 percent in 1998.

It's not that Americans aren't seeking spiritual guidance — they are, and in large numbers. But they're finding it in nontraditional ways. Much has been written about the number of baby boomers who have returned to the religious fold after the turbulence of the '60s and '70s, but as religious scholar Wade Clark Roof has reported in his various books on boomers and religion, many of them are "re-traditionalizing" their faith, elevating individual worship over deference to authority and embracing modern values over outmoded rules.

This yearning for spirituality over religiosity can be seen in the estimated 20 percent of Americans who show interest in New Age ideas, and in the 20 million who take yoga classes, which approaches the number of boomers and younger adults who attend church at least once a week. A generation ago, most Americans believed in moral absolutes, biblical truth and the authority of their religious leaders, but today, the vast majority say that religious morality is a personal matter. And the trend is increasingly in that direction; only the social conservatives think otherwise.

Nervous Democrats who counsel their party to offer a me-too religious moralism fail to grasp that mainstream morality has changed over the last generation. What's different is that most Americans no longer feel comfortable imposing their personal morality on another's private behavior. But that doesn't mean this new majority is any less moral.

For baby boomers and younger people, there's nothing equivocal about their views of right and wrong. These Americans condemn bigotry, intolerance and discrimination. They reject constraints on personal freedom and don't like it when women are not treated as equals. They find pollution objectionable and see nothing moral in imposing religious beliefs on others. They believe a moral upbringing is teaching kids to think for themselves, not to follow another's rules. What they embrace are pluralism, privacy, freedom of choice, diversity and respect for people with different traditions. Perhaps the only thing missing from this new morality is a politician capable of articulating it.

Steinhorn argues that the traditionalists were decisive in Bush's win, but that most Bush supporters are either oblivious or in denial about the power of this hard-right religious faction. He also suggests that if the Christian right should press Bush to pay them back, the silent majority will revolt. Could be.

Elsewhere, he draws lines where I don't think they really exist. Much contemporary Evangelicalism seems quasi-liberal (a thought that occurs to me when I'm watching Joel Osteen on TV) and, contra his discussion of interracial dating, self-consciously multicultural. And some of the nontraditional views of the baby boomers and their kids seem, well, just self-indulgent. The basic gap he points to is fascinating. Nevertheless, it's one thing to notice that the basic cultural trend is away from religious traditionalism; it's quite another to see a cultural trend towards liberalism.

("Scrooge's Nightmare," Leonard Steinhorn, Salon 11.25.04, free pass req'd; via Jesus Politics)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 27 November 2004 at 9:45 PM

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