Millennials, Church, and How Politics Factor
What effect does the political climate have on church attendance?
Pew has found that more Republicans report being in church weekly than do Democrats, and those who are ideologically conservative are more likely to report regular participation in religious services than those who are ideologically liberal.
But can the person in office, or the actions of a particular administration, shift public perception on the importance of religious life? Could Donald Trump, for example, make church more attractive to a certain segment of the population?
That’s the surprising opinion of Keli Goff at The Daily Beast, who sees the unified opposition of religious liberals and conservatives to the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the recently halted practice of separating children from parents as a promising sign that churches could begin to win back younger people, who have been leaving organized religion at a significantly high rate.
When evangelicals trumpet “family values” but get behind a candidate like Trump, it sends a message to younger people that the values of people of faith are either a joke or for sale. So why should we expect millennials to want to join us on a Sunday to celebrate values we don’t seem to be upholding ourselves? I certainly can’t speak for all people of faith, but I will say that part of how I’ve managed to hang on to my faith even in the face of failures by the church is because I’ve known so many people of faith who are living values I hold dear, not simply talking about values as a political tool.
It’s worth noting that religious people are more likely to volunteer and give to charity than the wider population. And despite the perception that religious people and churches are conservative and intolerant, Pew data found that two-thirds of Catholics now support same-sex marriage and 35 percent of evangelicals do.
In other words, religion per se isn’t the real problem when it comes to attracting millennials. Church leaders and the church’s image are.
Goff concludes her article on a hopeful note, “So while the president has been widely criticized for dividing our nation, I can’t help but believe he has brought many people together, including people of faith who are finally uniting to say these are not our values...So here’s hoping that religious leaders stay focused on the journey to win hearts and minds, instead of political power, and just maybe we will begin to see church pews fill again.”
The Trump era has led a number of churches, particularly in the Protestant Mainline, to reclaim their prophetic voice and become more socially active. But the Trump era has also revealed the influence of white, conservative evangelicals in American politics.
I’m not as hopeful as Goff. I see the unification of liberal and conservative voices on immigration as a noteworthy data point, but not the beginning of a trend.
However, I do agree with Goff’s suggestion that the political landscape, and the kinds of responses that churches have to current events, do have implications for Christians and their ability to connect with both the established and emerging generations.
This is why it is all the more vital for the church to have a firm understanding of its own identity, history, and theology, for thereby the church is able to speak with its own voice, rather than simply mirror that of a contemporary political faction.
Millennials are watching, as are members of Generation Z, and they are coming to conclusions about the truthfulness of Christian witness. May they find that Christ is indeed risen, and reigns, and has something to say to us and our world even today.