More Believers Are Saying ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’

The Millennial generation better hurry up and take over. Someone, please convince them that they need to do so soon for their own good as well as the good of the rest of us.

Members of older generations have worked hard against seemingly overwhelming odds to end the bigotry that has long gripped this nation. They have brought us to this place.

But the older generations clinging to positions of power are still the ones holding back change. It’s still true that baby boomers and their elders control the political and religious institutions that dominate American culture.

Yet, no matter how we slice the data, the younger the respondent to polls, the less likely they are to oppose issues such as marriage equality. While 26% of those 65 and over and 32% of those 50-64 favor marriage equality, 57% aged 18-29 do, according to a May 2011 survey of – of all people – church-goers by the Public Religion Research Institute.

This new study is revealing. Among church-goers, 69% of those 65 and over respond that sex between adults of the same gender is morally wrong, while only 41% of millennials do.

In addition the study tells us, when it comes to millennial as well as 30-64 year old church-goers, there is no significant difference on their views of abortion from the general public – around 60% agree it should be legal in all or most cases. However, for those 65 and over, only 43% respond positively to the same question.

In fact, the majorities of all but one major group agree that at least some health care professionals in their own community should provide legal abortions. The lone exception is among white evangelical Protestants.

Again, when it comes to teaching comprehensive sex education in the public schools, Americans are in disagreement with their more conservative religious leaders. Nearly eight in ten favor it including among millennials: 62% of white evangelicals, 74% of black Protestants, 78% of Catholics, and 85% of white mainline Protestants.

Even those 65 and older support comprehensive sex education in public schools by a solid 62%. And over eight in ten Americans also favor expanding birth control for women who can’t afford it, with strong support across all political and religious demographics.

There is little question that the number one answer usually given when asked what is holding us back on these social issues is religion. That’s why the news here is especially encouraging.

There is a refreshing and important independence growing in the ranks of believers. The fact that they are people who identify with a religious institution and yet believe they can disagree with their leaders indicates that their views on marriage equality and abortion cannot be taken for granted because of their religious identity.

And even the standard labels used in the political/religious debate are inadequate for those surveyed. Seven out of ten Americans say the term “pro-choice” describes them somewhat or very well while nearly two-thirds simultaneously say they could also identify with the term “pro-life” and not see these as contradictory.

72% report that it is possible to disagree with their religion on abortion and 63% on homosexuality while considering themselves in good standing in their faith. And about six out of ten Catholics and almost half of white evangelical Protestants say it’s wrong for religious leaders to publicly pressure politicians on abortion.

Interestingly, more than two-thirds of white evangelicals believe it’s possible to disagree with their religion’s teachings on abortion and still be a good Christian, but they are the only group in which less than a majority (47%) says they can disagree faithfully with their religion’s teachings on homosexuality.

Also surprising is that Catholics are just as likely as any religious group (68%) to respond that being a good Catholic does not require you to agree with the Church’s teaching on abortion, and a larger number (74%) say the same about not needing to agree with the Church on homosexuality.

Little has changed in terms of American’s views on abortion with 57% saying it should be legal in all or most cases in 1999 and 56% today. Yet the percentage of Americans supporting marriage equality has jumped 18 points in that same period to 53%.

All of this reinforces the tactics we have been using for the last half-century when working with religious people, except that it indicates that the work that has been done has moved some in that moveable middle even though their religious leaders and institutions hate that whole idea. The millennial generation’s difference from older folks is a tribute to the persistent work of activists of all ages.

It continues to remind us that there is a moveable middle even in those religious institutions that refuse to budge in their official pronouncements. And conversations with those believers who are open to facts and personal stories must continue to be the focus of our energies.

We cannot judge the possible outcome of our work by church membership. Many right-wing religious leaders push on while their congregations are changing, as the poll tells us. Among Americans who attend church at least twice a month, majorities still report hearing their clergy talk about abortion and homosexuality in church.

There are still those believers who are stuck. They’re just unable to face a change in thought or to stand up and admit that their religious leaders could ever be wrong.

It’s not surprising that this last group would be larger in older generations not just because of the broader education of the young. Those who’ve been members the longest are the ones who feel they have the most to lose.

They have relied on their religious institutions for security for more years. They may have become religiously-addicted.

And there will be a percentage in every generation that uses religion as an addiction as long as addictions are needed to cope with our society. They will be hard nuts to crack.

Fighting with those immovable ones though will sap the energy for changing the majority and prevent us from appreciating the progress that is taking place.