The impact of sexuality on American religion

by on October 31, 2010  •  In Culture, Religion

From a review in The American Prospect of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell:

…The book's story is one of a religious earthquake and two aftershocks. The earthquake was the disaffection from religion occurring in "the long Sixties." Church attendance plummeted. So did the percentage of Americans saying that religion was "very important" in their life. At every stage of their life, boomers would always lag behind their parents by 25 percent to 30 percent in regular churchgoing. The authors know well that these were the years of the civil-rights, anti-war, and women's liberation movements, of pot, acid, the pill, Roe v. Wade, and Watergate. But with a refreshing directness and only a bit of embarrassment, they emphasize sex. Between 1969 and 1973, the fraction of Americans stating that premarital sex was "only sometimes wrong" or "not wrong at all" doubled, from 24 percent to 47 percent, a startling change in four years — and then drifted up, never to decline. Attitudes toward premarital sex turn out to be one of the strongest predictors of a host of other political and religious changes, including that of the first great aftershock, the evangelical upsurge of the 1970s and 1980s.

That reaction to "the long Sixties" has been extensively analyzed. Less so the second great aftershock, the rise of the "nones" after 1990 when young people, in particular, began rejecting identification with any religion, though not necessarily with a variety of religious beliefs and practices. More and more young Americans, according to polls, came to view religion as "judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political," overly focused on rules rather than spirituality. "The Richter rating of this second aftershock is greater than that of the first aftershock and rivals that of the powerful original quake of the Sixties," Putnam and Campbell write.

The second aftershock, however, only exacerbated the so-called God gap. The slightly shrinking evangelical camp became all the more identified with Republican conservatism. The new nones, mostly of a liberal stamp to begin with, increased the identification of Democrats with secularism.

Not that the identification of religious groups with one party or another was new in American history. A century ago a Methodist (outside the South), whether churchgoing or not, was more than likely a Republican; a Catholic, whether churchgoing or not, was more than likely a Democrat. What is new is the identification of religiosity itself, regardless of faith, with political partisanship. Today a churchgoer, whether Methodist or Catholic, is more likely to be a Republican while their indifferent or lapsed counterparts are more likely to be Democrats.

What changed? Issues of family and personal, especially sexual, morality that were always religiously salient became politically salient, that is, posed sharp choices between the parties. This was particularly the case with abortion and same-sex marriage. Would recent history be different if the conflicts over abortion and same-sex relationships had been fought out as much within the parties as between them, as has often been the case with free trade, military spending, Middle East policy, aid to education, and a number of other issues? "When abortion was emerging as a major issue during the 1970s," Putnam and Campbell note, "Democrats were somewhat more likely to oppose abortion than Republicans because, in that period, Catholics were overwhelmingly Democratic and pro-life. It was not until the Democratic and Republican parties took distinctive stands on abortion in the 1980s that the issue became a predictor of party sympathies."…


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