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January 19, 2021+Kevin Singer
+Faith & Religion

To Heal our Religious Divisions, We Must Embrace the Unaffiliated Soul of Young Americans

As America begins a new chapter under the leadership of Joe Biden, many leaders and educators are asking how they can contribute to his Biblically-inspired mission to “build up...and heal” after four years of a Trump presidency defined by inflammatory rhetoric and polarization.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Biden, America’s second Catholic President, quoted Ecclesiastes 3:3 in his campaign victory speech outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware in November. The Biden campaign’s impressive faith outreach efforts, especially to historically Republican evangelicals and Catholics, stood in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton’s four years ago. Some suggest these voters sealed his victory over President Trump.

Clearly, Biden recognizes that political tribalism does not tell the full story about our polarization at this moment. Our distrust and disdain toward one another also has religious roots, and any effort to revitalize a spirit of unity in our nation must include religious antidotes.

“What is clear now is that Mr. Biden built a broad, multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious coalition that carried him to victory,” Michael Wear remarked in a recent New York Times essay (emphasis mine). Along with the surge of young voters and democrat-leaning Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious minorities in 2020, it is fair to say that Biden drew the most religiously diverse coalition of young voters in history.

None...and then some

Yet, this still isn’t the full story. Religion data expert Ryan Burge recently suggested that the religiously unaffiliated or “nones” -- not historically-Republican voters of faith -- are who should ultimately be credited for handing Biden the Presidency.

“I did a number of media appearances in the days after election day where I pointed to the switch in the votes of white Catholics being decisive for Joe Biden this time around,” Burge writes, adding, “But, I have to admit – the more I looked at exit polls, the muddier the picture became...I think that Joe Biden should thank the nones for being the president-elect right now.” Though religious nones, including atheists and agnostics, had moved away from Democratic candidates over the last three presidential elections, a high percentage casted votes for Biden.

Yet, this shift isn’t because Biden’s faith outreach strategically targeted these voters. Burge’s analysis concluded, “A lot of the gains for Joe Biden were not because of anything that the Democratic candidate did. Instead, I think he garnered a larger share of the none’s votes because he was simply not Donald Trump.”

Disaffiliation from religion is a surging trend among young Americans. While 33% of those between 18-25 now identify as religious unaffiliated, only 23% said the same in 2009 and 13% in 2002. Springtide Research Institute surveyed over 10,000 young people (13-25) across the nation in Fall 2019-Summer 2020 about their religious engagement and found that 39% identify as religious nones, agnostics, or atheists.

Yet, there’s more to this than what meets the eye. Among the 61% of 13-25 somethings who told Springtide they affiliate with a particular religion, over half claimed to have little trust in religious institutions (rating trust at 5 or below on a scale of 1–10 from no trust to complete trust). Furthermore, of those who identified as unaffiliated, 60% said they are at least slightly spiritual, including 63% of religious nones, 42% of atheists, and 65% of agnostics. A whopping 45% of Springtide’s sample agreed that it’s important to be spiritual, but not necessarily religious in their life. This is 20 points higher than the 27% of all Americans who would say the same.

Embracing the unaffiliated

If a majority of affiliated young people don’t trust religious institutions, and the majority of the unaffiliated say they’re drawn to spirituality, where does that leave educators who desire to follow Biden’s lead in normalizing more constructive discourse around matters of faith?

First, we need to consider that our current framings of “religion in America” or “religion in public life,” which usually place a high premium on evangelicals and Catholics, are likely excluding young people from these discourses more than including them. Reflecting on this trend among democratic faith strategists, Tara Isabella Burton writes, “While it hasn’t been shown that young religiously unaffiliated voters are actively turned off by a candidate’s profession of faith, they’re nevertheless unlikely to respond to the efforts of faith-based strategists whose networks are focused on established traditions.”

Second, we need to recognize that in alienating unaffiliated (or distrustfully affiliated) young people from conversations about the role of religion in American public life, we deny many young people an opportunity to interrogate their own religious biases and become equipped to facilitate healthier discourse.

Though the unaffiliated may be less outspoken about matters of faith, they are not invulnerable to harboring biases that contribute to religious division. In a 2014 study, for example. Pew asked respondents to rate their feelings toward members of other religions. Out of the eight groups that respondents were asked to rate, four of those groups (evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, and Jews) received their lowest scores from the unaffiliated. Furthermore, even those claiming affiliation with a religion may harbor internalized biases against their own religious group.

In a 2020 study, the Fetzer Institute discovered that American adults identifying as “slightly spiritual” were the least committed to “welcoming people who are different from me into my community,” “being informed about community issues,” “speaking up when other people have been wronged,” and “contributing to the greater good in the world.” Those identifying as “not at all spiritual” showed a slightly higher commitment to these statements, but both of these groups were eclipsed by those identifying as moderately or very spiritual. There is great potential here for educators to help unaffiliated young people -- especially those identifying as “slightly spiritual” -- clarify and envision how their values might inspire societal action.

It all starts with an invitation

Finally, we need to acknowledge that the stakes are real. In the final months of Trump’s presidency, a now-sitting supreme court justice was falsely accused of bringing a Handmaid’s Tale agenda to the Supreme Court, and Muslims in Congress were falsely accused of having direct links to and strong affection for terrorist groups. President Biden was accused of being a Catholic “in name only,” and Catholic democrats were told by one priest to “repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell!”

The shredding of our American fabric during Trump’s presidency cannot be attributed solely to hyper-partisan politics. Religion is also laced into our polarization, both in broader society and on college campuses. While Trump was in office, religiously-fueled hate crimes spiked on college campuses, many of which were carried out by right-wing political groups. One national study followed thousands of students through college and discovered that students of every religious group developed more negative attitudes toward political conservatives. Clearly, Gen Z is taking cues from our national discourse, though their polarization is not inevitable. Springtide Research Institute found that 84% of young people agree that educating oneself about the views of others is important, and 77% want to have open conversation about differences.

With this in mind, leaders and educators need to become far more comfortable and proactive with inviting unaffiliated young people into conversations about the role of religion in American public life. A better future for religious and political discourse in America is possible under President Biden, but it is not possible without a better reflection of the demographic realities of young Americans. By inviting their participation in this discourse, we ensure that Biden’s calls for unity, civility, and healing are coherent to Gen Z.

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