By many measures of religious commitment, Millennials are less religious than older Americans. Why do you think this is?
Most age differences at any given time are the legacy of the times people grew up in. Many Millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers and Boomers expressed to their children that it’s important to think for themselves – that they find their own moral compass. Also, they rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid. That’s at odds with organizations, like churches, that have a long tradition of official teaching and obedience. And more than any other group, Millennials have been and are still being formed in this cultural context. As a result, they are more likely to have a “do-it-yourself” attitude toward religion.
Is what we’re seeing with Millennials part of a broader rejection of traditional institutions or is organized religion the only institution being affected?
Oh, it is widespread. It’s just easier to quantify religious change because we have such good data on it. But Millennials’ faith in nonreligious institutions also is weaker than they used to be. You see evidence of their lack of trust in the labor market, with government, in marriage and in other aspects of life. General Social Survey data on confidence in the leadership of major institutions show that younger people particularly are not as confident as older adults when it comes to institutions like the press, government and churches. But I think trust is not the whole story.
For one thing, there has been a long list of scandals in recent decades, such as Watergate, that have undone the reputations of major institutions the Greatest Generation trusted. Millennials didn’t grow up trusting these institutions and then had that trust betrayed like older Americans might have. They didn’t trust them to begin with. And these institutions have let people, particularly young people, down.