Monday, February 22, 2010

The "Millennial" Impact: Religion and Government in an Unaffiliated America

There can be no doubt that the relationship between religion and government has presented a persistent question for Americans throughout our history. The problem has revolved around mutual concerns of influence: that of the government imposing limits upon a religious institution (or institutions) and that of a religious institution (or institutions) manipulating the government for its own ends. A recent article released on Pew Forum (here)concerning the religious views of members of the Millennial generation, those “born after 1980”, who “began to come of age around the year 2000”, raises an interesting question for the future of the separation debate. Does the separation of religion and government remain a problem for a country that is less affiliated with institutionalized religions?

The article, which is based on data from a number of different surveys, states that “Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X…and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults.” While this rise in unaffiliated young adults certainly does not necessarily mean the demise of institutionalized religions, it does point to the possibility of a less religiously affiliated society in America’s near future. For better or worse, people raised within institutionalized religious traditions often base their decisions and actions on the ethical and moral principles taught by these institutions. For unaffiliated people, the question arises of which influences shape their moral/ethical codes.

While some may fear that lack of institutionalized moral education entails a lack of moral discretion, the article shows that this does not seem to be the case with the Millennial generation. The article claims that while Millennials participate less in religious institutions, they “remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs.” What is of particular interest is Millennials’ view of the relationship between religion and government. The article notes that Millennials are “slightly more supportive…of government efforts to protect morality, as well as somewhat more comfortable with involvement in politics by churches and other houses of worship.” Again, one must wonder: what has informed these religious beliefs?

While it is likely that many members of the Millennial generation were in fact educated within institutional traditions, there is one other influence that should be considered. Millennials constitute the first generation to be significantly influenced by “new media”, a term indicating media and communication that is electronic, digital, computerized or networked. With the emergence of new media, access to multi-cultural and multi-religious modes of thought has become more available. It is reasonable to assume that Millennials’ religious and moral beliefs have been influenced, at least in part, by interaction with new media. This might explain why Millennials are more accepting of churches and houses of worship taking part in political issues because increased exposure to multiple religious views and institutions can lead to a more balanced view of these institutions’ power. Millennials seem to hold the view that as long as many different institutions are represented, their involvement in political affairs is of little concern. If this trend of unaffiliated youth continues, it is possible that the debate over separation may take a new direction or fall away completely. However, a new debate may need to be raised.

As I am sure anyone would agree, people informed by different media sources, for instance Fox News vs. the Daily Show (yes, those are comparable news sources), will have very different formative ideas—including religious and moral ideas. If moral, ethical and religious ideas are going to be informed by media sources rather than religious institutions in the future, it seems that a new concern over the separation of media and state is on the rise.


Justin M said...

It is important to note that children growing up in today’s society are being influenced by a wide variety of sources. I agree that established religious institutions play a far smaller role in the everyday lives on an individual than they did throughout previous generations. A possible reason why Millennials are still “fairly traditional in their religious beliefs”, despite being disassociated with established religion, is because they take their moral/spiritual cues from their family. Because their parents and grandparents grew up with certain religious tenets instilled in them, these same beliefs are passed on to future generations. However, there is no doubt that as time goes on the debate surrounding the separation of Church and State will have to change course. Finally, I also believe that media is an important source of influence over most belief systems in the world today. However, it is equally important to understand that although the media does influence our beliefs, most individuals choose to watch /read from media outlets for the simple reason that they are portraying beliefs that are already a part of the individual. (We choose to watch The Daily Show because we know that we agree, for the most part, with what is going to be said)

Rachel B said...

One thing to keep in mind here is just how much power the government holds over the media, especially television news stations. Remember that after 9/11, the government forced television stations to discontinue showing anything but “approved” images of Osama bin Laden or anything regarding the Taliban. For this reason, I’m not sure I completely agree with Gavin that there will be an issue of the separation of media and state. One other thing to keep in mind is that although it seems that the Millenial Generation is not interested in adhering to the “typical” institutionalized religions, many popular movies, television shows, and popular music are laden with hidden religious agendas.