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Young People Express Views on Religion, Politics

January 3, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Lisa Higaki of Los Angeles is 24 years old.

LISA HIGAKI: I don’t think I’ve ever known a moment without God in my life. Not taking it as a religion, as something that’s, like, just labeled on me, like, “I’m Japanese-American. I’m a woman. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister.” But actually kind of like a lifestyle, in a sense. I mean, it’s just been kind of, like, my personal kind of identity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 44 percent of young American adults agree that religion is a very important part of their lives. For many, that’s thanks to their parents.

You’ve mentioned the church several times and the role of your faith, your Christianity. Where did that come from?

LISA HIGAKI: Definitely my parents. I don’t think they’ve ever really pushed upon me, like, “You must be a Christian,” you know, “And this is your religion, and this is what you’re going to do.”

I think it was always — it was kind of just part of growing up, growing up in the church.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For others, religious practice is grounded in longstanding cultural traditions. First-generation Nigerian-American Adora Mora grew up Catholic in Columbus, Ohio.

ADORA MORA: I grew up in a deeply religious and spiritual household, and I think faith is what brought us through all our situations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For many young people, however, early adulthood becomes a time to question one’s religious upbringing. According to studies done by the evangelical research firm the Barna Group, approximately 60 percent of people in their 20s who were religious in their teens are now disengaged.

CHARLES MITCHELL: I grew up thinking that what you had to do in order to — what you had to do was go to church for an hour on Sunday morning, or go to mass — excuse me — for an hour on Sunday morning. And if you were really lucky, it would only be 45 minutes.

I knew before I got to college nobody was going to see me darken the door of a church, so I didn’t. I never went to Catholic mass once.

Some choose new religious tradition

Byron Johnson
Baylor University
In this most recent survey that we've done, we do see -- I'm hesitant to use the term "polarization," -- but clearly we see an over-representation of evangelicals among the young and a significant over-representation...in the unaffiliated category.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For some young adults, however, an upbringing in one religious tradition can act as a springboard for interest in another. Over dinner in Media, Pennsylvania, former Catholic Charles Mitchell told me about his experience of becoming a born-again evangelical.

CHARLES MITCHELL: I was sitting on a plane across the country, and I was all of a sudden just really taken up with everything that was waiting for me when I got home. All this stuff that I'd been hearing in this Christian fellowship finally resonated.

I have no idea what I said but, "Dear God, I want a personal relationship with you. Please help me," or something. That was it. Got off the plane, told my friends. They all cried. So I was converted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charles Mitchell's turn away from Catholicism to an evangelical church may be part of a larger pattern for this generation, according to a recent study by Baylor University. Byron Johnson helped lead the research team.

BYRON JOHNSON, Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion: Among young people in this most recent survey that we've done, we do see -- I'm hesitant to use the term "polarization," but clearly we see an over-representation of evangelicals among the young and a significant over-representation of the young in the unaffiliated category.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That gain by evangelicals and the unaffiliated has come at the expense of the mainline Christian and Jewish religions, according to the Baylor study.

SARAH MCGARITY: Yes, I mean, I go to synagogue. It's tradition, and it's a great way to be with my family. My religion has been more of a community-type thing.

But as far as seeing God in my day-to-day life and things like that, I don't really -- I mean, I know I came from somewhere, and I know I'm going to end up somewhere. But, you know, religion and the structure that comes with religions doesn't really play a big role in my life, I don't think.

Some lose interest in old structure

Adora Mora
I believe in personal relationships with God; I don't really believe in church. My mom doesn't like me to say that, but it's the truth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even for many religious young adults, attending church isn't seen as necessary.

Church every Sunday, twice a week?

ADORA MORA: Every Sunday, but it's not the same. I believe in personal relationships with God; I don't really believe in church. My mom doesn't like me to say that, but it's the truth.

I believe my church is sitting in my house, writing a letter to God about what he's done for me, or about good and bad things that have happened with my life and how we'll overcome them together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we traveled across the country, we often heard young people talk about their "personal relationship" with God, which was more important to them than congregational loyalty or the structure that it provides.

DAISY COOPER: I'm not into religion. I have a relationship. Religion is -- that's what's like -- that's what sparks confusion, and God is not the author of confusion. So a religion is what blocks people from getting the real.

Shifting political trends

Charles Mitchell
Chris and I call ourselves evangelicals. I don't like to say conservative Christian, because that tends to imply -- when you say "conservative," people think politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Such an independent take is causing some experts to wonder what effect this trend may have on the political views of the younger generation.

Byron Johnson of Baylor.

BYRON JOHNSON: I think a lot of people assume that they all vote Republican. I think a much better predictor of who's going to vote on some of these issues, we have found, is attendance. People who really attend frequently are much more likely to march lock-step.

I would say that younger evangelicals tend to be more open-minded and more tolerant on some of these critical dimensions. That doesn't mean that they all think that way. Some of them are, you know, just as conservative as the older generation, but there clearly, I think, has been shift there.

CHARLES MITCHELL: Chris and I call ourselves evangelicals. I don't like to say conservative Christian, because that tends to imply -- when you say "conservative," people think politics. I believe what the Bible says, but, you know, that doesn't mean, you know, I'm a conservative Christian, and so I'm a Republican.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of young adults feel that conservative Christians have gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country.

And even young evangelicals sometimes question their elders when it comes to issues like abortion and gay marriage. Support for Democratic candidates by young, white evangelicals jumped 10 percent this past election, a bigger increase than any other age group.

LISA HIGAKI: I used to be very pro-life, but I don't know if I can really take a strong stance on it, just because it's just such a heated issue.

LAUREN HIGAKI: It's hard, because I think, personally, I want to just say, like, OK, abortion is wrong, you know, it's not right. But then I've had friends that have been in situations where that became a really real part of their lives, you know?

And I know what they've been through and the reasons why they would have to make, you know, a choice. And I think, in certain situations, it might be appropriate, you know?

Influencing older generations?

Lauren Higaki
I even have friends that...went to Christian college with us, and then they came out that they were gay. And I don't know, you know? I love them, and I know that they're strong Christians. But...it's always kind of been a confusing thing to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: According to a series of studies by the evangelical pollster George Barna, it appears that young born-again Christians may be up to 15 percent more likely than their religious elders to claim that homosexuality is morally acceptable.

LAUREN HIGAKI: I even have friends that, you know, went to Christian college with us, and then they came out that they were gay. And I don't know, you know? I love them, and I know that they're strong Christians.

But it's just kind of -- and I've seen in the Bible, there's scripture that I guess that says that it is a sin, and I guess that's what I believe in, but it's always kind of been a confusing thing to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As young evangelicals weigh these difficult issues, experts are watching closely to see how this generation will shape the future of their congregations.

Again, Byron Johnson.

BYRON JOHNSON: It will be interesting to see if the young will be able to have influence over middle-aged and older evangelicals. It wouldn't surprise me if that happened, to be candid.

Some of these issues are really -- young people have grown up thinking about them. And older Americans are now struggling with them.

And so, you know, over time, it's hard to say how this will play out, but I would assume that, as young Americans become middle-aged Americans, their views on those will probably not lessen at all. So it may be more representative in the future of an evangelical position on social justice issues that kind of goes more left.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Will Generation Next's views on social issues have a transformational impact on religion and, in turn, politics? Or, as they mature, will they follow in the footsteps of their parents? This issue is something both religious and political leaders will be following as 2008 approaches.