The broad, tree-lined road that cuts through the center of Ball
State University's campus in Muncie, Ind., looks like any other
large university setting. Hundreds of students bob by -- iPods
dangling, cell phones engaged -- as they make their way to class.
One difference, however, is the tell-tale remnants of torn down
flyers -- a sign the school is part of the so-called "culture
and its influence on politics are becoming more of an issue among
groups at Ball State. Kyle Flood, a spiky-haired native of Indianapolis
and a 19-year-old student, said he feels like there are two separate
social worlds at his school: one involved in evangelical outreach
programs of the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the other engaged
in the liberal advocacy group, the Gay-Straight Alliance.
"You can see the clashes on campus. When the GSA puts up
fliers, people from CCC will rip them down" Flood said. "It
can be pretty intimidating for those who don't know what they
believe on an issue. The divide is only getting worse."
Interestingly, despite a virtual revolution in the scope and
reach of youth ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ, there
is no indication that the number of American youth affiliated
with religious organizations is substantially rising.
In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, most mainline
Protestant and Catholic affiliation-numbers have been slightly
decreasing over the past decade, while the evangelical numbers
have remained stable.
What does appear to be taking hold, however, is a new level of
commitment to one's chosen camp. According to a 2006 study released
by Baylor University, 18-25 year olds are more likely than their
elders to abandon the middle ground and embrace either the most
conservative of religious movements or none at all.
With 40 percent of 18-25 year olds affiliated with evangelical
churches, and nearly 20 percent not affiliated at all with any
religious institution, it seems that this generation's approach
to religion leaves little room for moderation.
Alex Morse, a 20-year-old campaign worker for Democratic congressional
candidate Barry Welsh, grew up feeling torn between two worlds.
The son of a liberal Protestant minister, Alex spent a great deal
of time at church, leading youth groups and playing in a band
that performs during worship services. Yet, when his family moved
from Seattle to Greenwood, Ind., he found that he had little in
common with the practicing Christians at his high school.
"At my school, you were either evangelical or not engaged
at all. There was no middle ground," said Morse. "Because
I was liberal, people would assume that I didn't go to church.
I was in a rock band with my friends, and another Christian rock
band called us devil worshippers."
"Mainstream religion is losing its influence on American
culture," Morse lamented. Growing up, he said, "I ended
up in the non-Christian group because I didn't agree with the
conservatives. It was totally polarized; there was no socializing
past that line."
For non-affiliated young adults, the political awakening of young
evangelicals is regarded with even greater trepidation. Many young
people from this side of the religious spectrum take a pluralistic
approach to spirituality, rejecting the notion that just one religion
holds a monopoly on "the truth." Others view religious
orthodoxy as synonymous with fanaticism -- comparing conservative
evangelicals to Islamic fundamentalists.
is being associated with dangerous views and extreme minorities,"
said David Salazar, a 21-year-old student at Oklahoma City University."I
believe that religion's influence can be a positive one, but the
influence of these extreme factions is not."
Aviva Pressman, 20, a liberal, young secularist and fellow student
in Oklahoma City, agrees. "Sometimes religion has a really
negative impact in America because people use God's name to put
down other people, to discriminate. One of the things that tears
America apart is belief in the Bible."
Religiously committed young adults also feel the strain between
believers and non-believers.
When Andy Horner, a 20-year-old Catholic from the suburbs of
Chicago, became involved in a youth ministry group, he quickly
drifted from his secular friends. "There was an obvious dividing
line between those who were into their faith, and those that were
not," he said. "It was hard to relate. There is a mutual
fear of judgment in both sides."
This cultural disconnect does indeed play a large role in the
widening gulf between religious and irreligious young adults,
according to Colleen Carroll Campbell, a fellow at the conservative
Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of "The New Faithful."
Young people committed to religious orthodoxy are, according
to Campbell, "attempting to build community in an atmosphere
perceived as very hostile to their beliefs." The solution,
for many young adults, has been to build an alternative social
world opposed to the secular mainstream.
From Christian television, to evangelical social networking Web
sites, to colleges, to diet plans -- young adults who seek a haven
from the secular world don't have to look far to find kinship.
Yet, according to Campbell, such whole-hearted rejection of mainstream
culture is "more than a response to the Religious Right ...
it is a reaction to the secular values of their parents."
Rebelling against rebellion
Mark Berchem, the founder of NET Ministries, a Catholic youth
missionary program based out of Minnesota, concurs.
"A lot of people in my generation, [the Boomers], jettisoned
their faith. And a lot of young people are looking at my generation
and saying, 'You guys don't look all that happy. Perhaps the values
you pursued, the sexual revolution -- maybe that is not where
happiness is,'" said Berchem. "Young people don't know
exactly what they are looking for, but they see that something
is missing in their parents' lives."
Andy Horner, the 20-year-old Catholic, exemplifies this position.
"Growing up, my family went to Mass if there was nothing
else to do. God was seen as an important part of life, but, like
so many other families, we didn't think too much about it."
his junior year of high school, Horner broke from this path and,
following a period of personal doubt and depression, allowed a
friend to take him to a Catholic youth group. Horner's commitment
to his faith grew quickly, culminating in two recent missionary
trips in the United States and Ireland.
This interest in more dedicated forms of worship is not reserved
to young Christians. Cantor Rosalie Boxt of the Temple Emanuel
of Maryland, who is 32 and a member of the Union for Reform Judaism,
has noticed a significant difference between the religiosity of
her generation -- Generation X -- and that of young adults today.
"Even in the liberal movement," she said, "kids
are spearheading religious change: wearing more ritual garb, pushing
for greater observance of Jewish tradition and arguing that reform
prayers are too universal, or too egalitarian."
Although it is still an admittedly small portion of the population,
Cantor Boxt has been surprised to find how many young adults who
were raised in a reform synagogue are turning toward ultra-orthodox
traditions. "For my generation, that was unheard of,"
Across religious traditions, it appears that the hard won battles
of religious liberals and secularists in the 1960s and '70s paradoxically
presented their children with a new opportunity to wage their
own religious battle, often beginning as early as high school.
One example is the issue of school prayer. Beginning in 1962,
religious practices led by teachers or organized by administrators
were continually challenged and shut out of public school practice
by the judicial branch. Now, if this up-and-coming generation
wants to study the Bible or pray in their public schools, they
have to organize it themselves.
As Lauren Sandler points out in her book about the evangelical
youth movement, "Righteous," this generation of 18-25
year olds is both rebelling against their liberal parents and
moving beyond the "old time religion" promoted by evangelical
leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. "We are
looking at a group of young people who are deciding to take up
the mantel themselves," she wrote.
-- By Venessa Mendenhall, Generation Next
Photos courtesy of Teen Mania