King: Mixing Politics, Religion and Millennials

October 9, 2014

By Stephen M. King, Ph.D.

Millennials, the age cohort between 18 and 29 who came of adult age around 2000 or so, are poised to impact the world around them. In some ways, they are scattered in their views, but in others they are consistently inconsistent. Still, this generation of nearly 60 million can and will have a significant impact upon not only culture in general but in politics and policy specifically.

The most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2007, updated 2013) from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed much about Americans religious, political and ideological beliefs. Surveying more than 35,000 individuals, Pew discovered that Americans for the most part hold a “non-dogmatic, diverse and politically relevant” religious faith.

Religion and religious faith, including Christianity, are still important to Americans — at least somewhat so — with more than half surveyed saying that “religion is very important in their lives,” including church attendance and practicing their faith through prayer and devotion or meditation. A key demographic variable is generational affiliation: For example, the older population (65 and up) versus younger age groups such as Generation Y or commonly the Millennial Generation (18-29), tend to: 1) have stronger religious beliefs and doctrine; and 2) are more likely to be civically engaged, such as in voter turnout rates.

Although Pew finds that approximately 25 percent of Millennials are not affiliated with a particular religious faith, Christian or otherwise, there are generational similarities related to religious belief and involvement with themselves and Generation X at similar points in their life cycle. For example, 41 percent of Millennials say that they pray daily; this compares to 43 percent of X’ers in the late 1990s. Fifty-eight percent of Millennials have no doubt that God exists; this compares favorably to X’ers (54 percent) in the late 1990s. And finally, 27 percent of Millennials say that the Bible is the literal word of God; this compares to 28 percent of X’ers in the late 1990s. So, even though Millennials tend be more adverse to institutional religion and traditional religious practices, this difference is not any more drastic than their generational predecessors at approximately the same age.

How does this translate into civic awareness and, more importantly, civic engagement? Is there a link between religious belief and activity and civic awareness and engagement?

According to Pew, most Americans who display a strong affinity toward religion, and especially practicing their religious faith, are also predisposed toward engaging in some type of cultural, political and social activities, from voting to joining a political or policy-oriented organization.

The Pew Report contends that “The relationship between religion and politics is particularly strong with respect to political ideology . . .” In other words, those who self-identify as strongly religious also have strong beliefs ideologically, especially on hot-button social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. On other issues, though, such as size and scope of government or foreign policy, Pew notes that the differences between religion and ideology are not as strong.

Millennials, though, are an interesting case. On the one hand, they tend to be the least civically aware, engaged and religiously unaffiliated generation, yet they still tend to hold to strong ideological views on a range of issues, including abortion, the size and scope of government and the use of government to protect individual morality. For example, compared with the oldest population (65 plus), Millennials are more liberal in their position on abortion (52 percent to 37 percent), size and scope of government (67 percent to 31 percent) and in arguing that government should do more to protect individual morality (45 percent to 39 percent).

Reason, a Libertarian think tank that markets itself as promoting “free minds and free markets,” recently conducted a nationwide poll on the political attitudes and beliefs of Millennials. It found what they called “eye-opening insights.” Reason contends that the Millennials are an untapped political resource, one that can, if properly motivated, shift the current U.S. electoral landscape.

Reason’s polling data affirms what we already know about Millennials: They are “socially liberal and economically moderate” with two times more self-identifying as liberals and Democrats than conservatives and Republicans. Reason’s data supports Pew data that Millennials strongly support a larger government, particularly in social areas, while at the same time they trend more conservative or even libertarian on economic issues.

What is enticing about the Reason survey data compared with the Pew data is that Reason found Millennials trending in three directions: 1) Anti-egalitarian; 2) strong worth ethic; and 3) entrepreneurial. However, even as Millennials argue that government should do more to protect individual morality, they are more distrustful of federal government. Thus, the kind of political candidate a Millennial would vote for is “fiscally conservative (and) socially liberal.”

We can summarize this and other data this way: Millennials, including Christian Millennials, lean Libertarian, identify as Independent and largely vote Democrat. If you were a Republican strategist looking at upcoming elections, the research might suggest three strategies:

First, do not cave on key ideological principles, especially promoting individual liberty. Millennials, whether religious or not, highly value public policies that embrace freedom, such as decriminalization of drugs and gay marriage.

Second, Millennials are ready for political and spiritual revival. This is evident, it seems, considering their institutionally religious non-affiliation and political heterogeneity. The type of political candidate they will gravitate toward is one who is willing to buck the national and global trends and be willing to think innovatively and creatively.

Third, Millennials are an energetic dynamo. They are ready to act and serve. They crave working to address and solve problems. They don’t take no for an answer. They are not interested in debating endlessly; they find it tedious and non-productive. So put them to work.

If these strategies are combined with a high-tech savvy unparalleled over the last 50 years, Millennials will have significant impact on the political and policy world.

Stephen M. King, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, holds the R. Philip Loy Endowed Chair of Political Science at Taylor University.

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