While opposition to the Trump administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” policy separating children from their families at the border has emerged as one of the few surprisingly bipartisan issues in recent memory, uniting liberals and increasing numbers of conservatives and resulting in a rare U-turn by the president, the policy has also done something else. It has united religious leaders as few issues have. This is not only good news on its own terms, but it could mark a turning point in the efforts of churches to win back younger people, who have been turning their backs on organized religion.
Research published by the Pew Research Center found millennials are less religious than their parents and grandparents. While only 27 percent of millennials surveyed attend regular religious service, 38 percent of baby boomers and 51 percent of members of the greatest generation do. Baby boomers and their parents were also far more likely to pray, and to admit to “an absolute belief in God.”
According to Barna, a polling institution focused on faith, millennials have very deep, specific concerns about the church. Barna found “substantial majorities of Millennials who don’t go to church say they see Christians as judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), anti-homosexual (91%) and insensitive to others (70%).” Just about any company in America receiving this kind of data from their market researchers regarding their brand’s image, would see such numbers as cause for panic and alarm. These numbers should be particularly alarming to a brand that’s supposed to be predicated on values like love and charity.
Yet for any self-identifying Christian the numbers actually aren’t that shocking. Not a day goes by when yet another news story emerges regarding someone waving the flag for people of faith while embodying the worst that humanity has to offer. Just recently, disturbing allegations of racism were lodged against Raleigh White Baptist Church of Albany, Georgia (yes, that’s its real name), resulting in its ouster from the Southern Baptist Convention.
There’s been more trouble in Southern Baptist land: Last month, after reports emerged that longtime Southern Baptist leader L. Paige Patterson had pressured a woman who’d been a victim of domestic violence to stay with her abuser and pressured a rape victim to stay silent, thousands of women signed a petition that resulted in his resignation. Patterson’s contemporary, Judge Paul Pressler, who with Patterson turned Southern Baptists into one of the most powerful political and religious forces in the country, now faces a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse—from a man he once taught in Bible study.
And of course there is the ongoing Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, which not only involved hundreds of priests around the world, but many more who helped aid in the cover up, with thousands of victims left in their wake.
What many of these stories have in common is not simply someone abusing a position of authority and violating the trust that people place in them, but ultimately using their position of power to acquire more for themselves. What has outraged many—those who are religious and those who are not—is the idea that people would use the Bible as a weapon to denounce swaths of people, divorced people or gay people for instance, while simultaneously engaging in behavior that is hypocritical at best, horrifying at worst.
When evangelicals trumpet “family values” but get behind a candidate like Trump, it sends a message to younger people that the values of people of faith are either a joke or for sale. So why should we expect millennials to want to join us on a Sunday to celebrate values we don’t seem to be upholding ourselves? I certainly can’t speak for all people of faith, but I will say that part of how I’ve managed to hang on to my faith even in the face of failures by the church is because I’ve known so many people of faith who are living values I hold dear, not simply talking about values as a political tool.
It’s worth noting that religious people are more likely to volunteer and give to charity than the wider population. And despite the perception that religious people and churches are conservative and intolerant, Pew data found that two-thirds of Catholics now support same-sex marriage and 35 percent of evangelicals do.
In other words, religion per se isn’t the real problem when it comes to attracting millennials. Church leaders and the church’s image are.
This is why I’m feeling optimistic for the first time in a long time about the future of people of faith in America. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to use a biblical passage to justify the administration’s zero tolerance policy—a passage that has previously been used to justify acts like slavery—the pushback from religious leaders was swift. Evangelical leaders joined New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in deeming the policy as incompatible with human dignity, human decency and biblical values. And now hundreds of members of Sessions' own Methodist denomination have rebuked him.
The timing is particularly significant. Just last week Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the recent convention of Southern Baptists, a nod to their importance as a conservative voting bloc. Though Southern Baptists have a complicated racial history (a number of segregated private schools created to thwart Brown v. Board of Education had a Baptist affiliation), there was a noticeable increase in racial diversity among the speakers and attendees at this year’s convention. Even more significant is that 45-year-old J.D. Greear was elected the denomination’s president.
Greear tweeted concern about the message Pence’s inclusion in the convention sent and, according to The Atlantic, said the denomination needs to repent for a “failure to listen to and honor women and racial minorities” and “to include them in proportionate measures in top leadership roles.” This sea change at the very top of America’s largest protestant denomination is more than just talk. After all, the Convention ousted Raleigh White Baptist Church for its accusations of racially inappropriate behavior toward black parishioners. It was also reported that the convention is actively seeking a person of color for a major role.
Such changes would have been unthinkable a decade ago. So would the idea that the progressive African-American pastor Rev. William Barber and Cardinal Timothy Dolan would have been on the same side of an issue. But they united in their condemnation of the “zero tolerance” policy as people of faith.
So while the president has been widely criticized for dividing our nation, I can’t help but believe he has brought many people together, including people of faith who are finally uniting to say these are not our values. While these recent moments are fundamentally baby steps in a much longer journey for the church to reclaim some of the trust it has lost over the years, as the saying goes, every journey begins with a single step. So here’s hoping that religious leaders stay focused on the journey to win hearts and minds, instead of political power, and just maybe we will begin to see church pews fill again.