Millennials

Facing the Sexual Revolution, even among 'active' believers in conservative pews

When pastors gaze out from their pulpits, they may want to imagine what would happen if they asked their flocks to respond to this statement: "As long as it's between consenting adults, any kind of sex is fine."

If this were a conservative or nondenominational Protestant church, the active, "practicing" members would be sharply divided, according to a new Barna Group survey. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- would affirm this live-and-let-live approach to sex outside of marriage, while 40 percent would disagree "strongly" and 12 percent "somewhat."

There are the active members, not the people who occasionally visit the pews.

"What is surprising is the way that even practicing Christians are beginning to conform to the beliefs and behaviors that are now considered normal in our culture," said Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief at Barna. "The big story here is that people no longer agree when it comes to the purpose and meaning of sex -- including in our churches. Many no longer connect sex and marriage the way they used to."

When looking at broader trends, this study found the usual evidence that older Americans -- the "Elders" and "Boomers" -- have much more traditional views of sex and marriage than members of the younger "Gen-X" and "Millennial" generations. Rising numbers of young Americans view sex through the lens of self-expression and personal growth, with few ties that bind them to institutions and traditions.

"What people are saying is that sex is about two people loving each other and experiencing intimacy, but you don't really need to have the word 'marriage' involved in this discussion," said Stone, in a telephone interview.

"It's surprising how quickly some of these changes have become part of what is now considered normal. … Normally, these kinds of radical changes in a culture evolve over time. But, sociologically speaking, Woodstock wasn't that long ago."

Concerning sex, marriage, babies, pews and the rise of the 'nones'

Researchers studying religion in America have long observed a kind of faith-based law of gravity: While young people often stray, most return to the pews after they get married and have children.

But something new is happening, especially among the "nones" -- the growing ranks of individuals who declare themselves "unaffiliated," when it comes to religious life. While researchers have dissected their political views, now it's time to focus on their actions linked to marriage and children.

"We have always known that family size is related to religiosity. The more devout people are the more likely they are to get married and have a higher number of children," said John Green of the University of Akron, a veteran researcher on faith and public life.

But Americans born after the 1960s have been shaped by storms of change linked to sexuality and marriage. For them, noted Green, contraception and abortion are normal parts of the American way of life. Cohabitation rates keep rising and people tend to marry later than in the past. Thus, they are older if and when they choose to have children.

It's time to probe the impact of these trends on religion, said Green, in a telephone interview. He was reacting to the Pew Research Center's massive 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, released on Nov. 3.

"You used to be able to say that the young would drift away from the faith of their youth, but then they would get married and have kids and that would pull them back … or maybe they would choose some other faith," he said. "The assumption was that marriage and family change people and they get more religious as they get older.

"Maybe what we're seeing now is that it's the faith component that is actually driving the actions of the young people who are choosing to get married and to have children in the first place. …

Religious leaders struggle to reach 'emerging adults'

When leaders of traditional faith groups think about reaching out to Millennials, religious seekers, unaffiliated "Nones" and other postmodern young Americans, this is the voice that many keep hearing in their heads.

"Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it," said one person interviewed in the National Study of Youth and Religion. "You could feel what's right and wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what's right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I'm going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I'm going to do it."

Seconds later, young people caught up in what experts now call "emerging adulthood" may stress that they are open to attending multigenerational congregations that offer roots, tradition and mentors. But how will they know when they have found the right spiritual home?

Right. When they feel it.

That's a hard target to hit, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back." Many religious leaders are struggling to find a "sweet spot between deep religious messages that sound cool" and faith that "seems like it comes from a sappy self-help book," she noted.

In light of current trends, it's also hard for clergy to take comfort in the trend seen in previous generations, which is that young people who abandon the pews usually return when they are married and have children. Trouble is, increasing numbers of Americans between 20 and 40 are delaying marriage, family and any community ties that bind. Some are opting out of marriage altogether.

This creates strong moral tensions.

Young Catholics wrestle with truth

In one of the defining works of his historic papacy, Pope John Paul II argued that if people -- believers and nonbelievers alike -- want true freedom and peace, they must accept the reality of "universal and unchanging moral norms." "When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions. ... Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal," wrote the pope, in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth").

"In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels."

It would be stating the matter mildly to say that young Catholic adults in America disagree with John Paul II on this issue, according to a new survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus.

An overwhelming 82 percent of Catholic Millennials -- the generation between 18-29 years of age -- agreed with this statement: "Morals are relative; there is no definite right and wrong for everybody." In comparison, 64 percent of other Millennials affirmed that statement, when questioned by researchers with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Older "American Catholics" were also more willing to embrace moral relativism than were other Americans, at the rate of 63 percent compared with 56 percent. However, a slim majority of "Practicing Catholics" in the survey -- 54 percent -- were willing to affirm the statement, "Morals are fixed and based on unchanging standards."

"Practicing Catholics" were defined as "those who attend religious services at least once a month," explained Barbara L. Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll. This group included "Catholics who attend services more than once a week, once a week, or once or twice a month excluding weddings and funerals," she said.

As stark as those numbers are, it's important to understand that these broad Catholic categories include different kinds of believers who have different beliefs and lifestyles, said Andrew Walter, vice president for media research and development for the Knights of Columbus. For church leaders, the "Practicing Catholics" category will offer more insights into what is happening in pews.

"You have to ask, 'Who is truly connected to their faith? Who is doing something with it?' When you talk about these 'Practicing Catholics,' you are not talking about the Christmas and Easter crowd," he said. "These people have an ongoing link to a Catholic parish and they are doing something with it."

While the poll contains evidence that what Pope Benedict XVI has called a "dictatorship of relativism" may be growing stronger, the numbers also show that young Catholic adults share a yearning for some kind of moral order -- even if they reject the existence of moral absolutes. It's possible to "drill down" into the research, said Walter, and see that when young Catholics are forced to wrestle with individual issues "they are willing to make judgment calls and say that some things are right and some things are wrong."

For example, 91 percent of Catholic Millennials affirmed that adultery is morally wrong, 66 percent said abortion is immoral and 63 percent rejected assisted suicide. When asked to identify virtues that are "not valued enough in American society," 82 percent selected "commitment to marriage," making that the top choice.

But there was a flip side to this moral coin. Only 20 percent of these young Catholic adults agreed with their church's teachings that premarital sex is morally wrong and, thus, sinful. Only 35 percent affirmed doctrines that forbid sexual relationships between homosexuals.

While Catholic Millennials are interested in spiritual growth, only 43 percent said that American society doesn't place enough value on "religious observance," putting that choice in last place. In another answer sure to raise clergy eyebrows, 61 percent affirmed that it's "okay for someone of your religion to also practice other religions" at the same time.

"They want to say they are relativists, but it's also clear that they are not relativists on all issues," stressed Walter. "They have a strong spiritual sense that they say is important in their lives. What they don't have is a place for institutional religion in their lives. ... The problem is that you have some people who have a church and others who really have no church at all."