I am reading my way through the hot new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Schuster, 2010). [Note: T&S is running a 12 Questions feature with David E. Campbell, one of the authors of the book.] In the first few chapters, the authors survey how religion in America has changed over the last fifty years, starting with the cultural earthquake of the Sixties, followed by two aftershocks: a conservative retrenchment that peaked in the eighties and then a renewed move away from organized religion that is presently in the ascendant. We're living in the second aftershock.
Here is how the authors summarize this change.
Since the 1950s one major shock and two major aftershocks have shaken and cleaved the American religious landscape, successively thrusting a large portion of one generation of Americans in a secular direction, then in reaction thrusting a different group of the population in a conservative religious direction, and finally in counterreaction to that first aftershock, sending yet another generation of Americans in a more secular direction. ... [T]his religious quake and its pair of aftershocks have left a deep rift in the political and religious topography of America. (p. 80.)
Let's focus on the second aftershock, in which, from the point of view of mainstream Mormonism, everything is moving in the wrong direction. Or, from the point of view of a teenager or young adult in sync with their generation, Mormonism seems completely out of touch with the way they see the world. The data discussed in Chapter Four show young adults unhappy with religious involvement in politics and increasingly unwilling to associate or self-identify with a religious tradition or denomination. An abrupt shift is noted around 1990, when suddenly college-age survey results find approval of marijuana, approval of homosexuality, and non-identification with a religious tradition or denomination all moving quickly upward. The changes are significant: eyeballing Figure 4.14 shows an increase in approval rates among American youth ages 18-29 between 1990 and 2009 for marijuana (23% to 42%), homosexuality (24% to 57%), and no religious preference (11% to 27%).
The authors do note that these "new nones are heavily drawn from the center and left of the political spectrum," an indication of the religious polarization discussed earlier in the book (p. 127). The authors also note a Pew Forum study focusing on these new nones and summarizing their distaste for religion in these words: "they became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers also say they became unaffiliated because they focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality" (p. 131).
Obviously, this puts religious conservatives at odds with the direction of generational change. This is a problem for the LDS Church, and explains in part the difficulty in keeping LDS youth active after they leave home. There are other explanations that apply to the LDS Church specifically, but this factor applies to all conservative denominations and congregations. Here are two short quotations that are delivered as comments on the challenges facing conservative Christians but that certainly apply to the challenges facing the LDS Church.
In effect, the reach of evangelicalism is increasingly defined by the desire to convert conservative sexual morality into public policy. ... Continuing to sound the public trumpet of conservative personal morality may be the right thing to do from a theological point of view, but it may mean saving fewer souls now than it did a generation ago. (p. 131-32.)
So how many potential LDS conversions were lost because of public LDS support for Prop 8? How should Mormons or LDS leaders weigh this sort of tradeoff? And supporting conservative public policy also has a political effect.
Religious polarization has increasingly aligned Americans' religious affiliations with their political inclinations. (p. 132.)
Despite repeated proclamations of LDS political neutrality, LDS culture has nevertheless become politicized and very conservative. I don't believe that is consciously intended by senior LDS leaders; that's just the natural consequence (in the present cultural moment) of religious polarization and public support for conservative morality.
Quick disclaimer: This is not the last word on the how Mormonism is faring. In a subsequent post I'll review the authors' comments on Mormonism in particular.