In a sleepy town 30 miles north of Atlanta, former Sen. Rick Santorum stands behind the pulpit of an evangelical church to deliver a hard-hitting speech on religious liberty and conservative values. His rousing delivery Feb. 19 convinced more than a few attendees. “He sealed the deal,” a 58-year-old retired secretary told The Washington Post.
One week later, Newt Gingrich would stand on the same sacred stage to lecture congregants on how America’s “secular left” wars against religious persons. The thrice-married former speaker of the House nurtured no illusions regarding his own sanctification. “I don’t come here as a saint,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I come here as a citizen who has had a life that at times has fallen short of the glory of God who has had to seek God’s forgiveness and had to seek reconciliation.”
Though both presidential hopefuls are Roman Catholic, they have made regular campaign stops at evangelical churches. Their presence is often met with raucous applause. But as it turns out, such displays of partisan faith are partly responsible for the recent mass exodus of young people from Christian churches.
Religious pollsters and demographers have long warned that young people were leaving churches in alarming numbers. According to a much talked about LifeWay Research survey, for example, 7 in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 who regularly attended church during high school said they quit attending by age 23. What’s been less clear is why they’re leaving.
“The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right,” they wrote in the latest Foreign Affairs in an essay titled “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both.” They explain: "And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined.”
Mr. Putnam and Mr. Campbell point to the statistical growth of “nones,” those persons who claim no religious affiliation. This group has historically comprised between 5 and 7 percent of the American population. In the aftermath of the religious right movement in the 1990s, however, the percentage began rising. In the mid-1990s, it reached 12 percent. By 2011, it was at 19 percent. Between 2006 and 2011, the rise in young people aged 18-29 who reported never attending religious services was three times higher than the increase among those over the age of 60.
“In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I’m outta here,’” Putnam and Campbell write.
Many religious leaders see the writing on the wall. As a result, there has been a drop-off in political activity among US religious congregations in recent years. But not among all of them.
Some churches still drape flags over crosses, boldly endorse political candidates, or pass out voter guides. Partisan expressions of Christianity live on among a shrinking cohort of Americans, as Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich can attest. But Christian leaders need to understand that if they continue to push partisan politics on their congregants, they may end up literally preaching to the choir.
Jonathan Merritt is author of “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He has published more than 300 articles and columns in these pages and outlets such as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmerritt.