2010 Archives

Point Person: Our Q&A with Matthew Wilson


The following is from the April 1, 2010, edition of The Dallas Morning News. SMU Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson provided expertise for this story.

April 5, 2010

Today concludes an especially holy period, when Christians celebrate Easter and Jews observe Passover. While religious participation may still be high these days, that trend may not hold up. A new study by the Pew Forum on the Study of Religion and Public Life reveals that 25 percent of millennials – Americans born after 1980 – have no religious affiliation, although they share some of their parents' religious values. Points turned to Southern Methodist University political scientist Matthew Wilson, who contributes to this newspaper's Texas Faith blog, for perspective. Only 37 himself, Wilson studies the intersection of religion and culture.

So, explain this paradox. Millennials are disaffected by religious organizations but believe in many things their parents do.

It suggests we have not so much a crisis of belief as of affiliation. Many beliefs that previous generations held remain in this generation. But the connectedness of those beliefs to formal religious institutions has waned.

But how can churches, for one, continue with trends like this? This is not a good indicator.

They have to work hard to sustain their congregations. There will be more intense competition among congregations, since there will be fewer people in the pews to go around. Population growth in general is slowing, and many congregations are aging. That makes for a competitive market.

Don't we already have that?

Yes, but it will intensify. We increasingly see this among Protestant churches. People move among Protestant denominations much more than they move from, say, Christianity to Judaism. But there will be even more competition.

You used the word "wane." Why is there this drop-off?

It's important to understand that this phenomenon is not limited to churches. There is a cynicism among younger people about institutions generally. They're cynical about politics, the media and even sports. Younger people are less likely than their parents to join civic organizations or political parties. Religion is part of that trend.

Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have attributed this falloff to churches aligning themselves too much with right-wing politics.

This is a minor factor. It may be an issue for some people, but Putnam and Campbell say the connection is a factor mostly for people who already are trending away from the church. It may be the final push in some cases.

If it were the primary problem, we wouldn't have the situation we have today, where the religious groups suffering the most attrition are those least associated with right-wing politics, like mainline Protestant churches and liberal Jewish congregations. They tend to have smaller, older congregations than conservative evangelicals or Mormons.

Read the full interview.

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