The kids aren’t all Christian-right

New book unChristian suggests youths are increasingly skeptical of evangelical Christianity

“I’ve always been kind of scared of evangelical Christians. They’re a little bit too into it,” said Shaun Moore, a resident of downtown Sacramento. His opinion of Christianity has partly been influenced by run-ins with Christian friends and family members. “I like the idea of morals that they have, for the most part,” he said. “It’s not just the fact that they try to push their religion on people. But they try to force [their] views and restrict what people are allowed to do.”

Moore, a 20-year-old atheist, is part of a growing number of young secular Americans, and his sentiments are not out of the ordinary. According to the new book unChristian, the majority of young non-Christians and Christians hold increasingly negative ideas about modern Christianity. David Kinnaman, president and strategic leader of the research firm the Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons, founder of the Fermi Project, found that today’s young Americans have grown more hostile toward Christianity than previous generations. The book’s conclusions are especially significant considering that Kinnaman himself is an evangelical Christian, and that the Barna Group’s stated goals are “to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States.”

Among the findings: Only 16 percent of 16- to 29-year-old non-Christians say they have a “good impression” of Christianity, and merely 3 percent of the same group hold a favorable view of evangelicals. By contrast, 25 percent of non-Christians in the baby boomer generation reported a favorable view of evangelicals when they were the same age.

When today’s young non-Christians were asked to rank 20 specific impressions of Christianity, 10 of them positive and 10 of them negative, nine of the top-12 perceptions were negative. Common top perceptions chosen by non-Christians included: judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent), old-fashioned (78 percent), and too involved in politics (75 percent).

These negative perceptions are not limited to non-Christians. Half of young Christians perceive Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical and too political. One third of them labeled Christianity as old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

Non-Christians often cite specific reasons that influence their views: Awkward personal encounters with Christians eager to find new converts. The push by evangelicals to teach Intelligent Design in public-science classes. Public tax dollars funding faith-based social programs. The erosion of Constitutional law by an evangelical commander in chief, or by the reports of devout Christian leaders caught in public sex scandals. Many feel that Christianity treats homosexuals unfairly by scapegoating gays and lesbians for national problems.

“Especially after the whole 9/11 attack [when] Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson went to ground zero and said that we had this coming and we deserved it because of the homosexuals,” said Moore. “I took extreme offense to that. That’s beyond the line of religion to me.”

Pastor Patrick Allen of the First Evangelical Free Church remembers that incident well. “I do share [Moore’s] revulsion with those statements,” he said. But he notes, “Falwell did eventually recant that.”

Allen has been pastor of the Sacramento church for 13 years. He said many of his congregants sought the smaller, family church after feeling anonymous in a kind of “mega-church backlash.” (In responding to an interview request, he said he’s probably the only evangelical pastor that reads SN&R.)

Allen is concerned about the attitudes of young people toward Christianity and Christians, but the negativity is not new to him. “Every young generation reinvents fire. I remember being part of the Jesus generation. We were going to revolutionize the church. We got our long hair and our tie-died shirts and went out and sang “Kumbaya” under the trees.

“Looking through history, there’s always been a reluctance and a certain level of hostility toward Christianity. In some instances of history it’s been even worse than it is today and somehow the church has survived.”

He describes today’s young non-Christians as indifferent, marginalizing and holding a “dismissive attitude” toward Christianity. Does he feel the negative perceptions are justified?

“A lot of times, perceptions [are] reality,” he admitted, while hoping that non-Christians won’t base their opinions on a single negative experience.

Perhaps another reason for increased negative views of Christianity is that the number of secular Americans has also grown over the past 20 years. The Pew Research Center recently found that the percentage of atheist, agnostic or non-religious adult Americans increased from 8 percent in 1987 to 12 percent in 2006. In a nation of 300 million people, that figure translates to over 36 million non-believers. Among Americans ages 30 and younger, one in five do not identify with any religious tradition.

These numbers are not merely the result of a youthful disenchantment with religion. The number of non-religious pre-boomers and baby boomers has remained relatively steady over the past two decades. Americans generally do not become less secular as they age.

Growing up, Moore attended Catholic church with his parents and later a few Christian services with an elementary-school friend. “I guess I never really caught on to it.” Although his mother had him study the family faith, he said, “The more I learned, the more I disliked it.”

The growing interest in secular points of view can also be seen in the prominence of recent atheist-themed books on best-seller lists. Over the past two years, the vehement attacks on religion in Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason spent weeks on best-seller lists. Border’s booksellers recently announced they would be adding an “Atheist/Agnostic” section to their store shelves.

The secularization of young people like Moore may have important political implications in the near future. Pew Research found that only 5 percent of Republicans consider themselves non-religious, while 11 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Independents identified themselves in the same way. The growing number of non-religious voters may signal a big political shift in the coming years. Much like how political candidates woo religious voters, they may also have to find ways to win the support of non-religious Americans.

Should the church also work to adapt to the changing social climate? Can evangelicalism weather increasingly negative public perceptions?

“We need to be concerned with this disenchantment,” said Pastor Allen. “How do we deal with it? I think we step closer. We ask. We engage. We’re willing to go into the marketplace of our peers and we’re willing to listen. At the same time, we have to admit where we failed.”

Moore, however, is not as optimistic. “I think it’s the basis of their voice and religion that I have such a problem with. I don’t see any way that they can change it. I think by nature it seems like they insist on being really abrasive with their views.”