20 and 30 Somethings “Lean Left”. What Does That Mean for the Church?

Interesting article in the Sunday Times a week or so back…:

In this economic downfall, the older conservative crowd seem to think that they are getting the brunt of the tough times. In essence, the young have it far worse, which one would think would lead to a backlash against government, in general…but it turns out…

Meanwhile, education spending — the area that the young say should be cut the least, polls show — is taking deep cuts. The young also want the government to take action to slow global warming; Congress shows no signs of doing so. Even on same-sex marriage, where public opinion is moving toward youthful opinion, all 31 states that have held referendums on the matter have voted against same-sex marriage.

Over the long term, obviously, the young have a distinct advantage: they’re not going away. So one of the central questions for the future of American politics is whether today’s 20- and 30-year-olds will hold on to many of the opinions they have today, a pattern that would be less surprising than glib clichés about aging and conservatism suggest. Until recently, as the presidential results from the 1970s through the 1990s make clear, Americans did not grow much more conservative as they aged.

And while today’s young are not down-the-line liberal — they favor private accounts for Social Security and have reservations about government actions to protect online privacy — they certainly lean left.

No one knows exactly why, but there are some suspects. Having grown up surrounded by diversity, they are socially liberal, almost unconsciously so. Many of them also came of age in the (ultimately unpopular) George W. Bush presidency, or the (ultimately popular) Bill Clinton presidency, and pollsters at the Pew Research Center argue that the president during a generation’s formative years casts a long shadow, for better or worse. Hammered by the economic downturn, young voters say they want government to play a significant role in the economy.

I would summarize from a Catholic perspective and say in my experience, today’s young people simply put want something to believe in. Something solid that they can depend upon. From the church’s standpoint, it doesn’t look like the church is one of those things right now. Why? Clearly it’s the church’s hypocrisy. For many it’s starting from the disappointment of the sex scandal which also may confirm for some a belief that the church is nothing more than a money grab, or a means of control. Even religious people that young folks know, often fail to live up to expectations. Some may also feel bored and disappointed by their experience of flat liturgy, others by a lack of reverence and piety amongst Catholics in parishes. There’s no real hard and fast rules here–everyone is different. Some lash out at vibrant hand clapping music at mass and others love it. Some long for contemplation and others want an active socially conscious faith.

Some are saying that those who identify as Catholics and participate who are young tend to lean “right” at least in terms of their Catholicism, if not completely politically as well. Indeed those may be the young adults you see in your pews, those who are “usual suspects” but they rank amongst a small number of 20 and 30 somethings overall and probably don’t factor much even in the occasional church goer. These who describe themselves as “Orthodox” (or some even more extremely call themselves “fundamentalist” Catholics), have found the church to be a “sturdy something” that they can latch themselves onto, but others haven’t found the same thing. In fact, the very principles that some find to be solid and true, others look at with a more critical eye and find alienating.

Any marketing genius knows that the “low hanging fruit” need not be catered to as much as the fruit that one might need a small ladder to reach. Most young people aren’t angry with the church, they just don’t find it worth the bother. In other words, they have better things to do.

But here’s the thing, often we leave them to their own devices–and that’s a recipe for disaster. Do we set up formal time for them to get together and pray as a community? Often we don’t (I know I don’t. And I also know that if left to MY own devices, I’ll blow things off rather easily). This is true amongst those who lean left or right. They have often led very pre-programmed lives, even on retreat when I give people free time in the afternoon, they often want something programmed. So I charge two team members with organizing some fun activity, usually something outdoors and another something indoors.

The truth is that people want to belong, but they often don’t know how. And that’s not liberal or conservative, that’s just a longing for comment and more importantly, mentorship. So few are coming to sit in a chapel unless there’s formal time set aside to do so. We wouldn’t think of not having a formal mass time and just telling people to show up when they feel like it. But we often do this with things like confession (just make an appointment), spiritual direction (oh they’ll come if they need it), retreats (the same folks come at the same time of year), prayer services (well, they’ll just come in when they need to pray). Well, some do, but others need to be prodded and moreover, reminded. Doing things a bit more formally helps remind them of the need to set some time aside or to fulfill their obligations as Catholics.

So I do think it’s accurate to say that young people as a whole lean left–in terms of religion, they might not even know what it means to lean left or right.

What they hope for is to find someone to LEAN ON instead.

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