Conservative Policies Alienate Youth from Evangelical Protestantism

Homophobia and anti-abortion sentiments are increasingly associated with evangelical Protestantism, causing young adults to turn away from religion, according to Harvard Kennedy School Professor Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame Associate Professor David E. Campbell.

In “Walking Away From Church,” an editorial published on Oct. 17 in the Los Angeles Times, Putnam and Campbell posited that though many people under 30 believe in God, they are turning away from organized religion because of its “increasing identification with conservative politics.”

The two scholars expanded upon their arguments in one part of their new book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” published earlier this month. The work explores religious diversity in America, the religious devotion of its citizens, and the tension raised by the emergence of the religious right in recent decades.

According to Putnam and Campbell, the link between Christianity and conservative politics strengthened in the 1980s when both politics and religion grew increasingly polarized.

“Some people who are themselves involved in the religious right don’t necessarily want to hear this,” said Campbell—who earned his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2002—of the public’s reaction to the LA Times editorial. But the authors said that they received positive feedback from both religious and secular readers.

April M. Van Buren ’12, who comes from a family of evangelical Protestants, said that she agreed with the editorial’s authors. The association of evangelical Protestantism with conservative ideas prompted her to shift to a more agnostic point of view when she came to Harvard, she said.

Nathan J. Nakatsuka ’12, president of the leadership team of Harvard College Faith and Action, shares Van Buren’s perspective: “There are probably many reasons why young adults are turning away from the Church, and a reaction against the ‘Religious Right’ is often a large factor,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Reverend Robert J. Mark of Memorial Church is also among the Protestants who agree with Putnam and Campbell. Harvard students, Mark said, have increasingly turned away from the more “traditional,” Christian way of expressing their faith since the 1960s to join a wider range of spiritual movements. He agreed that the shift was probably due to the fact that evangelical Protestantism is increasingly associated with conservative politics.

While many evangelical Protestants argue against same-sex marriage and abortion, they are not speaking for all Christians, according to Reverend Donald S. Larsen, president of the Harvard Chaplains. He warned against jumping to general conclusions about Christianity.

“[Evangelical Protestantism] is a small piece of the religion pie,” said Larsen, adding that his particular denomination does in fact recognize committed same-sex relationships.

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