Do you wonder why the proportion of Americans declaring themselves unaffiliated with organized religion has skyrocketed in recent decades?
This trend is especially pronounced among adults under 30, roughly 40 percent of whom claim no connection to a religious congregation or tradition and have joined the ranks of those the pollsters call the “nones.”
To understand how so many now prefer nothing to something when it comes to religion, ponder the news over the last few days.
The same newspapers and broadcasts that were reporting on how President Trump finally admitted that he had indirectly paid a porn star to keep quiet about an alleged affair also offered accounts of what we’ll call Jesuitgate, the controversy over who should be the chaplain of the House of Representatives.
On Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan backed down from his effective dismissal of Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest, as chaplain. Ryan had said he asked the cleric to quit because he had provided inadequate “pastoral services,” but denied that Father Conroy was ousted because of a mild prayer for justice he delivered during the debate over the GOP tax cut.
That phrase “pastoral services” must inspire a chuckle from your average millennial agnostic. It makes the work of holy men and women sound like the this-worldly tasks of the accountant, the mechanic or the dentist. (As the grateful son of a dentist, I speak with respect for these extremely useful professions.)
Conroy had initially agreed to Ryan’s request to step aside but withdrew his resignation in a quietly stinging letter. The priest noted that he had never been informed of the shortcomings of his “pastoral services.” If he had, he would “have attempted to correct such ‘faults.’”
Conroy also quoted Ryan’s chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, as telling him “something like ‘maybe it’s time we had a chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.’” Ryan’s office vehemently denied this (the Catholic vote is substantial) but the speaker announced he didn’t want to have a “protracted fight” and that Conroy could stay.
Many of us could have told the speaker that it’s a mistake to mess with a Jesuit. But think about it: The House Republican leadership was more inclined to push out a chaplain than to impose accountability on a president who is a proven liar and trashes the rule of law for his own selfish purposes day after day.
This degree of partisan irresponsibility only aggravates the already powerful skepticism among the young about what it means to be religious. In their landmark 2010 book American Grace, the scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that the rise of the nones was driven by the increasing association of organized religion with conservative politics and a lean toward the right in the culture wars.