October 13, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, October 13, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll ask, “who’s responsible for the secularization of American youth and young people,” we’ll see whose priorities are fueling this trend, and we’ll see what marketers are telling us about the Millennials, and the worldview book of the week.
Who is responsible for the secularization of America’s young people?
Do college professors undermine the religious beliefs of their students? Just to take one question, as it was posed by a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College James H. Leuba, he said this,
“The students’ statistics show that young people enter college, possessed of the beliefs still accepted, more or less perfunctorily, in the average home of the land, and gradually abandon the cardinal Christian beliefs.”Show Full Transcript
He went on to say,
“This change from belief to unbelief he attributes to the influence of the persons ‘of high culture under whom they studied.’”
In other words, their professors. But that statement wasn’t made in just the last several weeks or months, it was made back in the early years of the 20th century, cited by the former Secretary of State of the United States and repeated presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. But even if the question isn’t new it is extremely current. At the website fivethirtyeight.com Daniel Cox asked the question, are these college professors really undermining the religious convictions of their students? His conclusion is in the headline of the story,
“College Professors Aren’t Killing Religion.”
But he goes on to say,
“College degrees certainly aren’t helping.”
We are facing here a question that arose with the very emergence of the project of modern higher education, a project that from the very beginning can be described as both liberalizing and secularizing. Inevitably there has been the concern that higher education leads to the secularization of students and also to their cultural and moral liberalization, and, to its credit, the website fivethirtyeight.com based upon recent evidence is asking whether or not this is true. Now as I said already Daniel Cox comes to the conclusion that it is not true that college professors are, in his words,
or secularizing their students. He goes on to say,
“Of all the many criticisms weathered by institutions of higher learning, none has been as difficult to shake as the claim that a college education adversely affects religiosity.”
He went on to say,
“Colleges and universities have long been accused of subverting the religious commitments of their students.”
But even as this is a long-standing concern, Daniel Cox points to a rather recent and relevant research when he comes the conclusion,
“A recent study found that 24 percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, including 38 percent of young adults.”
But he says, those changes are occurring at a much earlier stage than earlier critics of ever imagined. He says,
“Most young people who wind up leaving their religious commitments do so before ever stepping foot on campus.”
He means a college or university campus. The most important documentation he cites is the well-known UCLA freshman survey, which is conducted with students, first-year students, and 184 US colleges and universities. According to that study,
“31 percent of incoming freshmen are religiously unaffiliated,”
that’s an increase of threefold just since 1986. So, let’s just pause there for a moment. Between 1986 and 2017 the percentage of those who are first-year students in colleges and universities who identify has secular tripled, it’s from 10 percent to roughly 30 percent. But, furthermore, according to this UCLA survey, these first-year students are indicating that they had been already secularized by the time they arrive on the college or university campus. As Cox reports, citing not only the UCLA survey but also research undertaken by the organization PRRI,
“most Americans who have left their childhood religion did so before reaching adulthood. Seventy-nine percent of young adults age 18 to 29 who have become religiously unaffiliated report having made this decision during their adolescent and teen years.”
Cox acknowledges that that pattern wasn’t always the case, at previous times, at least from the past until now, the documentation has indicated that the college experience has been definitional, but now, according to this research — and it’s backed up by other research — that change is taking place earlier. The secularization of American young people is taking place, as Daniel Cox says, before they set foot on the college or university campus. Now looking at the research, I am not about to absolve college and university professors of this secularizing influence and a liberalizing influence. There can be no doubt that they are intent, at least as a class, on exerting that kind of influence; that’s also extremely well documented. But it is now very apparent that the secularization is happening earlier.
Now one of the reasons I am not going to absolve college and university professors in terms of this secularizing and liberalizing effect is because there is more than one way to show up as secularized. It isn’t necessary that an individual respond as a college freshmen that he or she is now religiously unaffiliated in order to be genuinely secular. There are many people, many young people, many 18-year-olds, who are likely to report some kind of religious identification, but as the late sociologist Peter Berger helped us to understand, even if they consider themselves continuing as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Baptist or Catholics or just about anything else, the content of that historic belief system may have been almost entirely evacuated of content; secularization can take place without anyone declaring themselves to be secular.
But for Christians looking at this research, what’s most interesting isn’t the question of what happens on the college or university campus — that’s something that is genuinely of interest and it’s a pressing issue, it’s just not the most important issue in this research — what’s most important in this research is the fact that something very significant, something that leads to a secularizing effect is taking place in the lives of American teenagers even before they get to college or university. One way we can certainly explain that is to say that the modern high school experience has now been pervasively influenced and formed by what the college and university experience had been in generations past. So one of the concerns of evangelical Christians looking at this from a worldview perspective is the understanding that there is a secularizing effect in terms of much education, even now in the levels of middle school and high school, not to mention what will happen in college and university.
Whose priorities are fueling the secularization of America’s youth: parents, professors, or both?
But as we think about and are rightly troubled about the secularization of this entire generation as a whole, we rightly ask who are the agents of bringing this about, and it’s easy and accurate to think that college and university professors and now high school and even many middle school teachers, the entire environment in context of education in terms of secondary education and higher education, are certainly factors, agents in this transformation. But what makes this research and the article by Daniel Cox at fivethirtyeight.com so interesting? It’s the fact that he points to a list of suspects previously not so much in consideration here. He says the primary responsibility for the secularization may well be not teachers or professors, but parents.
As Cox explains,
“the early religious lives of young people are far different than they were for previous generations.”
“Young people today have had much less robust religious experiences during their childhood than previous generations.”
He goes on to specify,
“only 41 percent of Millennials attended religious services with their family at least once a week, [that’s] compared with 55 percent of Baby Boomers,”
and in previous generations, presumably even higher rates. Sixty-two percent of baby boomers indicated that they attended Sunday school or a similar kind of program at least weekly, 62 percent, but only 40 percent of millennial’s indicated a similar experience. Keep in mind that this research is in general about the net effect of the college experience, not so much about the specific influence of professors, but that’s really a minor issue when we compare it with the big issue, the big revelation in this story, which points to the fact that it is the home, long before college, it is parents long before professors, who actually have the greatest influence on the secularization of this generation. It is extremely telling that according to this UCLA study, 30 percent of the millennials who are arriving on the college and university campus indicate that they have already declared themselves to be religiously unaffiliated. The big question is: What happened before they arrived at college?
Daniel Cox in the article says that he is not so much approaching this issue out of personal interest, but this is where we as Christians have to say we surely are; we’re dealing with the personal interest of our own young people, our own children, our own grandchildren. So when Daniel Cox writes using these very powerful words,
“Young people today have had much less robust religious experiences during their childhood than previous generations,”
at that point we have to understand, we can’t blame college and university professors for that, we can’t blame middle school and high school teachers for that; that is a blame that arrives at the doorstep of the family alone and parents in particular.
So the debate about the secularizing effect of higher education can and must continue, and there’s every reason to believe that that secularizing and liberalizing influence is very real. Furthermore, it’s not only well attested and documented, it also just makes sense given the intentionality and the worldview represented by the dominant faculty majority in terms of higher education. But when it comes to the importance of the research cited in this article, well, at this point our focus is not so much the campus but the home, and not so much what is taking place but what is not taking place. Parents, including Christian parents, who in the name of all kinds of other good things — whether it’s violin lessons to softball games — if they come up with an excuse to have their children less and less frequently involved in church activities, less robust in terms of the religious experiences of their childhood and adolescence, they shouldn’t be surprised that perhaps unbeknownst to those parents, those children show up as young people on American college and university campuses and from their very first semester already indicate they’ve left behind the vestigial beliefs of their childhood.
This research also be of concern to churches, raising the question: What are we doing or not doing with children and young people in terms of giving them, what this reporter calls, ‘robust religious experiences’? Now, we would define that evangelically in terms of Scripture and in terms of gospel, but we must do exactly that and we must understand that something less than robust Christianity is going to produce — this doesn’t take any research — something less than robust Christians.
As he said, Daniel Cox really doesn’t have a personal interest in the story or this research, but we do. We do because that personal interest might be right now just down the hall, right now just in the bedroom next door, right now even in the car with us as were listening. Those personal interests are not only represented by a generation writ large but by names precious to us.
What are marketers telling us about millennials?
Next, continuing to think about young Americans the Wall Street Journal tells us that advertisers and retailers now have one specific age to which they are directing their ideal customer concepts; that age: 26. Ellen Byron writing in this front-page article for the Wall Street Journal reminds us that retailers have to have a target customer, the very center of their advertising and their conception and their marketing and furthermore their merchandising, and the Wall Street Journal, which is after all, the most important newspaper of the business class in America, if not in the world today, tells us that for American retailers that is now a 26-year-old. Now what’s interesting about that is just how young that number, it tells us something about the future of American retailing, but that’s telling us something about the future of American culture. It also tells us that when there are advertisers who are conceiving what kind of advertising they are going to create and where they’re going to place those advertisements, their target audience is a 26-year-old.
But what’s also really interesting here and ties into our previous consideration, is the fact that there are some industries who realize they have no real connection to 26-year-olds. But it’s not just that they lack a connection to 26-year-olds in general, they lack a real connection to today’s specific 26-year-olds. One of the lead examples in the article is the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. According to Byron,
“[It] has started offering gardening lessons for young homeowners that cover basic tips — really, really basic — like making sure sunlight can reach plants.”
So it’s also of interest to us, and it tells us a great deal about the very generation we were just discussing that not only are they arriving on the college campus increasingly secular, when it comes to homeownership they really haven’t had many if not most of the formative experiences that previous generations had. They don’t know what to do with a plant, and they don’t know what to do with a lawnmower. So if you are selling plant food or lawn mowers you better come up with some way to get their attention, and when you’re giving instructions you’ve got to start with the basics. For as the senior vice-president of corporate affairs for Scotts Miracle-Gro Jim King said,
“this is a group who may not have grown up putting their hands in the dirt growing their vegetable garden in mom and dad’s backyard.”
Clearly unlike previous generations. Mr. King went on to say, speaking of this generation represented now by age 26,
“They grew up playing soccer, having dance recitals and playing an Xbox. They probably didn’t spend as much time helping mom and dad out in the yard as their predecessors or their predecessors’ predecessors.”
The retail angle on this is easy to understand: The millennial’s are now the largest, single generation, and the cohort of 26-year-olds and then 25-year-olds and 24-year-olds is the largest single yearly cohort that America’s going to see for a very long time. One of the most interesting statements about these 26-year-olds, and remember it’s really about a larger generation of which they are the symbol, is the statement that they’re,
“much more of a ‘Do-It-for-Me’ type of customer than a ‘Do-It-[for]-Yourself’ [kind of] customer.”
That was stated by a corporate executive at JCPenney explaining that this is a generation unlikely to buy tools and more likely to say, ‘who can come and fix this for me?’ An executive for Home Depot said later in the article that when they tried to create some how to do it videos for millennials just about some basic household tasks and especially when it came to just routine things like hanging a picture or a mirror, as it turned out they considered the videos to be condescending and yet it turned out they weren’t yet simple enough. And while we’re thinking about this generation and what they represent the article also tells us that,
“Millennials are different, especially in the rate at which they achieve independence in adulthood. In 2016, just 24 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds had experienced all four of what the Census Bureau calls major life milestones: having lived away from parents, having been married, having lived with a child, and being in the labor force.”
And to this point we have to remind ourselves that as we’re looking at what a generation doesn’t know that actually tells us less about the generation than about the parents of the generation and the formative experiences of the generation and the generation proceeding, that’s the whole point. What this generation doesn’t know is not because this generation decided not to know, it’s because their parents decided something else was more important.
The first story underlined the fact that researchers understand this quite well, the second article, entirely unrelated on marketing appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, tells us now that retailers know this truth well. It should tell us something: That researchers and retailers understand the importance of these questions, the bottom line is, do we? We had better.
Worldview Book Recommendation: The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
Frankly with these concerns very much in view, I can’t imagine a more relevant worldview book of the week than the book written by Senator Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis — and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. The book was published earlier this year and in March of this year I did a Thinking in Public conversation with Senator Ben Sasse, that’s available my website at AlbertMohler.com, we’ll put a link to it with today’s broadcast of The Briefing. But in this book, Senator Sasse directly addresses, and I think brilliantly so, so many of the issues of our concern in terms of the news stories considered today. As the United States Senator and as a former college president and as a parent, Ben Sasse directly addresses, and courageously so, so many of these issues, and he does so, so clearly.