WASHINGTON -- 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.
Revealingly, Putnam and Campbell found that millennials with tolerant and open views on homosexuality were more than twice as likely to be religious nones as their statistically similar peers with conservative or traditionalist views on homosexuality. Many young people came to regard religion, in Putnam and Campbell’s words, as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical and too political.”
If you want a particularly exquisite hypocritical moment, consider that last Thursday, the very day when Trump had to admit his lies on the Stormy Daniels payoff, the president tweeted in commemoration of the National Day of Prayer. “Prayer is the key that opens us to the treasures of God’s mercies and blessings,” he proclaimed in a pious 42-second video set to a sentimental soundtrack of peaceful strings. I guess Trump can use some peace and a lot of mercy right now.
What’s maddening about all this is that religion has a strong case to make for itself -- to the young and to everyone else -- given its historical role as a prod to personal and social change and the ways in which movements for justice have been inspired through the centuries by the words of Exodus, Micah, Isaiah, Amos and Jesus.
Conroy was getting at this in the most uncontroversial way possible when he spoke in his now-contested prayer of how “our great nation” has created “opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle.” If a chaplain could be rebuked for voicing that simple and undeniable truth, what’s the point of the “religious liberty” that Trump and his GOP allies celebrate?
And when will those who advertise themselves as religion’s friends realize they can do far more damage to faith than all the atheists and agnostics put together?
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.