National Edition

Religion may play more prominent role in America as baby boomers age

Published: Saturday, Dec. 29 2012 11:55 a.m. MST

Janet and Larry Morgan moved to the tourist town of Lincoln City, Ore., for health reasons. They both suffer from emphysema and the high altitude of Taylorsville, Utah, wasn't helping.

They found it easier to breathe on the Oregon coast, but that wasn't all. The local church reached out to them, and after more than 50 years of rarely sitting in a pew, the retired couple rediscovered the religion they were born into.

Today, the Morgans proudly identify as former smokers who recently had their marriage "sealed" in the Portland temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They each serve in lay positions in their local Mormon congregation.

"We don’t know exactly what brought us back in, but once we started we didn't stop," said 72-year-old Janet.

The Morgans' faith journey illustrates the narrative of a recent Gallup poll analysis. Based on the premise that people become more religious as they age, Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport predicts that religion will have a more prominent place in American society as a new generation of seniors hits retirement age over the next 20 years. Newport makes the case in his new book, "God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America," that the baby boom generation will evolve into an increasingly religious demographic.

"If that’s the case, there are so many baby boomers it will affect the overall religiousness in America just like they are going to affect Social Security," Newport said.

But exactly how boomers will influence religion in America is anybody's guess. Will they return to the faith of their upbringing, like the Morgans, or find something new? Will they affiliate with traditional denominations or create new forms of worship? Will they bring with them a more liberal view on social issues or adopt the views of the conservative Christian right?

"We are going to be more religious in this country, but how that is manifest is the question," said 64-year-old Newport. "We baby boomers have done some unusual things as we’ve moved on through the age spectrum over the decades."

Religious stability

Gallup has been tracking the religiosity of America since the 1940s when founder George Gallup started asking people if they believed in God, Newport said. While the specific poll questions about religion have varied over the decades, standard measures of church attendance, belief in God and the importance of religion in people’s lives have remained stable since the late 1970s.

Earlier this month Gallup released the results of its annual survey of religiosity in the United States. It found 69 percent of American adults are very or moderately religious, based on self-reports of the importance of religion in their daily lives and attendance at religious services.

The results from the survey of 320,000 interviews conducted between Jan. 2 and Nov. 30 of this year mirror the findings of other polls that have found Americans are largely a religious people.

But Gallup has found changes occurring within that stable demographic of religious Americans since the 1950s, when religious commitment in the United States was at its peak. The number who identify as Protestant has shrunk from more than 70 percent in the 1950s to about 50 percent today, while the percentage of people who do not have a specific religious identity has increased from about 2 percent to 18 percent during that same period.

But Newport contends neither the drop in Protestantism nor the rise in the so-called "nones" necessarily mean the country is becoming more secular, despite a more vocal and organized atheist movement. He points to Gallup data that show 91 percent of Americans believed in God in May 2011, and in 2012, roughly 40 percent attended religious services once a week and 55 percent said religion is very important in their lives.

"We are still religious underneath it all, but in different ways," Newport said.

A recent analysis of those unaffiliated with religion — known as the "nones" — by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found them to be diverse in terms of religious beliefs and practices. While few of them (5 percent) attend church, a majority describe themselves as either a religious person (18 percent) or as spiritual but not religious (37 percent).

Newport writes that Americans are more inclined today to say that they don't belong to any religion than they were in past decades, which "reinforces a drift away from organized formal religion into more casual, less formal religion."

This growth in what Gallup calls "unbranded" Christian churches is one of the factors in the shrinking percentage of people who identify as Protestants, Newport said. Other factors include a low birth rates among Protestants and fewer immigrants from Protestant countries.

"America remains a very religious place, but it is also very dynamic, so there is a lot of change going on," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist with an expertise in religious trends. He said Gallup's huge sample of more than 1 million people makes its findings more precise and comprehensive than typical samples of 1,000 or 2,000.

Different generation

Green said there is a counterargument to Newport's hypothesis that the aging of the baby boom generation will mean an even more religious America than exists today.

While the Morgans' return to religion is the norm for their generation, the baby boom generation is starting at a different baseline than their parents, Green said. Most boomers came of age when social activism was bringing about change, authority was distrusted, and war divided rather than united the nation.

He said there is evidence that a generation's religiosity doesn't significantly change over the life cycle. A Pew study in 2010 showed that in terms of religious affiliation, the percentage of people in a particular generation who were unaffiliated in their younger years stayed relatively the same as members of that generation approached their 60s.

"They will be more religious than they are now, but less religious than the previous generation when they age," Green said. "It will be really interesting to see which of those effects wins out because there is strong evidence both ways."

But Newport said the data tell him that becoming more religious is as reliable an outcome of aging as getting gray hair. He said there are additional factors that put pressure on seniors to become more religious. One of those is health and well-being, which Newport said is associated with being religious not just by pollsters, but also by insurance companies.

Larry and Janet Morgan said the welcoming culture of the Mormon congregation in Lincoln City lured them back to church. But getting older and closer to death also weighed on them and caused them to reflect on their religious upbringing and what they were taught about the afterlife.

"Older people worry more than younger people," he said. "And the older you get you realize your time is limited."

Religious advantage

If Newport is right, the implications could be significant. "The degree of religiousness in a society affects its culture," he writes.

But he and other experts can only speculate on what those effects may be. Some of the changes taking place, such as the rise of unaffiliated believers and unbranded churches, could continue and increase.

"This has significant implications for the future of traditional mainline religious groups that are slower to adapt to change," stated a Gallup news release on the latest poll results.

Newport said past trends show people's politics tend to lean Republican as they get older and become more religious, which would benefit the GOP and the Christian right when baby boomers age. He writes that Democrats would do well to find ways to connect with an increasingly religious demographic that will be involved politically.

Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and other presidential candidates, agrees that older people have a higher propensity to vote and more discretionary time and money for political involvement. But he doesn't buy the conclusion that a person's political views will change because religion takes a more prominent role in his or her life.

"People tend to choose a denomination or a particular congregation based on an overall comfort level that involves political orientation," he said. "I really question the proposition that as (historically liberal) boomers grow older and more religious that suddenly their attitudes will shift on politically relevant questions and parties will have to deal with them in an entirely new way."

Galston explained that a substantial portion of the Democratic Party is made up of people who are either not religious or believe religion and politics should be separate. "And when you add to that the fact that the Democratic party increasingly has defining commitments on religiously tinged social issues, as do the Republicans, that makes it hard to believe there's going to be a fundamental change of orientation of the party based on the aging of the baby boomers."

The Morgans, who are Democrats, said growing older and more religious hasn't changed their politics.

"We would have loved to have had a Mormon president, but for some reason we just can't vote Republican," Janet said.

Baby boomers have always had an impact on the religious, political, economic and social landscape of America, experts agree, and Newport argues that those institutions that capture the projected religious zeal of the boomer generation as it grows older will have the advantage.

"Nothing is as motivating as a belief that what one is doing is based on a higher calling or response to divine initiative," Newport writes. "This gives those who mobilize religious Americans a significant advantage in efforts to modify the society they see around them."

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