Colleen Carroll, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.
Register correspondent Kathryn Jean Lopez recently talked to her about young Christians and their increasing numbers and orthodoxy.
Who are the “new faithful”?
The “new faithful” is a name I gave to the young Americans who are gravitating back to the organized religion and traditional values that their parents' generation largely rejected. For my book, I concentrated on the growing trend toward Christian orthodoxy among young adults ages 18 to 35. Their religious affiliations span the Christian spectrum, but my focus — on orthodox young adults who are in positions of cultural influence and on churches where this trend is most vibrant — tended to lead me to Roman Catholics and evangelicals as well as some mainline Protestants and Orthodox Christians.
When did you become aware of the enthusiasm among youth for orthodoxy?
I am 27 years old, and I remember puzzling over descriptions of my generation for many years. As a student at Marquette University in the mid-1990s, I noticed a disparity between the “cynical, slacker” image of my peers and what I actually saw among my fellow students. Many of them did not fit the orthodox Christian mold, but they had an almost visceral attraction to God, the Church and the ideals of service and community.
After college, as a journalist, I consistently saw media reports about apparently unrelated trends — the popularity of the Latin Mass among young Catholics, for instance, or of virginity pledges among teen-agers. But I never saw anyone connect the dots and explain how those trends were related or what was driving them. Thanks to a generous fellowship from the Phillips Foundation that I won in 2000, I had the opportunity to spend a year traveling the country, meeting and talking with hundreds of young adults who helped me answer those questions and write The New Faithful for Loyola Press.
It's Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, Muslims? Who's growing the most in terms of young, active members? Any idea how many people this involves?
I focused on the movement toward Christian orthodoxy, which largely entails Catholics and evangelicals. There is a strong parallel trend toward orthodoxy among the young in Judaism, and I have seen evidence of this attraction to tradition among American-born Muslims as well. The trends — and the young adults behind them — have many of the same characteristics, but I saw the most energy and the largest numbers among these young Christians.
Religious devotion and moral convictions are difficult to quantify, and there is no overarching number that gives a definitive count of the new faithful. In my book, I tried to break down this question into manageable pieces by using statistics in each chapter that related to a particular realm of life affected by orthodox faith commitments. So in the sexuality and family chapter, for instance, I included statistics that showed declining approval rates for casual sex and legalized abortion, among many others. I did the same in chapters on church and worship, the campus, politics, etc.
As for big-picture statistics, a few that I mentioned in my first chapter might be of interest:
— A 1997 Gallup poll that found nearly 80% of teens age 13 to 17 considered religion a significant influence in their lives.
— Gallup polls of teen-agers in the 1990s found that 70% rejected the notion that religion is “not an important part of the modern world” and they identified themselves as “religious” by an almost identical margin. Nearly nine in 10 polled by Gallup said they believed in the divinity of Jesus.
— The federally financed National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health has recently found that two-thirds of teen-agers describe themselves as “religious” or “very religious.”
In a more anecdotal vein, I encountered well more than 500 young adults in my year of research who fit this mold, and I was constantly turning down opportunities to visit other churches, campuses and cities where throngs of these new faithful were gathered.
Is this a counterrevolution? Most of the new faithful are more conservative than their parents on matters like dating, divorce and theology, aren't they?
Yes, in many ways, this is a counterrevolution. The new faithful are more conservative than many of their elders on a host of issues, including the necessity of saving sex for marriage, for instance, and the importance of putting family unity before personal fulfillment. But “conservative” is a tricky term for these believers, because many of them also embrace political stands that could be deemed “liberal.” For instance, young Catholics might pray a rosary outside a clinic to protest abortion, then pray another rosary outside a prison to protest capital punishment. If you ask them whether they are liberal or conservative, often they will reject both labels and tell you, “I'm just Catholic — like the Pope.” Pope John Paul II is a great hero to many of these new faithful, both Catholic and Protestant, because they see him as an authentic Christian leader who follows the Gospel, not a political party line.
You caution “conservative” Catholics against rigidity. Tell me more.
There are two main dangers that confront the new faithful. One is the tendency, particularly pronounced among evangelicals, to capitulate to culture in an effort to make Christianity “relevant” to the post-modern world. For orthodox Catholics, the danger is exactly the opposite: They tend toward a rejection of culture, and of outsiders, that can leave them too isolated to effectively witness to Christ. Many gravitate toward orthodox enclaves where everyone they meet thinks as they do, where ecumenism no longer seems necessary, and where condemning liberal Catholicism becomes an all-consuming diversion. It is important for these young Catholics to stand up for truth in their parishes, schools and on the job, and for them to find fellowship where they can. But they need to guard against this tendency to seal themselves off from the world and from less-orthodox Catholics, lest they become judgmental and lose their capacity to be “salt and light” to the world.
How are your new faithful Catholics handling the seemingly relentless scandal news?
Very well. Most of these young Catholics I have talked to have a realistic view of the Church and the frailty of some of her members. Some want to put all of the blame on the media or on those who would criticize the bishops and priests. But most recognize that sexual abuse is a very real problem among Catholic clergy, and they tend to blame the laxity of some bishops, the homosexual subculture in some seminaries, the culture of dissent among some Church leaders and, in some cases, clericalism. They want the Church to be purged of these problems.
But they also know their theology, so they are not scandalized to the point that they would walk away from the Church because of the sins of particular priests. They tend to see this as a purification period that the Church needs to go through in order to wind up healthier, holier and more faithful to Jesus.
You mention that some couples have actually converted to Catholicism because of sexual-morality teachings, specifically natural family planning.
Contrary to conventional wisdom about one of the Church's most controversial teachings, I found the Catholic stand against contraception has actually attracted a fair number of converts. The popularity of natural family planning is growing among young Catholics, and a growing number of evangelicals are practicing it as well. Some see the Church's staunch resistance to contraception and its promotion of a natural way to plan pregnancies as evidence of its fidelity to the “hard Gospel” — the timeless teachings of Christianity that are often unpopular. Many of these young NFP-users have told me it simply makes sense to them that if God is in control of every other part of their lives, he also ought to have a say over their fertility. They see children as a blessing from God and NFP as a way of remaining always open to God's will for their lives. Many young Catholics are particularly taken with Pope John Paul II's “theology of the body,” which offers an intellectually rigorous and almost mystical rationale for the birth-control ban.
What got you interested in all this?
As I said earlier, I was bothered by the great disparity between the image of my generation and the reality I saw all around me. I was also bothered by the fact that when religious leaders try to figure out how to reach the youth, they always take their cues from the kids who have rejected religion and try to tailor their message to the ones who have rejected it. Then, in an attempt to make Christianity “relevant,” many of these leaders wind up watering down the faith and chasing away young adults who sense they are being pandered to — and resent it.
I thought, why not look at those young people who are embracing faith with fervor and find out what works, what has attracted them? The hunger that drove these new faithful to orthodoxy also exists in their peers. If orthodoxy was the answer for the new faithful — who are some of the most inquisitive and serious thinkers in this generation — maybe it could appeal to others, too. But first, religious leaders need to understand what attracts young adults and what repels them.
You're one of the new faithful too, of the homegrown variety, aren't you?
I am a cradle Catholic who was given a strong faith formation. I never lost the faith. But I have had conversion experiences that deepened my faith and led me to integrate it more fully into my life. Like the new faithful, I have had to confront the intellectual, social and spiritual challenges of living as a committed Christian in a culture that often spurns and even ridicules those commitments.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is executive editor of National Review Online.