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New study of Millennials and GenZ points to a “massive religious realignment” in America

Only 1/4 of young Americans ages 15-24 approve of Donald Trump, and most see the nation growing more divided by politics. But they're also tough to characterize because of their own diversity.

Daniel Cox, PRRI research director

PRRI and MTV recently released a study on the political and social views of more than 2,000 Americans ages 15 to 24, which includes younger Millennials and older members of Generation Z.

Diversity, Division, Discrimination: The State of Young America” suggests that as a whole, young Americans are more progressive than older ones, but that religion, race, and gender make a difference in how they view various issues. I talked with Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director, to find out more.


RNS: The study is noting an uptick of divisiveness in America. Which issues feel most divisive in the eyes of teens and young adults?

Cox, PRRI: One of the interesting things is that politics seems to overwhelm everything. We asked about whether Americans were divided by race, by religion, by politics. Even though younger folks tend to be less politically engaged than older Americans, they are cognizant that the country is very divided by politics; less so by religion or race. Politics is by far the thing these young folks think America is divided by. Less so by class, and about half said we were very divided by race.

Only 38% say Americans are divided by religion. Which is interesting, when you look at some of the debates we are having, because certainly evangelical Protestants might say we are very divided by religion. Some of those issues are things this cohort might not have a lot of experience with, like over religious liberty issues. While society overall is wrestling with same-sex marriage, that’s more of a settled issue for this generation. Premarital sex, and a lot of other questions about sexual morality, are also fairly settled for this age group. So a lot of the cultural battles that we fight in our society are not viewed as being so divisive among this cohort.

RNS: Even abortion?

Cox, PRRI: This youngest generation doesn’t look that different on the issue of abortion than older Americans, which is pretty interesting because on all of these other issues of human sexuality, they look much more liberal. But abortion debates are not particularly salient for young people. There’s a feeling that it’s largely settled, despite the fact that there are lots of restrictions to abortion now on the state level.

RNS: If the divisions aren’t caused by same-sex marriage or abortion for this age group, what are the most important cultural issues or battles for them?

Cox, PRRI: That’s a really good question, and it may be that it hasn’t even emerged yet. That group that we looked at was really young. Certainly, increasing economic inequality will become increasingly salient. Nationally, the country is becoming more divided by education or class. So those divisions, if they are further exacerbated, could create significant tensions for this generation.

Politics will be a serious dividing line, and part of this is actually due to changing patterns of religious identity. The country is undergoing a massive religious realignment. We’re seeing the Republican Party becoming a predominantly white Christian party, while the Democratic Party has become the party of everyone else. This is not to say there are no white Christians in the Democratic Party, rather their size and influence in the Democratic coalition has fallen precipitously. The Democratic party has shifted in response to these tectonic religious changes—becoming more diverse—while the Republican party has remained rather static. They’re now composed of very different kinds of people, which is why we see such debates over fundamental questions about immigration and who counts as American. It becomes almost tribal.

RNS: In The End of White Christian America, PRRI’s CEO Robert P. Jones says that the GOP holds a strong majority of white evangelical Protestants, but that given the way America is changing, this is becoming a smaller and smaller share of the population.

Cox, PRRI: Right. And evangelicals are a group that is feeling increasingly embattled because of these shifting cultural changes. I recently wrote a piece at FiveThirtyEight about the challenges facing white evangelical Protestants in becoming increasingly out-of-step with the broader culture on issues of sexual morality. Young people simply have different ideas about marriage and sex than are found in most evangelical churches.

RNS: What else is different about this 15–24 age group?

Cox, PRRI: How they view family composition. I think it was Pew a few years ago that had a series of question about what counts as family: Do same-sex couples count? Does a single mother and her child count? Young people are much more likely to say that non-traditional families count, and that more expansive definition of family puts them at odds with older generations.

On a lot of the cultural questions around race and immigration, young white men look really different than young white women and people of color. We saw that again and again in this survey. There has been this idea that young people today are the “kumbaya generation” — because of their racial, ethnic and religious diversity they’re more accepting of differences, more aware of different types of experiences and broadly more tolerant of different viewpoints. But there is some limitation to that. Whether it’s self-selection or geographic isolation, being a member of this cohort is not by itself enough to change attitudes on many of these fundamental questions.

RNS: How were young white men different from other people their age?

Cox, PRRI: Across a number of different questions, we noticed that young white men stood out as having very different perspectives. There is a stark divide between young white men and other young people in views about Obama. He remains incredibly popular among young people of color and young white women, but is viewed a little more ambivalently among young white men. Forty-five percent have an unfavorable opinion of him, which puts them in a different space.

President Trump is not popular with young people. Only one-quarter of young people have a favorable impression of Trump. Although most young white men still disapprove of Trump they express far fewer reservations with him. Forty-three percent have a positive view of the current president—while among young white women only 26 percent view Trump favorably.

Another is their views about the benefits of diversity — whether diversity negatively affects whites. Nearly half of young white men agree with that statement, and only 28% of women did. A slim majority of young white men say that the values of Islam are at odds with the fundamental values of America. And 41% of young white men say it bothers them to come into contact with immigrants who don’t speak English.

Young white men are still broadly more accepting than older white Americans, but they stand out when compared to white women and people of color their own age.

RNS: Do they believe that discrimination against Muslims exists?

Cox, PRRI: Yes, absolutely. There are few places where there is a broader consensus among young people than on the issue of discrimination faced by Muslims. Across all these different demographic groups there was agreement in this age group that Muslims were facing a lot of discrimination. Roughly three-quarters of young white men believe that Muslims are facing a considerable amount of discrimination in the U.S. today, more than for any other group.

Most young people also believe that discrimination against Muslims has increased over the last 12 months. And again there is widespread agreement on this point.

RNS: All in all, how would you characterize this age group?

Cox, PRRI: This age cohort is difficult to typecast. They have far more flexible views about sexual preference and gender identity. They are far more likely to buck societal conventions when it comes to ideas of masculinity and femininity—few young men identify as completely masculine while similarly few young women say they are completely feminine.

But their influence on our culture and the political system will be driven as much by who they are—more educated, and more racially, ethnically, religiously diverse—as it will be by any shared generational experience or ethos. They really are a transitional generation sitting between what America was and what it will become. And yet, the familiar fault lines of gender, race, ethnicity and religion are seen just as clearly among this cohort as they are in previous generations. This generation will not solve the country’s ongoing challenges when it comes to discrimination whether it’s based on gender, race or religion, but they may take us one step closer.

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