David Campbell is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and co-author (with Robert Putnam) of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. The book is an enlightening read and I highly recommend it. Here, Campbell talks about politics and the future of American Christianity.
JM: Based on current trends, how will the Church look differently in 25 or 50 years?
DC: First off, I doubt that we will speak of a singular “Church,” which is probably a misnomer even now. The story of religion in America is one of constant innovation—often by individual pastors—as they find their own niche in the wildly diverse religious ecosphere. While the current trends suggest continued disaffection from religion, as the ranks of the “nones” (non-adherents) keep growing, history suggests that we should not assume this trend will continue unabated. I suspect that religious innovators will find ways to win some of those nones back. How exactly they will do that, I do not know. Indeed, there probably will not be a single formula. I doubt that anyone in the 1960s would have predicted the success of the megachurch as an organizational form for churches.
Whatever the specifics, I suspect that successful churches will find new ways to talk about homosexuality, especially since young people are highly supportive of gay rights (including, but not limited to, same-sex marriage). Or perhaps they will stop talking about homosexuality altogether.
JM: You say that one of the reasons young people have left the Church is that it’s too partisan. What can the Church do to reclaim young people?
DC: The quick and easy answer (for a political scientist, anyway) is to simply say, “Stop being so partisan.” But, alas, it is not so easy. Many religious leaders would no doubt say that they are not political at all, and in a narrow sense they are right. Even during an election season, relatively few churchgoing Americans report hearing explicitly political sermons, or encountering other overt political activity at church. Rather, many young people associate religion with politics—and specifically, the Republican party—because of how religion is used by political leaders, and not only because of how politics is used by religious leaders. If religious leaders are concerned that their “brand” has become synonymous with the Republican Party, the solution is to ensure that religion ceases to be co-opted by one side of the political aisle. This would require religious voices to studiously avoid politicking. When they feel called to speak out on public issues, they should be just as willing to offend the right as the left.