The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy
Loyolla Press 2002
During the 1960's moral relativism--the belief that morality is individually determined-- swept through the culture like a firestorm. In the morality relative world, moral universals are abandoned so that one man's wrong can become another man's right. The air was filled with the promise of an emergent utopia that would appear as the moral norms that guided society for centuries were cast aside. It was a crude, immature, poorly articulated, but very influential ideology driven by the music, movies, and books of popular culture. Many young people embraced it.
The subsequent thirty years showed how socially corrosive the ideology was. The collapse of the family (the divorce rate doubled between 1965 and 1977), the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, rampant drug use, a debased public morality, and increasing violence is some of the fallout of this destructive cultural shift.
Closer to home, many baby boomers who came of age in the sixties still wax nostalgic over the false promise they embraced in their youth, and remain oblivious to the harm that moral relativism inflicts on others--including their children. These boomers are unaware that the moral heritage of their parents, as incomplete as it may have been, sustains them in ways that boomer values cannot sustain boomer children. Boomer children (Generation X) live in the fall-out. Over 40% have spent some time in broken families. Most were fed a diet of relentless promiscuity in the youth media culture, and educated in schools where moral awareness never progressed beyond putting a condom on a banana.
Moral relativism can't nourish the soul. Nor can the secular orthodoxies that spring from this impoverished soil engage the deeper questions that give life meaning. This first generation raised within our morally relative culture looks for more enduring meaning and many find it in religion.
"The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy" by Colleen Carroll is the first comprehensive attempt to chronicle this growing movement in detail. A journalist by profession, Carroll spent a year traveling the country to see first hand who these new Gen X believers are and what they believe.
Carroll reports that Gen X'ers are embracing religious faith in record numbers. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The popular mythology of the sixties said that religion would end up on the trash heap of history. Instead, these young adults are drawn to what Carroll calls "Christian orthodoxy" by which she means traditional Christian teaching about doctrine and morality. (Carroll also reports a similar movement towards orthodox Judaism is occurring among young Jews.)
The movement already has altered the religious landscape. Catholic dioceses with conservative Bishops have growing memberships and no shortage of candidates for the priesthood. Conservative Protestant (mostly Evangelical) churches continue to experience explosive growth. Orthodox Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy) sees a continual influx of new believers who seek depth and constancy in worship and doctrine.
A deep conversion experience is common to many of these Gen X believers, Carroll writes. The wealth of the last three decades gave Gen X'ers material abundance and lucrative careers right out of college. Materialism however, creates a crisis of meaning as the recognition grows that increasing consumerism cannot nourish the deeper longings of the soul.
Authentic Christians often play an important role in the conversion, particularly the moral rectitude they display (the rejection of promiscuity and commitment towards marriage ranked high). The importance of these encounters cannot be overestimated, Carroll writes. The moral culture of the Gen X'er is so fluid that of any kind of self-restraint, particularly in sexual matters and for religious reasons, shines like a light in the darkness.
Because of their first-hand experience with moral relativism, the new Gen X believers are quick to grasp that moral self-discipline is necessary for a spiritually ordered life and therefore are very selective in choosing churches. Churches that still embrace the sixties ideology are avoided because of the moral relativism their liberal theology implicitly upholds. Gen X'ers want tradition, not innovation.
Russell Kirk wrote that religious beliefs inform, shape, and direct the culture, and not the other way around. Churches that adapt to the dominant culture face declining memberships and increasingly graying congregations. Churches that teach and practice "Christian orthodoxy" face no shortage of new members.
Some observers will view this movement as the swing of the pendulum back towards conservative social norms. Yet this assessment erroneously concludes that religious conversion is no different than a change of opinion. Authentic conversion involves a concrete encounter with God that can deeply reorient the way the believer approaches himself and others.
Instead, the movement may be part of a larger Great Awakening (the fifth in American history) where the nation returns to the enduring values preserved, passed on, and lived through religious faith. A return to the first things has renewed American culture in the past and may do so again. Colleen Carroll's valuable work may be a first chronicle of this renewal.
This article was also reprinted on the Breakpoint website.
Copyright © 2003 Johannes L. Jacobse. Rev. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.