LIberalism's Revenge PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 19 February 2010 10:47

Time was when American kids grew from childhood through adolescence, to adulthood.  Not any more.  Sociologists are telling us now that there’s a tweeny stage between adolescence and adulthood.  Several names have been given to this group – “extended adolescence,” “adultolescence,” “the twixter years,” but many sociologists have settled on the term “emerging adults.”

According to Notre Dame’s Christian Smith, several large social trends have contributed to the formation of this group: the expansion of higher education since 1950 and the growing importance of advanced degrees for career success, the delay of marriage, changes in the global economy that have undermined the stability of lifelong careers, and the increasing willingness of parents to support their children into their twenties and even early thirties.

As a result of these and other changes, the experience of Americans between 18 and 30 has altered dramatically.  Emerging adults are often dependent on their parents, frequently move in and out of school, and their lives, Smith says, are marked by “identity exploration, instability, a focus on self, feeling in limbo or in transition or in between, and a sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope.”  Along with these positive features, emerging adults also exhibit “transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsessions, melodrama, conflict, disappointment, and sometimes emotional devastation.”  A psychologist, Jeffrey Arnett, describes it as a period after adolescence in which young adults “have not yet entered the enduring responsibilities that are normative in adulthood.”  Living in this in-between, emerging adults “often explore a variety of possible life directions in love, work, and worldviews.”

Arnett notes that one of the unusual features of emerging adulthood is its conception of what constitutes adulthood.  In most cultures throughout history, marriage was the key mark of entry into adult life.  Emerging adults don’t rate marriage as highly as other markers, such as “accepting responsibility for one’s self, making independent decisions, and financial independence,” marks that he characterized as “individualistic.”  Marriage and parenthood were much lower, though it ranked higher among those who were actually parents.

One of the important results of this research has been insight the theological beliefs of emerging adults.  In one book, Smith has identified “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD) as the theology of choice for Americans in adolescence.  Religion is about being good, and it’s supposed to help salve all the hurts of life.  When you’re not hurting, though, God keeps his distance, and that’s just where American adolescents want Him.

In a more recent study, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Smith finds similar religious beliefs among emerging adults.  He summarizes the argument of a 1995 article by N. Jay Demerath of the University of Massachusetts.

Demerath writes that the widely reported decline of liberal Protestantism may in fact signal its “wider cultural triumph. . . . Liberal Protestants have lost structurally at the micro level precisely because they won culturally at the macro level.”  Smith adds, “liberal Protestantism’s core values – individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience – have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have difficulty surviving.”

Smith’s research team found that “individual autonomy, unbounded tolerance, freedom from authorities, the affirmation of pluralism, the centrality of human self-consciousness, the practical value of moral religion, epistemological skepticism, and an instinctive aversion to anything ‘dogmatic’ or committed to particulars were routinely taken for granted by respondents.”

In academic theology, old style liberals are increasingly hard to find.  But that doesn’t mean the threat of liberalism has withered away.  The views that Richard Niebuhr summarized as the heart of liberal theology in 1937 are still alive and well: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  It seems that liberalism’s history belies its own disbelief in resurrection: Just when we were putting the finishing touches on the post mortem, behold, it lives!

And why?  That’s hard to say, but my guess is that “conservative” churches haven’t posed much of an alternative to liberalism over the past couple of centuries.  Smith’s team provides a bit of evidence in support of that theory.  They found that “most Catholic and Jewish emerging adults . . . talked very much like classical liberal Protestants” and “evangelical Protestant and black Protestant emerging adults even talked like liberal Protestants.”  When “conservatives” are drinking deep from the same keg of modernity as “liberals,” it doesn’t matter much if conservatives can still, barely, walk a straight line.

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