The Josh Duggar circus has entered the realm of farce. After a disastrous interview with Fox’s Megyn Kelly, in which the Duggar parents not only tried to downplay their son’s actions but openly admitted that other members of their church didn’t think his actions were that big of a deal, social networks lit up with rage at the entire family and at their defenders.
That this case has the potential to become an embarrassment for conservatives goes without saying. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has already taken heat for defending the family, and more than a few Twitter users made the harsh suggestion that Fox News, where the Duggar interview took place, was willing to excuse child molestation.
However, along with the attacks on Huckabee and Fox (often from predictably partisan sources), another, more expansive attack was also taking place. For example, The Daily Edge tweeted:
The same people who've used false molestation data to fight gay adoption now say molestation is OK? #DuggarInterview pic.twitter.com/3wfMx2arco
— The Daily Edge (@TheDailyEdge) June 4, 2015
Other users were far more direct. A small sample:
@TheDailyEdge Some of the greatest charlatans you'll ever See are the sons of Christianity
— Benji Jones (@youngfitti1) June 4, 2015
I wish I had religion (& the backing of the #GOP) so that I could commit crimes & pass them off as poor decisions. #DuggarInterview
— Eric Wolfson (@EricWolfson) June 4, 2015
So being gay is a sin in the eyes of religion, but molesting your sisters isn't? This family is a toxic disgrace. #DuggarInterview
— Dwayne Charrington (@AbolitionOf) June 4, 2015
In other words, beyond just partisan attacks, Christianity itself took blame for Duggar’s behavior. From a social network that by its very nature skews young, this should worry Christian believers.
I’m afraid I can’t offer them any comfort. If anything, the Duggar case is worse for them than they might think, for it offers both a case study for the simmering frustration that has been building against religion (and particularly Christianity) among young Americans for the past few years. If there is a bright spot for believers, it is in offering them a clear-eyed look at the sickness they need to cure. For, make no mistake, the frustration over the Duggar case shows some of the main demographic and cultural reasons for millennials’ rejection of Christianity.
Millennials, the Un-Churched
Let’s start with the demographics and work our way up. Last month, the Pew Research Foundation released a bombshell report alleging that Christian belief is in virtual freefall among Americans, with the vast majority of lapsed Christians joining the ranks of the “unaffiliated.” Mainline Protestants and Catholics suffered the most, though even the seemingly godlessness-proof Evangelicals came in for some losses. At the time, Leah Libresco of FiveThirtyEight noted that while evangelicals did lose followers, they also did a better job of attracting converts than the other denominations:
Why do evangelicals wind up ahead of other Christian sects in this model? They’re better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they’re a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew’s data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals’ favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.
In other words, an optimist might say that America wasn’t so much losing its religion as concentrating it into one place. But recent study showed something much more alarming for believers: Millennials are the least-religious generation on record. Christian Today explained:
Millennial adolescents are less religious than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age. We also looked at younger ages than the previous studies. More of today’s adolescents are abandoning religion before they reach adulthood, with an increasing number not raised with religion at all.
The number of college students and high school seniors who do not attend church or religious services has doubled from two decades ago. Twenge said that a culture that values individualism could be the reason why millennials have become less religious.
‘Individualism puts the self first, which doesn’t always fit well with the commitment to the institution and other people that religion often requires. As Americans become more individualistic, it makes sense that fewer would commit to religion,’ she said.
To this point, Quartz added an important caveat: “The need to belong hasn’t changed. What has changed is how people fulfill it. Now there’s the option to turn to things like Facebook, for example, rather than an external religious group, to find a community.”
So let’s recap: America’s youngest generation is largely fleeing religion. At the same time, Christianity in America is increasingly becoming synonymous with evangelicalism. Which, coincidentally, is the same branch of Christianity that claims Duggar and many of the people who millennials find most noxious (former President George W. Bush, and any number of anti-gay marriage crusaders, for instance). If one needed an explanation for the religion’s decreased appeal, one could theoretically just stop here.
Twitter Mobs Don’t Do Forgiveness
However, I think something deeper is at work, and it gets straight to the moral culture that surrounds both millennials and the social media networks they turn to in place of religion. For an instructive example of that moral culture, let’s look at one of the most popular tweets in the wake of the disastrous Duggar interview, from someone calling himself (appropriately) TheTweetofGod, and pretending to tweet on behalf of the Creator himself:
"Jim Bob Duggar: 'God Has Forgiven Josh'." No I haven't. He's going to hell, just like you.— God (@TheTweetOfGod) June 4, 2015
Those with any background in religion will no doubt observe that if this Twitter feed did belong to a deity, it most assuredly would not be the Christian God. Withholding forgiveness is not something that particular entity is known for.
But it is something social media is known for, as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a Twitter mob will tell you. It’s also worth noting that one of the primary arguments employed by atheist millennials against religion is that people don’t need God to tell them what’s wrong because people should know right from wrong naturally. Believers have been inclined to snicker at the naiveté of this idea and, on paper, it certainly sounds naive. But like all slogans, it’s successful partially because of what it leaves out. Judging by the ruthless shame culture of the aforementioned mobs, a better formulation of this line would be that “People should just know right from wrong naturally…or else.”
The refusal to let past wrongs lie is endemic to the media millennials have been raised on and most enjoy. Jon Stewart, for instance, still brings up the Iraq War whenever a Republican criticizes President Obama’s handling of foreign policy (even though many Republican legislators weren’t around to support or oppose it at the time). Showtime’s now-defunct show “Dexter” revolves around a serial killer who tracks down and murders other criminals without regard for mitigating circumstances. “Game of Thrones” takes place in a singularly merciless world, where even religious elements are known for their unremitting brutality and refusal to compromise.
Millennials’ Tribal Mentality
Furthermore, millennial-dominated political causes tend to reflect this ruthless retributive mindset. Occupy Wall Street, which was a primarily millennial phenomenon, was organized around anger at the lack of punishment for Wall Street executives. Millennial mistrust of the National Security Agency is grounded not on concern for the rights of terrorists, but on the idea that the NSA might spy on innocent people. Opposition to the death penalty is framed solely around the question of whether innocents are executed, not whether the guilty should be.
The moral arguments millennials employ in defense of possibly the signature millennial pet cause— gay marriage—are focused not on tolerance, but on acceptance. That means almost no one argues that, even if gay marriage was a sin, it should still be tolerated. Rather, the overwhelming argument is that it isn’t a sin, never has been, and that those who say it is have too many skeletons in their closet to talk. As for things that a large section of millennials do think are sins, such as racism, sexism, or triggering speech? Well, ask Christina Hoff Sommers or Laura Kipnis how they handle those.
Indeed, speaking of triggering speech, even the millennial phenomenon that has most in common with early Christian morality—social-justice activism, with its “the underprivileged shall inherit the earth” ethos—has a very interesting name: social justice, i.e. the opposite of mercy. If you doubt that, look at how social-justice activism behaves in practice. “The opposite of mercy” is quite apt.
Put this together, and you have a picture of a generation that looks less like morally naive optimists and more like Shylock with an iPhone. In a way, it makes perfect sense that the two worldviews that have gained the most among millennials are libertarianism and hardline progressivism; the former because it combines ruthlessness in applying capitalist standards of success with insouciance in the face of private morality, and the latter because it promises to put everyone who fails to join the revolution up against the wall.
It also makes perfect sense that Christianity would suffer. Many believers might be inclined to question whether millennials really understand Christianity well enough to reject it, but a millennial lack of understanding might actually help Christians. For it appears this generation is not merely indifferent to mercy but actively hostile to it. That is to say, depending on who you ask, one can reason away one’s guilt via mitigating factors (like lack of privilege or a crime being victimless), but once that guilt is established, repentance would be as irrelevant as a five-year-old’s frantic assurance that “I said I was sorry.” Excuses can matter, but appeals for leniency fall on deaf ears. It’s a worldview that lends itself to a ruthless pragmatism on the one hand by cutting out moral codes that are impossible to follow completely, and relentless legalism on the other.
Basically, Millennials Are Pagans
To call this morality un-Christian is putting it mildly. It is, in fact, a return to earlier pagan morality, with its combination of strict honor codes and utter indifference to victimless forms of self-indulgence. Given the millennial concern with individualism and self-interest, that’s not necessarily surprising. As paganism scholar Carl McColman writes:
Indeed, magic and spirituality play an important role not only in the practice of many forms of Paganism, but also in the shaping of Pagan ethics. Magic is grounded in a recognition that self-interest and care for one’s own family and tribe are acceptable principles of action; in this sense, Pagan spirituality functions quite well within a democratic capitalist economy, where self-interest is a foundational social principle.
The original pagan moral edict—“An it harm none, do what ye will”—is a good expression here, and it illuminates a great deal about the fights over speech and social justice among millennials. These are less debates about what to do with those who harm others, and more debates about what harm is (witness the argument by social-justice advocates that some forms of speech can be intrinsically violent). Indeed, as the totalizing nature of social0media wars show, both sides agree that those who actually do harm others are to be given no quarter.
Josh Duggar’s behavior, and that of his family, offends this merciless worldview on multiple levels. First, Duggar has not been punished for what he did. Second, he and his family expect forgiveness from anyone, let alone a morally perfect God. Thirdly, despite being (from this perspective) unforgivable criminals, the Duggars still believe they’re entitled to speak about morality. Once you have transgressed, the line would run, you don’t get to speak on morality because you can’t hold yourself up as an example of it. Therefore, your only option is to shut up and vanish.
In short, if Christians want to stage a comeback with this generation, it will be necessary but not sufficient to remove the optics problem that Duggar’s style of religious expression poses. They should instead be prepared to talk about the ways in which their vision can fulfill a broader concern with justice, especially for the likes of Duggar. Otherwise, if they resort to the edict that he who has not sinned should cast the first stone, they might find millennials gleefully drowning them in a moral hailstorm.