The press release for a new poll makes the welcome claim that “Vast, Silent Majority of Millennials Overwhelmingly Support Religious and Social Freedoms.” But looking at the poll’s questions and responses indicates instead that millennials are largely inchoate about basic American rights.
That’s troubling, but also to be expected. Other prominent polls have found millennials shockingly willing to curb fundamental rights of fellow citizens, such as Pew’s finding that 40 percent think minorities’ levels of offendedness should serve as a criteria the government uses to shut down speech.
In the new poll, from The Fund for American Studies (which is connected to an organization that awarded me a journalism fellowship a few years ago), 93 percent of millennials say government shouldn’t bother people who peacefully practice their religion. Ninety-two percent say college students shouldn’t have to fear reprisals for speaking their mind on campus. The organization interprets this as overwhelming millennial support for free speech and freedom of conscience, but its own poll results indicate millennials seem to be randomly stabbing in the dark at hard questions about human and natural rights.
Take the religious freedom question, for example. Below are the actual poll questions and responses from the full poll report.
The 93 percent “support for religious liberty” figure obviously comes from the response to the second question, but as the first question shows, millennials aren’t exactly expressing unqualified support for freedom of conscience. In fact, a majority of them err on the side of forcing people to disobey their God to obey their state, a troublingly totalitarian demand—especially given that protecting this freedom inflicts no tangible harm.
There are plenty of cake bakers and florists in every corner of the country. So a declined commission has never kept the requestor from receiving his or her desire; not to mention that nobody has a right to use the state’s police power to force fellow citizens to bake cakes at his command. On the contrary, all Americans do have a natural and constitutionally protected human right to publicly and freely exercise (not merely believe inside their heads) their religion. This is actually not a very complicated concept, and one would hope that the generation with the highest college completion rate would understand it better, seeing as the First Amendment that secures it is a crowning historical achievement and one of the foundational safeguards of our republic.
The freedom of expression result seems better, but the question’s wording is somewhat nebulous, and therefore the results are less convincing.
So 90 percent of millennials want to allow people with “unpopular opinions” to speak. That’s good. But part of the problem with the free speech insanity on campuses is that millennial protestors don’t merely view opponents’ speech as “unpopular” but as illegitimate, as a sort of form of word violence. More and better questions could help tease this out, but these results are hopeful, because they provide some confirmation that campus agitators are a loud but small—and even unpopular—minority.
Let’s just look at two more sets of responses that show the poll respondents seem to lurch from opinion to opinion, operating more on gut instinct than on a rational application of enduring principles.
All good except the weirdly high amount of support for our government preventing Americans from engaging in international trade and rather solid minority in opposition to property rights, another fundamental American protection crucial to economic freedom.
It’s not clear these results indicate millennials are ardent freedom lovers. Instead, they suggest millennials have never been given clear instruction in political and moral philosophy, which other in-depth sociological research confirms. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has spent decades researching millennials, or “emerging adults,” and his work has found that millennials have few fixed moral or philosophical ideals, outside of the trite and inadequate “don’t hurt people.”
Yet difficult cases of public and private concern involve competing goods and values, and “don’t hurt people” doesn’t help people sift through which claim is more important and why. That’s why Smith finds millennials shockingly underdeveloped in their ability to reason and self-govern: “In all aspects of life, the majority of emerging adults are experiencing a lack of reflection, criticism and firm direction,” a review of his work sums up.
Smith blames parents and social institutions such as public schools, churches, and colleges for not teaching young people how to sort through competing moral claims. This failure leaves millennials adrift, contributing to their delayed adulthood and cowardice regarding religion. Smith coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe millennials’ basic disposition to think of God (and government) as a variation on Santa Claus.
Millennials are, however, growing up, and their ideas are solidifying—not in entirely frightening ways, as this new poll seems to indicate. Those who want to deepen their understanding of free speech and the First Amendment could start with a new video series and related materials spun off from the work of legal scholar Richard Epstein. You can see two of the videos below.