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A New Generation Confronts the Culture War and Shrugs

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Late last week, the Supreme Court made headlines for a second time when it issued an order allowing Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in Illinois, to refuse to cover emergency contraception without filing the form normally required for institutions claiming religious objections. Just a few days earlier, the Supreme Court exempted closely held for-profit companies from providing their employees with certain types of contraception in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The pair of decisions reignited a cultural debate that lay dormant during the recession, where traditional religious ideas are pitted against modern notions of sexual morality. The reemergence of culture war politics, traditionally the purview of the Baby Boomers, now looks like it will envelop a new generation: Millennials.

But are Millennials interested in battling over issues of sexual morality and religious freedom? Cultural boundaries have shifted dramatically over the past several decades. Support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization has risen dramatically. So have rates of premarital cohabitation. Younger Americans are less committed to traditional institutions like organized religion, and their view of American society is informed less by the country's largely Judeo-Christian past than by its multicultural present. Because of this, young adults draw on different sets of experiences and rely on different assumptions when trying to make sense of the current debates over religious freedom and sexual morality.

Calls for strengthening religious liberty protections may resonate with older Americans, but for Millennials, they will fall on deaf ears. Only 41 percent of Millennials believe that religious liberty is being threatened in the U.S. today. Seniors express much greater alarm -- 61 percent say religious liberty is currently under threat. Nor do Millennials appear overly concerned about safeguarding traditional religious values, especially compared to their elders. Six-in-10 Millennials say that churches should adjust traditional beliefs in light of new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices. Only 39 percent of seniors say the same. Similarly, when it comes to disputes over the role of religion in public life, younger and older Americans perceive the potential dangers quite differently. Millennials are more troubled by the idea that religious groups might force their beliefs on others than they are by the specter of government interference in the free exercise of religion (31 percent vs. 23 percent). Millennials are also less likely to voice concern about the removal of religion from public places.

Millennials' relative indifference to alleged assaults on religious freedom stem in part from their own experiences as members of a religiously distinct cohort. They have at times been called the "mosaic generation," and while diversity can be a source of tension, it also increases understanding and tolerance. The America Millennials know has always been diverse and--for the most part--tolerant of racial and religious differences. Younger Americans understand religious culture in the United States to be broadly pluralistic rather than predominantly Christian. Only 29 percent of Millennials believe America has always been and is currently a Christian nation, a belief held by the majority of seniors (56 percent).

Although Americans make an exception for churches, they are otherwise broadly supportive of requiring religiously affiliated nonprofit groups and for-profit companies to cover contraception for their employees. A majority (57 percent) of the public favor requiring privately own corporations -- like Hobby Lobby -- to provide their employees with health care plans that include contraception. A majority of Americans believe religiously affiliated colleges and universities -- like Wheaton College -- should cover contraception, although a substantial minority remain opposed (52 percent vs. 44 percent). The generational gaps on these questions are even greater. Sixty percent of young adults favor a requirement compelling religious schools to cover contraception, a view held by a minority of seniors (42 percent).

The legal battles and political skirmishes over religious liberty and contraception are likely only beginning. Nevertheless, if the debate continues to be framed largely in terms of threats to religious liberty, it's unlikely that a substantial number of Millennials will feel compelled to take up the cause. Millennials have plenty of other concerns, they do not appear to be enamored with either major political party, and their economic outlook remains decidedly grim. Engaging in culture war fights of the past is not high on their list of priorities. American culture is changing, and for the most part Millennials are fine with that.