Twofer Thursday: Garrison Keillor at (almost) 80; and the Decline of Religion in the U.S.

There’s not a direct connection between the two items excerpted here. Garrison Keillor is definitely religious, in his low-key, often self-mocking way.
But like others of his (& my) generation, he’s watched in bemusement as the generations behind him have been mostly quietly, but steadily dumping religion.  Following Keillor, pastor-researcher Ryan Burge takes a look at this undeniable, but still puzzling slide: contributing factors are easy to name; but clarity and implications are elusive.

#1 – Excerpted from The Saturday Evening Post:

[Garrison Keillor’s new book] Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80, is a playful yet deeply felt meditation that ought to be a standard in the literature of human aging. I asked Kate Gustafson, president of

Keillor’s production company, how she’d characterize the work. “It’s a novelty book, a gift book,” she ventured after a long pause. Keillor chortled when I told him that. No, no, he corrected, it’s actually “a memoir with an essay wrapped around it.” . . .

About his “canceling/MeToo” ordeal, Keillor himself was plenty angry. He has written that he was unable to defuse what boiled within him until one day, in New York City, a priest prayed into his ear that the “injustice done to me” could be put aside. And that was it, Keillor wrote in his memoir. He was suddenly unburdened, and could return to the “quiet domestic life with the woman I love,” his third and current wife. But as the Washington Post reported in a lengthy piece last year, the scandal represented a “downfall” from which Keillor never fully recovered.

Now, from his hotel room in Georgia, between stops in his modest but well-received PHC tour — which, not surprisingly, has no broadcast distributor — Garrison Keillor is in a reflective mood. . . .

He recognizes that the #MeToo episode inflicted damage, but he has the benefit of a sizable fanbase that has remained loyal. “They love when a writer comes out on stage doing a monologue and a series of jokes and it meanders. It’s funny and it’s memoiristic,” he says, but it’s worlds apart from the approach of today’s popular standup comics.

For example, he explains, “Seinfeld does a monologue that’s memorized, and it works beautifully for him. But I have to keep changing the subject because” — here Keillor breaks into a laugh — “maybe I forgot what should come next and I need to wander in another direction.”

What does Garrison Keillor expect to be doing following his 80th birthday in August? What’s he mean by “gaiety”?    He says, “I think this year is likely to be my last traveling around and touring. I think I may be living more my wife’s style, with our friends in New York. I would be happy following her around. I’ve got a defibrillator in my chest, and that’s working,” he says. “And I’ve had a couple of little brain seizures for which there are fabulous medications. So, onward you go.”

He will spend a year or so writing The LowBoys, the novel which sprung into his head only hours before our phone call  . . . . And of course he will ­continue attending church for the purpose of weeping quietly while in the grip of the familiar holy music played there. It is, he says, an important Sunday ritual.

No matter what, he intends to stick with the schedule that has kept him in a creative seam for years: to bed by 9 o’clock, up at 4 or 5. “I do my stretches and make coffee and amazing things happen. Something happens when you’re asleep. Questions are answered unconsciously,” he says. “Ideas are dismissed and new ones come to you. Like the new LowBoys book. It’s absolutely magical.”

Most of Keillor’s life is wrapped up in writing and music. Always has been, actually. They are his fuel. . . .  “I have a rather narrow mind. Sometimes I receive sudden mysterious insights and I don’t want anything to interfere with them.”

A “narrow mind”? Okay, I will take him at his word. Garrison Keillor does not say what he does not mean. He is as attentive with his language as he is with his aging body. Consequently, I recall something he said just before we concluded our conversation: “My grandparents died of hard work at 73. And I avoided hard work, and here I am at 79 and I still feel a bounce. I feel kind of lively, and I’m grateful.” . . .

Cable Neuhaus writes the “American Pop” column for the Post. In the last issue he covered the sudden explosion of TV game shows.

A few Keillor Quips

“Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.”

“Computers can never completely replace humans. They may become capable of artificial intelligence, but they will never master real stupidity.”

“Never say anything bad about a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By then he’s a mile away, you’ve got his shoes, and you can say whatever you want to.”

“They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”

“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it. ”


#2 – How America’s youth lost its religion in the 1990s

Possibly the most oft-repeated statistic in American religion is the rise of the religiously unaffiliated from just 5% of the population in the early 1970s to about 30% of adults in 2022. In a field where shifts typically move at a glacial pace, that demographic factoid may represent the most abrupt and most consequential shift in American society in the postwar period.

But there is a more recent such phase shift, when American religion changed incredibly quickly, in whose aftermath we feel even today.

Using data from the General Social Survey, which has been fielded consistently from 1972 through 2021, and restricting the sample to adults between the ages of 18 and 35, a single decade comes into sharp focus: the 1990s. It’s a moment when young Americans seemed to lose religion virtually overnight.

In 1991, 87% of young adults indicated that their faith was Christian, primarily Catholic and Protestant. Just 8% of this age group said that they had no religious affiliation.

In 1998, only seven years later, the share of 18-35-year-olds who said they were Christians dropped a full 14 percentage points to 73%, while the percentage who answered “none” jumped to 20%, an increase of 12 percentage points. A ratio that hadn’t changed at all between 1972 and 1991 had moved by double digit percentages in seven years.

“The Religious Affiliation of 18 to 35 Year Olds," based on data from the General Social Survey (Graphic by Ryan Burge)

“The Religious Affiliation of 18 to 35 Year Olds,” based on data from the General Social Survey (Graphic by Ryan Burge)

What caused this change to occur at this specific point in American history? It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing, but there are possible culprits.

The end of the Soviet Union: On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin took power over Russia.

Described by historian Kevin Kruse and others as a conflict between the virtuous Christian capitalists of the United States and the godless communists of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was a time when “In God We Trust” first appeared on American currency and “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

By the mid-1990s, being nonreligious no longer meant being un-American, giving permission for a lot of closet nones to begin expressing their true feelings on surveys.

Backlash against the religious right: As I describe in my book “The Nones,” evangelical Christians made up about 17% of the U.S. population in 1972; in 1993, that had rised to 30%. As Ruth Braunstein argued in The Guardian earlier this year, “backlash against a radical form of religious expression leads people to distance themselves from all religion, including more moderate religious groups that are viewed as guilty by association with radicals.”

When faced with the strident rhetoric of the Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the religious right leaders, many moderates headed for the church exits and never came back.

The internet: Demographers ignore the impact of the World Wide Web at their peril. It would make sense that as young people were exposed to other faiths on the new technology — and saw the faults in their own — some would leave faith behind altogether. But the data doesn’t entirely support it. According to the Census Bureau, just 20% of American households had internet access in 1997. While many young Americans had access to the web in school before they had a home connection, the effect was likely only to accelerate the trends cited above.

The echo of this falloff is what we are living with today. Many of those who fled from religion in large numbers during this period also chose to raise their children without religion. Today nearly half of those children — millennials and Gen Zers — say that they have no religious affiliation.

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of Ahead of the Trend, a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation.

Ryan Burge

Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. He can be reached on Twitter at @ryanburge.

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