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Discovering the New Faithful | An interview with Colleen Carroll Campbell | April 25, 2005

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Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush. A journalist who spent five years working as a news and editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Campbell now serves as a frequent commentator on religion, politics, and culture for such national media outlets as FOX News, PBS, and EWTN. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press, 2002), which recently appeared in paperback. To read more of her work, visit her website at www.colleen-campbell.com.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What was the inspiration and genesis of your book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy?

Colleen Carroll Campbell: As a young adult Catholic, I had seen signs of a turn toward orthodoxy among young adults for years. I first noticed the trend when I was an undergraduate student at Marquette University in the mid-1990s. Most of the students there would not fall into the New Faithful category, but many had an almost visceral attraction to service, sacrifice, and the Church.

Later, as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I saw more striking evidence of the particular trend I chronicled in The New Faithful. The so-called "Generation X" – supposedly full of apathetic, agnostic slackers – seemed to be bursting with young adults who did not fit that mold. I saw teen-agers and young adults boldly proclaiming their faith-based commitments to chastity, young men gathering by the thousands for Promise Keeper rallies, and young Catholics filling up daily Masses, confessionals and apologetics conferences.

My secular colleagues in journalism seemed tone deaf to this trend, and unable to detect its potency or breadth. So I decided to write about it myself. With the help of a generous journalism fellowship from the Phillips Foundation, I spent a year traveling the country, interviewing hundreds of young Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians for The New Faithful.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some of the notable attitudes and convictions that GenXers have towards religion in general and, more specifically, towards orthodoxy? In your estimation, what factors have most significantly shaped those attitudes and convictions?

Campbell: In my research, I discovered a hunger for Christian truth, clearly and courageously articulated, among a growing number of young Americans in both "Generation X" and "Generation Y."

These young adults — ages, roughly, 18 to 35 — were not the sort of people that one might expect to be embracing the demands of a traditional Christian faith. Many were raised in secular homes by parents who had rejected Christianity, or at least any form of Christianity that made truth claims and moral demands. Most had suffered through decades of weak moral teaching, theological confusion, and worship experiences centered more on feel-good entertainment than praising and serving God. They are starving for Jesus, for a faith that means something, demands something, changes something.

These young adults — and the young Catholics in particular — are very attracted to mystery and reverence in worship, to the sacraments and traditional devotions, and to evangelization. They often experience intense conversions, followed by struggles to find like-minded peers for spiritual support. They are engaged in the larger culture, committed to following the moral teachings of the Church, and eager to share the Gospel with others. Though these already engaged "new faithful" do not constitute the majority in their generation, they are a committed and growing minority. And their attraction to orthodoxy is notable because it is based on longings they share with the vast majority of their peers — longings for truth, transcendence, and a more meaningful worldview than the one promoted by American pop culture.

These young adults have been steeped in a wholly secularized, materialistic, hedonistic society since birth. For many of them, Christian orthodoxy presents a radical and attractive alternative to a life lived only for self and the pursuit of pleasure. In many ways, the explanation for their attraction to orthodoxy boils down to St. Paul's maxim: "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more."

IgnatiusInsight.com: Your book focuses on small "o" orthodoxy. What are some of the differences between Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox views of orthodoxy? How do these differences manifest themselves in the public square?

Campbell: In The New Faithful, I use the term "orthodox" to describe a faith that holds fast to the timeless teachings of the Gospel and the ancient truths of the faith. The faith of these young adults is robust and demanding, grounded firmly in Jesus Christ and his passion, death, and resurrection. The Christianity these young adults practice belies the drift toward moral and theological relativism that has characterized the mainline Christian churches — and, sadly, the teachings of many dissenting Catholic theologians — for years.

In my book, I borrowed G.K. Chesterton’s definition of orthodoxy (from his 1908 spiritual autobiography of the same name) to describe the time-tested faith that I was seeing among the hundreds of young Christians I interviewed. Chesterton said, "When the word ‘orthodoxy’ is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed." Or, as one young man told me, "Orthodoxy means you can say the Apostles’ Creed without crossing your fingers behind your back."

The "new faithful" generally agree on an orthodoxy that approves the tenets of the Apostles Creed and demands strict standards of public and private morality. They regard Jesus Christ as the supreme Lord and Savior who alone can save them from sin and death. In terms of morality, this group was fairly uniform in its rejection of abortion, premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, and any behavior that would violate the Ten Commandments, as well as in its embrace of the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

Of course, these Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians have significant theological divisions within their ranks, the same divisions that have divided Christians for centuries. The issues of authority, tradition, and the sacraments are probably the most significant ones that separate the Catholics in this group from their evangelical and Eastern Orthodox counterparts. In the course of my research, I was struck by how many young Protestants were attracted to the Catholic Church, though, and how they were often attracted by the very aspects that make Catholicism so different from Protestantism: Catholic teaching on the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, for instance, or the role of the Pope and the teaching authority of the Church. For many evangelicals, these aspects of Catholicism, though very different from what they know, are attractive because they address the hunger for mystery and authority that many Protestants of this generation feel.

Many of these Christians are content to remain within their own tradition while working together on social issues in the public square. To this end, the differences do not seem to cause too many problems, particularly on straightforward issues like abortion, which most of "new faithful" Christian see as an intrinsic evil and an intolerable social injustice. On questions of bioethics or end-of-life issues, for instance, things may become murkier. The Catholic Church is very much out front on these more nuanced moral questions, and these "new faithful" young Catholics are very well versed on Church teachings in these areas. Many evangelical Protestants seem to struggle more with these issues because they often do not have a teaching authority to consult on these questions, and their local pastor may or may not be addressing them. I think we see the fallout of this phenomenon on in some polling data which show, for instance, that American evangelicals who tend to oppose abortion in large numbers are much less staunch in their opposition to the destruction of human embryos for stem-cell research.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you think the 2004 elections bear out the main thesis of The New Faithful? If so, in what ways?

Campbell: Yes, the rise of the "moral values" voter in the 2004 election is a parallel phenomenon to that of the "new faithful," and the "new faithful" are a significant segment of these "values voters."

Though the mainstream media often portray young adults as monolithically liberal, the numbers suggest that they are not at all. On the question of abortion, this new generation is significantly more supportive of legal restrictions on abortion than their parents. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that among young adults, support for legal abortion — which has been steadily dropping since the early 1990’s — hit a new low in 2003, with less than four in 10 young Americans agreeing that abortion should remain generally available. That’s down from nearly 50 percent who supported abortion rights a decade earlier.

Nearly a quarter of young voters in the 2004 election cited moral values as their top concern in deciding who should be president – that's even higher than the national totals for that category. Many of the "new faithful" I know are concerned about a wide array of social and political issues, but they have a few "non-negotiables" that matter most. Chief among these are the life issues and social issues, including the protection of traditional marriage and the defense of the legitimate role of religion in the public square – issues that helped President Bush and other Republicans in the recent elections. But no political party should take these voters for granted: Nearly all of the new faithful I interviewed about politics said that their votes are cast out of loyalty to biblical morality and the teachings of their faith, not allegiance to party politics.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You were a speechwriter for President George W. Bush in 2003. What was most striking to you about the President and his approach to his faith? How does he view the relationship between Church and State, faith and the public square? Has that been successfully articulated and conveyed to the American public?

It was a great honor to work as a speechwriter to President Bush. Since I wrote major policy addresses for him on a broad range of issues – judicial nominations, school reform, the faith-based initiative, the life issues, the AIDS initiative –I had the opportunity to work closely with him in the Oval Office.

President Bush is one of those rare public figures who are not a disappointment in person: He is authentic, and sincere, and sincerely trying to do his best for America. I was very impressed with his character, integrity, and intelligence while working for him in the White House. Media reports to the contrary, President Bush is very clear about the necessary lines between Church and state. He does not overstep his bounds, nor does he push a religious agenda in the White House.

Of course, his religious convictions have certainly shaped his worldview, and I believe they have made him a better President. He believes in truth, justice, and the defense of the weak. And as a Christian, he believes that he will have to answer someday to a higher authority for the way he has used the power he has been given. I think his speeches reflect this, and the religious references they contain are often far more subtle than those used by other Presidents. But our media culture has become so secularized that any religious references whatsoever are cited by his critics as proof that he is trying to violate the separation of Church and state. That's simply false, and it says far more about his critics and our culture than about President Bush.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In general, the mainstream media seems either incapable or unwilling to acknowledge the power and place of orthodox faith in the political and public realms. Why is that? Do you think that recent events, especially the 2004 elections and now the Terri Schiavo case, are changing that? How do the new faithful view the media and what impact will their views have on journalism in the years to come?

As polls consistently demonstrate, America's media elites have markedly different views on religion and politics than the general public. They tend to be far more secular and more socially liberal. For that reason, many are either ignorant of or hostile to orthodox religion.

The emergence of the "values voter" in our recent elections and the Schiavo case, not to mention the extraordinary outpouring of love and admiration for Pope John Paul II in the wake of his death, have certainly captured the attention of the mainstream media, and to their credit, I think many journalists are sincerely trying to understand this huge segment of the American population that wants to see God back in the public square, that supports the right to life for the weakest among us, that admires a Pope who refused to bend on matters of the moral law. The "new faithful," like most in their generation, are generally quite media savvy. They know the power of the media and they are using that power for evangelization as well as political persuasion. They are also adept at using the language and arguments of our secular, pluralistic culture to reveal the media bias that exists against orthodox believers, and to demand fair treatment from media outlets that often do not even recognize their own bias or how deeply it affects the stories they tell or refuse to tell.

IgnatiusInsight.com: One criticism of The New Faithful is that it is supposedly too reliant on anecdotal evidence. How do you respond to that criticism? What do you say to those who deny there is a resurgence of vital Christian orthodoxy?

Campbell: I heard that criticism more frequently when my book first appeared. The New Faithful is chock full of statistics that demonstrate the vitality and growth of this grassroots movement, but certainly as a journalist, my approach was necessarily focused on in-depth interviews and the gathering of existing statistics, rather than on creating new statistics.

Today, many new statistics have emerged that have largely answered that question about whether this trend is statistically significant. There is no one number available today that tells us how many new faithful are in America. But there is a growing body of statistics that certifies the existence and growth of their grassroots movement. One of the most recent was released last year by the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. Researchers there found that one-fifth of American college students today are "highly religious," a term that describes those who frequently attend religious services and retreats, read sacred texts, and join campus religious organizations. These students, who tend to be morally conservative, closely resemble the young adults I concentrated on in The New Faithful.

But the appeal of religion is not limited only to these highly committed young believers. The U.C.L.A. study also found that three in four college students say they pray, discuss religion or spirituality with their friends, and find religion to be personally helpful.

That high level of religious involvement is manifesting itself on both secular and religious college campuses, where Christian fellowships are drawing ever larger crowds. The Boston Globe recently published a lengthy feature story about the popularity of such fellowships among college students in Boston. It seems the most popular groups at MIT’s student activities fair are Christian fellowships — and there are 15 such groups on that campus alone. That’s not news to the folks at Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical fellowship that saw its student ranks nearly double between 1995 and 2000, rising from 21,000 to 40,000 students.

The attraction to orthodoxy is also manifesting itself in rising enrollment figures for conservative religious colleges. Between 1990 and 2002, overall student enrollment in American colleges and universities barely changed. But for the evangelical schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a group that also includes the Catholic Franciscan University of Steubenville, enrollment rose by 60 percent.

There are plenty of other statistics showing, for instance, that the new generation of priests is significantly more theologically orthodox and morally conservative than their Baby Boomer predecessors, that American teenagers and college students are increasingly more disapproving of casual sex and abortion, and that America’s conservative religious congregations are drawing vastly larger numbers than liberal ones. The movement I chronicled in The New Faithful is even stronger today than it was when I first began looking at the trend a few years ago.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Pope John Paul II clearly influenced many Catholic GenXers. What was his influence on Protestant, Orthodox, and non-Christian GenXers?

Campbell: In my interviews of hundreds of young adults for The New Faithful, I heard over and over again, from young Christians of all denominations, that Pope John Paul II was a hero to them.

The reasons young adults gave for their love of the Pope were remarkably consistent. He appealed to young people because he was everything their popular culture is not: He was authentic, and unselfish, and unafraid to tell them the truth. While the rest of the world shamelessly pandered to them and told them to "do whatever feels good," Pope John Paul called them to a life of prayer, and self-sacrifice, and service to others. He told them to refuse to settle for the false gods of power, and money, and sexual promiscuity. Instead, he said, follow Jesus, embrace the poor and the powerless, and strive to become saints. It’ s a radical message — it’s the Gospel message. And it has appeal in any generation, but it is particularly captivating for this generation.

I think the influence the Pope has had on young people around the world is only beginning to be felt. We can see the obvious signs of that influence. He attracted hundreds of thousands, even millions, to his many World Youth Day gatherings, the site of many profound conversions for young Catholics and often the beginning of many priestly and religious vocations. His funeral was the largest in history, and as anyone watching the scene on television could tell, a vast number, perhaps the vast majority, of those four million pilgrims who had converged on Rome to bid him farewell were young people.

Perhaps more profoundly, we see his influence on the new generation of priests who are staunch defenders of his teachings, the new generation of Catholic married couples who are embracing Natural Family Planning and his "Theology of the Body," and the young people of all backgrounds who see this Pope as a man of prayer, peace, and justice whose example is worthy of imitation. His "new evangelization" and calls for building a "culture of life" will be carried out by this new generation, the young people he loved so dearly, who loved him so dearly in return.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What impact do you think the new faithful will have on cultural and political matters during the next decade?

Campbell: The "new faithful" are intensely focused on building a culture of life in America. For that reason, many of them are intentionally gravitating to culturally influential careers in politics, the academy, the arts, entertainment, science, medicine, law, and media. And many are also putting their faith into action in the public square, through political activism that is often focused on the life issues and social issues.

Much of The New Faithful is devoted to this question of how this movement is impacting American politics and culture, so there is much to say. I’ll summarize it by saying that this group is growing and committed, the teen-agers behind them seem to have similar longings, and they have the potential to transform the culture and the Church. Already, they are acting as leaven in the Church, forcing their elders to justify theological dissent from traditional Christian doctrines and from Scripture, pushing for more traditional worship in some cases and, in the case of young Catholics, the rediscovery of such devotions as the rosary and Eucharistic adoration. At the same time, they are also innovators who are coming up with creative approaches to evangelization and bold ways to proclaim Christian teachings about the purpose and meaning of human sexuality and the dignity of every human person.

Many of their elders in the faith are worried that the "new faithful" are bent on "going back in time" or making the Church "too conservative." I think the opposite is true. These young adults believe that it is time to move beyond the rebellion of the 1960s and the shallow spirituality of the 1970s, and enter the new millennium with respect for the past, enthusiasm for the future, and uncompromising commitment to the truth of Jesus Christ.

This phenomenon is on the rise, and for the reasons mentioned above, it has considerable room to grow and serious staying power. I believe it has the potential to revitalize Western culture, renew the Church, and realize the vision of Pope John Paul II for a "new evangelization" of the West. What these young adults lack in institutional support and numbers they more than make up in enthusiasm and a thirst for holiness. If the Church begins to truly tap into their hunger — through initiatives modeled after the success of the Pope’s international World Youth Day festivities, for instance — we could see this generation become the salt and light that our world so desperately needs.

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