Judy Woodruff has us kids figured out. In her documentary Generation Next: Speak Up, Be Heard, the veteran broadcaster took a segment to explore the issue of religion with 16- to 25-year-olds. I can't say I am a big fan of the documentary's methodology, but it has its redeeming qualities. First of all, a person's views change a great deal between the ages of 16 and 25. Most Americans during that period of their lives finish high school, go through college and experience the first three years of their post-graduate career (disclaimer: I am 25). How can you compare a demographic with that type of range?
Second, the episode seems to rely heavily on examples and draws large conclusions based on a handful of statistics. For instance, the show includes a stat from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that said 44 percent of young Americans agree that religion is a very important in their lives. But a survey by the Barna Group found that 60 percent of 20-somethings who had religious teenage years are now disengaged.
Then you have 60 percent of young folk feeling that conservative Christians have gone way too far in "trying to impose" their religious values on America.
You can see what kind of picture Woodruff is painting for us here, can't you? And it's all supported by examples, but what do those statistics really mean?
Here is Woodruff talking to Byron Johnson of Baylor University to get an idea of whether these young people will affect the future:
BYRON JOHNSON: It will be interesting to see if the young will be able to have influence over middle-aged and older evangelicals. It wouldn't surprise me if that happened, to be candid.
Some of these issues are really -- young people have grown up thinking about them. And older Americans are now struggling with them.
And so, you know, over time, it's hard to say how this will play out, but I would assume that, as young Americans become middle-aged Americans, their views on those will probably not lessen at all. So it may be more representative in the future of an evangelical position on social justice issues that kind of goes more left.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Will Generation Next's views on social issues have a transformational impact on religion and, in turn, politics? Or, as they mature, will they follow in the footsteps of their parents? This issue is something both religious and political leaders will be following as 2008 approaches.
Whatever happened to the old saying misattributed to Winston Churchill that "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain"? Before doing a series on the "next generation," a reporter should go look at the series written on their own generation, if they did them back then. (Did they?)
Perhaps it is a generational thing. Maybe this generation I've been lumped into is really not special compared to past generations? Even Woodruff considers the possibility in this interview with Jim Lehrer:
So, I mean, you've got young people across this country who are thinking a whole lot harder about what the problems are, what ought to be done, than we give them credit for.
I'm not going to sit here, though, and tell you that every single one of them is passionate. Some of them are just focused on paying their bills, paying off their college loans, keeping a job, getting a job.
Notice Woodruff's qualification regarding the thinking young people. They do it a whole lot more "than we give them credit for," says Woodruff. Who is "we"? I'd like to consider myself passionate about some things. But I'm also concerned about the more practical stuff she mentions, like jobs and money.
As for the religious trends this episode attempts to establish, it's awfully wishy-washy to lead off half of the subheads with the word "some" because you could say just about anything about a generation if you just wanted to include the minimal number of one that would qualify as "some":
Some choose new religious tradition
Some lose interest in old structure
Woodruff uses the word "some" or variations seven times in her interview with Lehrer and 14 times in the documentary segment.
I think it's fair to say that some parts of this series are interesting and even revealing. But I think some of our readers may agree that the paucity of specifics and generous use of generalizations is frustrating.