A recent op-ed by David Brooks brought my attention to a study conducted by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and some of his colleagues — the results of which have been published in a book entitled Lost in Transition that found that young adults are bad at “thinking and talking about moral issues,” as Brook puts it.

I presented Brooks’ piece to a couple of classes I teach at a small Christian college and asked the students to read it and respond. Without exception, they confirmed Smith’s thesis. Even in their attempts to show evidence that contradicts the assertion that their generation views morality as personal and subjective, based on feeling, and nontransferable to others, the language they used betrayed their foundational belief that morality is in fact a personal matter.

Brooks does not put the blame on young people for this shortcoming, but rather sees older generations as responsible. He writes, “Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions.”

These “institutions” include the church. Evangelicals in particular, and the mega churches their movement spawned, are absolutely guilty of propagating extreme individualism. They “modernized” the gospel in such a way that gave us a “personal savior” found only by praying a “sinner’s prayer.” Now, when I ask students raised in these churches how they make moral decisions, they talk about what feels right or, in spiritual terms, how the spirit leads them.

I intend to explore this a bit more in-depth and publish my thoughts in my Patheos column next week, but I’d be interested to hear what readers think? Do you see this? Do you see a solution?

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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13 Responses to Millennials Have No Moral Framework

  1. Michael says:

    I teach Humanities at a Community College in LA County and I agree with the thoughts about transition, but I have been surprised to see that many of my students have a generally Christian ethic though most of them are not church goers nor would profess to be Christian. I am able to talk about the great thinkers from all persuasions and they are receptive. They see the need for ethics in theory and they have some opinions; however, they are very reluctant to make assertions that sound exclusive or intolerant. I thoroughly enjoy discussing what it means to be human with them.

    I have learned a lot about what Millenials have to face through listening and asking key questions. I have a 4 year old son and realize Millenials will shape his world tremendously. So I hope to engage them now and be able to maintain a healthy relationship in 30 years with my son in the ever evolving 21st century world.

  2. I read the Brooks article earlier today and in general agreed with his conclusions. As for your response, I understand that this article is a quick and short response which will hopefully be expanded upon in Patheos. I am hoping that you will defend your idea that evangelicals and mega-churches have contributed to this problem. Having lived outside of the U.S for ten years I think the extreme individualism that you see is not a Christian cultural problem as much as it is an American cultural problem. The American Evangelical church has been influenced by extreme American individualism, not the other way around. Churches are in some ways a reflection of the culture in which they exist. America is extremely individualistic and I believe that our secular culture reflects this even more so than the Evangelical sub-culture.

    • Mike, I agree completely. I didn’t mean to assert that the church is the source of the individualism. I think evangelicalism bought modernism full on, and made individualism a core part of it. In turn, the students I teach are influenced by that American evangelical individualism. So many -isms.

      • Wendy says:

        Jonathan, I am curious, do you think that Catholicism had a similar effect on Millennials? I wonder if there is a difference between Evangelicals and Catholics when it comes to learning Individualism?

  3. jon says:


    very interesting point brought up. it seems to have been portrayed in a negative light, the extreme individualism, which paradoxically seems to be coming from groups of people that seem to be so opposed to subjectivity and plenty of early 20th century philosophy would endorse.

    My question to you is that, the gospel seems to advocate a virtue ethic, not a deontological ethic. I think that’s a fairly agreeable premise, how can a Christian endorse virtue ethics without being flakey and sounding too subjective and individual focussed?

    If we endorse the virtue ethic that looks at the heart of the person and not their deeds, we’re looking at a Christianity that inevitably must be spirit led.

    • Matthew says:

      I think you raise a good point regarding virtue ethics and deontological ethics. It reminds me of the first time I read “Velvet Elvis” (don’t punch me for mentioning it, please!) and understood, for the first time, what the “yoke of Christ” was all about. The yoke of a rabbi is their interpretation, which is inherently subjective and nullifies deontological ethics in some capacities, as there are some clear-cut duties, in my opinion (faith, hope, and love). This leaves virtue ethics and the subjective interpretation of Scripture imperative. Now, we rely less on our “rabbi” for guidance and give thanks to Gutenberg for allowing us to create our own interpretation.

  4. Marty says:

    I’m not so sure that the claim that the gospel supports a virtue ethic over or in opposition to a deontological ethic should go unchallenged. Simply because there is a subjective element which we cannot escape, or because we are individuals, it does not mean that we can or must therefore collapse it all into some form of subjectivism or individualism. It simply is not that cut and dry.

    • jon says:

      hi again,

      i don’t think it necessarily entails a subjectivism or individualism at all, but that it might be perceived that way.

      the virtuous agent ought to reach the correct thing to do via their moral intuition. that i perceive to be the best description of the virtue theory. in that framework there is room for objectivity of morals.

      i do strongly think though that the gospel disregards the pharisaic manner of practicing a deed for the sake of doing a deed as opposed to being a virtuous person.

      i suppose the issue i’m trying to communicate is that to communicate the method of reaching the moral conclusion, leads to being stuck. i simply cannot understand how one is to articulate to another person the method without appearing individualistic and subjective, even if that is not what you are.


  5. Chuck says:

    But, can you give them a reason why they should care?

  6. Jim Jacobson says:

    Millenials have no problem “sharing” their music, but throw an aluminum can in the garbage and they are quick to assail you. They do have morals, they are just shaped by a world in conflict with traditional values… like life.
    I lay a greater percentage of the blame at the feet of academia.

  7. Joe S says:

    As a young, practicing Catholic who reads David Brooks, um, ‘religiously’, I found this a fascinating piece. Much of the subjective “live and let live, follow your heart” mentality among young Christians that you speak of exists in the Catholic Church as well, at least in the US and nations of the North Atlantic. The uniquely Catholic snag is that American individualism often, but not always, flies right in the face of the Catholic way of life. The global scope of the Church and emphasis on the ‘Church Universal’ challenges the “personal savior” notion mentioned in your piece. For better or worse, you rarely hear practicing Catholics talking about “me and Jesus” – you’d hear about Boy Scouts or Confirmation retreats, devotion to saints and the Eucharist, or maybe the sacramental life of the Church, but not much talk about unmediated encounters with Jesus.

    For the young Millennial Catholics who stray — and they are legion — the talk is about feeling ‘spiritual but not religious’ and not imposing one’s beliefs on others. Many subscribe to what Christian Smith describes elsewhere as “moral therapeutic deism” which presumes (inter alia) near-universal salvation, the inherent goodness of everyone but Hitler, and then everything else about the moral life is up for grabs. It’s a little disconcerting, yes.

    I do think, however, that having a central teaching authority and a robust intellectual tradition, as the CC does, is a helpful antidote to the generational vicissitudes and trending sensibilities of Christians (Catholic and otherwise) in the United States. I had an excellent Jesuit priest for a class on virtue ethics last year. Fr. Murphy repeatedly emphasized that while an individual lives out the life of virtue *as an individual*, the virtues are not self-determined or even necessarily self-evident. “Ethics, unlike your genes, are unfortunately not genetic.” With him, I’d suggest that we are individual agents who aspire to participate in (or who ignore) objective virtues — but virtues are not subjective as such. One’s conscience comes into play not by reasoning what particular virtues and truths are, but in how they are to be applied in concrete situations. For this, a central teaching authority is a helpful (if imperfect) antidote to ‘don’t tread on me’ individualism.

    But I digress…

    I intend here not an apologetics argument for the Catholic Church (as a Millennial myself, I am loathe to ‘impose my beliefs on anyone’ ;)), but I do think it offers a welcome contrast to the American spirit of ‘live and let live.’ On the contrary, Paul calls us Christians to life in the Spirit (Romans 8:4) which bears fruit that will last.

    Peace and understanding to all here! Best, JS

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  9. Sojourner_Truth says:

    Very god article. I’m not trying to sound like a modern day fundamentalist, but to be brief, what you are describing about Millenials aligns with many of George Barna’s studies. The Millenials are sort of the first generation that we can study who never received more traditional forms of church teaching. By that I simply mean, many of them like myself came from a generation that were never taught the bible. Instead, we received a revamped version of the gospel. It was often packaged in modernized 30 minute sermonettes that were very topical. One bible verse was sufficient then for a pastor to attempt to prove his sermon title, but jumping throughout the bible (mainly the New Testament) from scripture to scripture to prove things like….. “The 7 steps to a highly successful marriage”, “How to be winner in every area of life”, “3 steps to overcoming temptation” or if you attended a more spirit-filled church the title might read more like “The powerful Christian life”. Although these sermonettes were well intentioned they lacked the real substance necessary for spiritual growth, challenging, and overall knowledge of the bible that one needs to lay a foundation for knowing right from wrong, establishing a standard etc. It only makes sense then that it gives rise to their framework for morality. If you have no standard then you develop your own by default. When the church gets back to actually teaching and preaching the bible, then we’ll have a chance at correcting many of the things that you write about here. It’s not the only fix, but I would argue that it’s the predominate factor behind many of the problems that we see in Americanized Christianity today. It even explains the delusional Tea Party Christians that decree capitalism as the gospel, and any form of social programs as the devil. They are unwilling to confront the books of Acts and what the early church looked like, the book of Isaiah and other minor and major prophets calls for justice, pleading the case of the poor etc. and how close this is to the heart of God. It explains the New Apostolic Reformations obsession with false teachings of Dominionism and at it’s foundation Latter Rain Theology. Both are unwilling to confront the plethora of scripture that point to the fact that Christ was uninterested in “politics” – John 6, Luke 4, and so on. Going back to my mention of Barna earlier – I’ll just cite his study where he showed that the most commonly known scripture between Christian young adults and teens was: “God helps those who help themselves”. This is embarassing, not only because it’s not in the bible, but the simple fact it’s Americans favorite verse. I hope I live to see the day when we come to our senses and right the ship. By the way, I really dig this website and love the balance that I see here. It amazes me that so many of us from Generation X are now having to confront the shortcomings of the church and how that’s shaped modern Christianity and our world/culture. I guess it doesn’t surprise me though. Perhaps God wants to use our generation to reconcile what Paul urged us so often to do. Preach the Gospel! You guys should let me write a few pieces related to what I mentioned above 😉 I have yet to find a site that confronts many of the issues that you often cover here in a more biblical context.

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