A Jeremiad with Statistics: Christian Smith on the Nihilistic Lives of College-Age Americans

Throughout American history, people have constantly worried about the moral fiber of young people, the next generation. The Puritans turned this worry into a whole new sermon genre, the "jeremiad." Just like the prophets of old, they thundered that the rising generation had turned away from God, become distracted by the things of this world, and gotten mired in sin. If people did not turn back to God, the Jeremiahs warned, judgment was coming.

Christian Smith's recent Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, a study of American "emerging adults" (18- to 23-year-olds) is like a jeremiad with statistics. Smith, a phenomenally prolific sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, began his pathbreaking work on American teenagers with the highly influential Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). That book coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD) to describe the theologically flabby religious beliefs of American teens. This is a term that one now commonly hears from American pulpits.

Lost in Transition revisits the lives of many of the same teenagers, now emerging adults, that Smith and his colleagues interviewed for Soul Searching. Lost in Transition strangely avoids the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but it seems clear that Smith believes the pabulum of MTD has borne bitter fruit in the lives of college-age men and women. Shockingly high numbers of Smith's subjects are living listless, anxious, nihilistic lives, consumed with buying more stuff, getting stoned, hooking up, and tuning out.

Endless consumer choices, easy access to drugs and alcohol, and an increasing lack of taboos in sexuality, all make it critical that emerging adults have a moral framework for making wholesome choices. But Smith shows that this foundational framework is exactly what the majority of his interviewees do not have. Sixty percent of them said that morality was in the eye of the beholder, and about half subscribed, as best they understood it, to the concept of moral relativism.

When pushed, most would concede that some actions, like rape and murder, were wrong almost regardless of circumstances. Some were not even prepared to concede such absolutes, however. One interviewee said he did not know if you were ever obligated to help a person in need: "I don't ever stop when I see somebody on the side of the road," he said; "maybe if someone is burning in the car, you should try to pull them out, but, no, not really." One in three had no idea what made something right or wrong. Many of those interviewed simply could not understand questions about their sources of morality, no matter how the interviewer rephrased them.

Interviewees displayed distressingly high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as high-risk sexual behavior. About half of those studied had engaged in binge drinking within the past two weeks. Almost three quarters of the non-married emerging adults had experienced sexual intercourse a number of times with a variety of partners, typically beginning around age 16. Especially for women, this pattern of reckless sexuality has fostered deep regrets, insecurity, and trauma from abortions or sexually-transmitted diseases. Other emerging adults, especially some men, seem to sense no regrets whatsoever about their amorous escapades.

Smith's statistics may confirm what many have suspected about college-age Americans, but the raw statistics remain stunning. Of course, there are a number of objections and caveats one might offer: how do we know that these statistics are any worse than they were, say, in 1990, 1950, or 1850? Historians have shown, for instance, that per-capita alcohol consumption was much higher in antebellum America than it is today. Although Smith carefully notes that he is not trying to compare this generation to any previous one, a jeremiad always carries an implicit comparison to those who have gone before us.

We also are not given information about the differences that race and class make in the emerging adult cohort. The recent discussion engendered by Charles Murray's Coming Apart would lead one to think that class divisions may well have a lot to do with this story, and we have long debated the disparities in family life between various racial groups. But Smith and his co-authors defer these kinds of questions, saying that others should study them later.

3/6/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Thomas Kidd
    About Thomas Kidd
    Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.