USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Five Trends to Watch in Religion in 2017: Culture Wars, Compounds & the Next Reformation

Five Trends to Watch in Religion in 2017: Culture Wars, Compounds & the Next Reformation

Five Trends to Watch in Religion in 2017: Culture Wars, Compounds & the Next Reformation

2016 was a year that no one could predict. Last year, we laid out several religion trends worth noting. To see how our forecasts matched with reality, give them a review.

The unpredictable nature of last year is not going to stop the Center for Religion and Civic Culture from trying our hand at laying out the landscape for 2017.

Here is what’s on our mind for the coming year—trends written with a hint of satire and a touch of bite. Bring out the bellbottoms and disco balls, because many of our 2017 trends harken back to the 1970s, with a contemporary twist.


Culture War: The Empire Strikes Back

Emboldened by Donald Trump’s winning the presidential election, watch for conservative white evangelicals to go full-tilt in the culture wars.

LGBT inclusion seemed inevitable a year ago. Our 2016 trends predicted, “An increasing number [of evangelical organizations] will show greater acceptance of LGBT individuals, in essence ‘de-queering’ their identities just as mainline Christians have done.” At the same time, we predicted other groups would harden their opposition to LGBT rights. With Trump’s triumph in the election, the latter group received a morale boost in the fights over “religious liberty” and transgender rights.

Abortion, long a firm wedge, will be reignited as the political fight, a nod to the Pence-ian bloc that helped elect Trump. Public education, vouchers for religious schools and school prayer also will rise in prominence.

Strong traditional evangelical institutions will drive change on these issues with strategic moves. While it may be true that white evangelicals are declining numerically, 2016 taught us not to discount their institutional and mobilizing power.


New Species of Evangelicals Discovered

If 2016 was the year of the death—and then surprising November 8 resurrection—of White Christian America, we predict that 2017 will bring the birth of a new type of evangelical Christian. Look forward to an article in Science magazine on this new species (ok, more likely a religion journal).

While more than 80 percent of white evangelical voters supported Trump, an identifiable dissenting group is no longer interested in a form of Christianity that is rooted in the culture war. This division has existed for a while, but in 2017, the split will become official, with the new group of people formerly clinging to the sides of the evangelical ship will cast off for uncharted seas and finally be forced to organize under a new name and banner lest they find themselves adrift and alone.

These “redemptionist” Christians (as we’ve been calling them) offer a personal relationship with Jesus, multi-ethnic and multi-class congregational life in urban centers and a politics that favors neither Republicans nor Democrats. Their theology and actions focuses not on the End Times, but rather on improving the spiritual and material lives of people in the here and now.

This new group, however, will not challenge white evangelicalism’s political power on the national stage. Their goals are different from those of their progenitors in the faith, and their focus on loose networks is better suited to local action and relational influence, rather than institution building and the systematic wheeling and dealing.

It’s our hope, at least, that this new group garners the respect of journalists, pundits and pollsters, who will have to stop referring to evangelicals as a monolith.


Comey announces new cult investigations

Whatever your feelings about politics, you can’t avoid the impression that Americans of all political stripes are retreating to their silos.

The results? Cults and compounds.

For blue cities, the next year will entail a continuing turn to highly localized forms of civic engagement as well as an increasing penchant for highly personal and intimately curated spiritual experience. If hipsters aren’t able to build a literal bubble around Brooklyn, they will seek out protection and authenticity by co-living (i.e., communes rebranded), starting urban farms, and using leftover food from those farms to make burritos for the homeless. Even as anti-institutional sentiment keeps this group away both from the voting booth and the pews, the uncertainty of the moment presents the opportunity for gurus to attract a following, whether it’s the local activist with Bernie-esque charisma or the indigenously-trained shaman.

In red counties, meanwhile, disillusionment has already led people to crown Trump as their enlightened leader, the one who can solve all their problems. In the wake of his success, other “strong men” will also rise, mirroring or battling each other. They will embrace the resurgent belief in American exceptionalism, build their own walls and take advantage of relaxed gun control to stock pile weapons. The eventual fading of Trump’s luster, however, will create a powder keg of let down, armed, isolated and angry folks.

No matter the group, our prediction reflects the disillusionment with the larger fractured culture. We already are seeing the turn toward the hyperlocal. When the hyperlocal becomes unsatisfying (you still exist in a larger context you can’t control), intentional living spaces that create communities of affinity will find a more eager market. Throw in a charismatic leader, either liberal or conservative, and cults of personality can devolve into cults of control, with “groupthink” replacing individual reflection.


Marijuana advocates turn their attention to legalizing Ayahuasca

Take the previous trend, add consumerism and you have thriving markets for very different types of “illicit” behaviors. The following reflect the elevation of experience and consumerism in religion and spirituality.

With marijuana legal in 26 states and the District of Columbia, Ayahuasca and other hallucinogens are set to go mainstream. Will 2017 be the year that an industry develops around induced spiritual experiences? Already many celebrities and tech-preneurs are open about their use of Ayahuasca and sing its praises not only for mystical experiences of love and oneness, but for the productivity and creativity gains that can be applied to their work. Expect discretely advertised Ayahuasca rituals conducted like personal development seminars coming to a co-working space near you.

If that sounds a little too crunchy for spiritual seekers in the heartland, there will be ample opportunities for those with more conservative tastes to focus on individual experience and venture away from the offers of traditional institutions. For example, private reserves where guests can bag a rhino or fire a rocket-propelled grenade are already en vogue in the scrubland of Texas and the deserts outside of Las Vegas. Couple that trend toward the construction of crucibles for expressions of primal instinct with a newly energized conservative evangelical appetite for the End Times, and you’ve got the makings of a booming market for custom-made underground bunkers. Think “10 Cloverfield Lane” meets the gold-plated three-story penthouse in Trump Tower.

While Ayahuasca-nauts in Berkeley and Brooklyn might seem to have little in common with gun-toting “Duck Dynasty” fans in the Ozarks and Alabama, both groups embody trends that are playing out all across the United States: People are rejecting traditional institutions and focusing instead on the shared experiences of like-minded individuals as the source of authority, meaning and community. Even in our dramatically polarized times, Americans have more in common with one another than most of us realize.


“3 ways to improve your life” posted on gym door, goes viral on Pinterest

Who has time to read 95 theses on a church door? The listicle that your gym manager posted in the locker room is so much more meaningful. Take a photo of it and share it online with #inspiration.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to church doors in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. In 2017, Germany and the Vatican will hype up the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the ecumenical progress that has been made in recent years. But for most people, particularly Millennials, the anniversary will hardly register.

Except for a small minority of Millennials who are very committed to their faiths, what unites young people on questions of religion is a general “meh” response. Sure, they may believe in God (however they define “God”) and have a highly individualized spiritual practice, but they demonstrate little interest in traditional religious ideas or organizations.

Some religious “nones”recently returned to mainline denominations, feeling wayward and lost after the Trump electoral victory. Yet, the problems with institutional religious life will not change. Once the therapeutic effect of congregational life is confronted by the difficulties of holding together communities of difference, these seekers will seek out their needs in other arenas.

Today, Martin Luther would need to jolt mainline congregations from their decline-inducing practices. But his 95 Theses are, well, religious ideas about institutions, making this anniversary doubly unappealing to religious nones.

Whatever sparks the next revolution in religion is sure to be much shorter than 95 theses to fit modern day attention spans.


We’ll be discussing the real trends behind these ideas on February 9 at our “Reimagining Religion” conference. To get an invite, sign up for our interest list by January 23.