Younger Americans are moving away from religious affiliation as religion and politics become increasingly entwined in contemporary America, award-winning author Robert Putnam said Tuesday.

"It's a big deal because in matters of religion, as in soft drinks, people tend to fix their taste early in life," the Harvard public policy professor said during an interview in Lincoln.

"A Pepsi person early is likely to be a Pepsi person later."

"Going forward," he said, "we are likely to see a significant drop in religious affiliation in America."

Putnam delivered the annual Governor's Lecture in the Humanities to a full house at the Lied Center for Performing Arts on Tuesday night. 

The lecture, sponsored by the Nebraska Humanities Council, was also the first program in this year's E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues, an annual series of events on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

Young Americans who are turning away from religious affiliation -- about 35 percent of them now as compared to 5 percent two or three decades ago -- are primarily not atheists, Putnam noted.

"They mostly believe in God and mostly pray, but they are alienated from organized religion," he said.

"They represent both a challenge and an opportunity" for religious affiliations, he said.

Putnam, who explored the topic in "American Grace," a book co-authored with David Campbell, said the future of that relationship is difficult to predict.

"My favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, said predictions are hard, especially about the future," Putnam said.

"(The) intimate relationship between organized religion and one political party" in contemporary America is unusual in the nation's history, he said.

That close tie with the Republican Party has tended to cause some young Americans to move away from religious affiliation, he said.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with that tie," Putnam said. "But it's unusual it's so close. And there's kind of an allergic reaction by some younger people against such a close relationship between religion and politics."

Especially when "the tea party is very popular" with those who attach religion to politics, he said, and "extremely unpopular with a majority of Americans."

Putnam emphasized that he personally does not oppose "religion being part of one's motivation politically."

"Most of us have religious convictions," he said. 

Putnam said Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's Mormon affiliation probably will not be a negative factor in this year's election despite some people's discomfort with his religious faith. 

"There are three groups that are most uncomfortable with Mormonism," he said. "Blacks and seculars would not vote for him anyway, and evangelicals will vote for him despite their concerns."

"American Grace" is based on comprehensive surveys of religion and public life in America and, as its subtitle states, explores "how religion divides and unites us."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.