Politically speaking, what’s up with young evangelicals? Evangelicals are 26 percent of the U.S. population, a quarter of them under 30, and, as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life reports, “Not since 1972 has generation played such a significant role in voter preferences as it has in recent elections. Younger people have voted substantially more Democratic,” a pattern that “may well continue in 2012.”
For starters, evangelicalism is an approach to Protestantism that can be practiced in many denominations. It emphasizes a renewal of faith toward an inner, personal relationship with Jesus; the mission to bring others to that relationship; the cross as a symbol of salvation but also service and sacrifice; Bible reading by ordinary men and women; and the priesthood of all believers independent of church or state authorities.
Overall, evangelicals under 30 are in many ways in sync with their non-evangelical peers, both holding strict standards of right and wrong — 76 percent of non-evangelical youth, 85 percent of evangelical — both concerned about environmental protection and economic justice, and both increasingly Democratic. Among evangelicals, however, this comes from beliefs quite like those of their evangelical elders. That is, a similar theology is leading to different politics. The scriptural mandate to help the needy and hold life sacred leads many young evangelicals to oppose abortion (as older evangelicals do) but to also oppose environmental degradation, capital punishment, militarism, and economic injustice. They are, as AP religion writer Eric Gorski found, “even more anti-abortion than their elders but also keenly interested in the environment and poverty.” And this may open the way for them to work with others of their generation, believers and non-believers, on social justice concerns that they share.
A brief look at belief: Both evangelicals and non-evangelicals, 18 to 30, are as likely as their elders to believe in life after death, heaven, and miracles — even though 25 percent of non-evangelical youth are unaffiliated with any church. Beyond that, young evangelicals, on most questions of belief and practice, are similar to their elders.
Indeed, in only two key areas of doctrine do significant differences appear between evangelicals under and over 30: fewer young evangelicals believe that the Bible is the literal word of God and more believe that there are multiple ways to interpret their religious tradition.
Younger Evangelicals’ political views
Greater differences between younger and older evangelicals appear in politics and in social issues that have become politicized, such as homosexuality. While traditional opposition to gay unions remains firm among older evangelicals (74 percent oppose gay marriage), young evangelical writers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons title the chapters of their self-critique unChristian: Hypocritical, Sheltered, Too Political, Judgmental and Antihomosexual. While they may not advocate gay marriage, they oppose discrimination in housing and non-church employment. Many younger evangelicals consider judging gay people to be “un-Christian” and note that the government doesn’t rescind civil rights when people commit other sins, like heterosexual adultery.
Underscoring the generation gap, one member of Baylor University’s Sexual Identity Forum (which meets weekly but unofficially) said, “The student body at large is ready for this [gay student groups], but not the administration and the Regents.” In February, 2011, evangelical Belmont University amended its anti-discrimination policy to include homosexuals and recognized its first gay student organization. The student newspaper at Westmont College that month ran an open letter signed by 131 gay and gay-friendly alumni in support of gay students. Wheaton alumni have a Facebook page in support of gay students.
Apart from hot-button issues like homosexuality, a generational shift can be seen in politics more broadly. In the 2008 presidential election, a third of white evangelicals under 40 voted Democrat; 26 percent of older white evangelicals. Evangelical PACs like the Matthew 25 Network were formed mostly by younger evangelicals to support Obama. Speaking of the Republican appeal to younger evangelicals, Jonathan Merritt, then a 26-year-old Southern Baptist pastor, said, “The McCain campaign is really out to lunch.” More recently, Johnny Moore — a young preacher and vice president at Liberty University — said that young evangelicals are unimpressed by traditional politics, not attracted to the Tea Party movement, and want to address serious “causes.” The significance of these findings grows when one considers that coming-of-age politics guides political leanings throughout life.
Political shifts among young evangelicals started with their interest in environmental protection and economic justice — ethical concerns they share with their non-evangelical peers. But opposition to abortion remains a grave hurdle to a Democratic vote.
So a second factor in the youth shift was a change in the way they approach that issue. While holding to their disapproval, many repudiate tactics like trashing Planned Parenthood clinics or harassing women who go to them. As Moore put it, “I’m totally pro-life but thousands of girls in the room [on college campuses] have had abortions, not because they wanted to but because they were trapped. It’s insufficient to preach truth without climbing into the situation.” Younger evangelicals have been drawn to the idea that getting rid of abortion means providing an alternative. “If I am going to discourage abortion,” Shane Claiborne, the Elvis of younger evangelicals, wrote, “I had better be ready to adopt some babies and care for some mothers.” That means providing medical, financial and emotional support during pregnancy along with day care and possibly job training post-partum — an idea echoed in Catholic social justice teachings.
A third factor shifting the politics of young evangelicals is the decrease in small-governmentism. Though older evangelicals have since the 1960s supported core Republican policies of small government, market deregulation, and reduced social services, today 65 percent of evangelicals under 30 prefer bigger government and more social service provision, such as Obama’s Affordable Care Act. This contrasts with older evangelicals, 36 percent of whom favor bigger government, and is in sync with non-evangelical youth, 67 percent of whom do — another indication of potential cooperation between evangelicals and others of their generation — believers and non.
Because of disappointment in Obama from his left and right, support for his presidency may decrease in 2012 — but least of all among young voters, who are less angry and less disappointed in government than their elders. There is also no sign of decreased youth activism in environmental and economic justice projects. If this is true, and increased cooperation is also emerging, then perhaps an alternative to our much-discussed national polarization is coming into view, as younger Americans from different faith and ethical traditions work together where much political activism happens — not at elections but in all the work done between them.