Are Younger Evangelicals Any Different Than Older Evangelicals?

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At nearly every stop I have made on the Believe Me book tour I am asked if I see a generational divide in evangelical support for Donald Trump.  I usually say, based on my attendance at an evangelical church, my interaction with students at a Christian college, and my conversations with my 17-year old and 21-year-old daughters, that there IS a generational divide.

The young evangelicals I speak with are pro-life on abortion and divided over gay marriage.  They are also pro-immigration, advocates of creation care (environment), opposed to capital punishment, interested in promoting social justice for the poor and oppressed, and supportive of a more inclusive and pluralistic society.

According to a recent study by political scientists Jeremy Castle, Ryan Burge, and Paul Djupe, the people I know are not very representative of most young evangelicals.  Here is a taste of their recent piece at VOX:

Overall, there isn’t much evidence of a young evangelical voice that is being “drowned out” by elders. On many issues, young evangelicals are quite similar to older evangelicals. When it comes to abortion, a signature issue among evangelicals, Ryan Burge finds that they are just as conservative on abortion as others. As Jeremy Castle shows in his forthcoming book Rock of Ages, one reason for this is that many evangelical churches have mechanisms for socializing members into conservative attitudes on cultural issues, including sponsoring Sanctity of Life Sunday and crisis pregnancy centers. As Andrew Lewis documents, another reason may be that the mandates of abortion politics drive conservatives to maintain support for anti-abortion candidates.

The most notable issue where young evangelicals are more liberal than older evangelical generations is same-sex marriage, but again, context is important. In particular, the change seems to be concentrated among low-commitment evangelicals (those who attend church, pray, and look to religion for guidance on day-to-day matters less). This suggests that changes in the broader society around them, rather than changes in evangelical theology, are behind evangelicals’ liberalization on same-sex marriage. Even so, young evangelicals are much more conservative on same-sex marriage than other young voters.

There also isn’t much evidence that the changing issue attitudes on same-sex marriage (or any other issues) are leading to broader changes in political behavior. In separate research, Castle and Burge find little evidence in nationally representative survey data that young evangelicals are changing their political identities. Both partisanship and self-identified left-right ideology among 18- to 29-year-old evangelicals have remained nearly constant since 1990, though with a demonstrable conservative uptick in 2016.

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “Are Younger Evangelicals Any Different Than Older Evangelicals?

  1. I am almost reticent to use the descriptor “evangelical” since it has come to encompass a lot of things it never did when the term was coined after The Second World War. It is now a hodgepodge of doctrine and practice never envisioned even thirty or forty years ago.

    Traditional Roman Catholics often trace the demise of doctrinal, liturgical, and moral rectitude back to Vatican II. Evangelicals have no such watershed event, but it is obvious that the movement is splintering into strands which have little in common with one another and even less in common with the vision of the original evangelicals. Media and the internet have played a big part in both groups by creating a situation where every man is his own pope and can determine what is right in his own eyes. Paradoxically, traditionally minded Catholics and conservative evangelicals are finding common ground as never before. I have never been Roman Catholic but would find much more truck with a conservative member of the Roman Church than with a professing “evangelical” from the so-called Emerging Church movement, for example.

    Which brings us to the question of what attitudes and beliefs are held by the youth. Personally, I prefer to see the gulf in terms of faithfulness to traditional beliefs and practices vs. unwarranted changes to the same. If we use this paradigm, it’s not difficult to see people of all ages in both camps. The young liberal “evangelicals” will likely drift away from organized religion in any form whereas a higher percentage of cafeteria Catholics will remain simply because the structure of the Church provides a greater feeling of belonging. Within all its ecclesiastical expressions Protestant liberalism unwittingly signs its own death certificate.

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  2. “I usually say, based on my attendance at an evangelical church, my interaction with students at a Christian college, and my conversations with my 17-year old and 21-year-old daughters, that there IS a generational divide.”

    I agree with your take here, on similar anecdotal grounds. At my evangelical Christian college, at my evangelical Christian summer camp ministry, and among the youth in my evangelical Christian church, it seems like there is a large never-Trump contingent. If anything, it seems split half-n-half among my generation in the theologically-conservative church. That is why the piece by Dias in NYT last month seemed so accurate. But the sociologists aren’t finding it.

    Could it be that even though policy positions are stable among my young, white, evangelical peers, what is changing is our general political posturing? For myself, I find myself agreeing with GOP policy from time to time but still reflexively disagreeing with Trump. Could it be, related to this, that Trump is just a really horrible public figure to support, and he energizes his opponents and easily allows their voice to be louder?

    Could it be, maybe the most likely, that our social media infrastructure has self-enclosed — even in such a niche space as “never-Trump evangelicalism” — all of us from hearing opposing evangelical voices. For my part, I seem to rarely if ever interact with pro-Trump evangelicals, which maybe I have too quickly assumed to mean that there are none. But maybe I have isolated myself.

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