Covers | May 19, 2010 at 7:28 pm

The New Moral Majority?

By and

Young evangelicals shift left, change focus.

“I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” With this declaration, Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) summed up the philosophy with which white evangelical Christians have long identified. Yet the ordering has sometimes seemed the reverse of Pence’s. Since 1980, born-again Christians have been among the Republican Party’s most faithful stalwarts, favoring the GOP with three-quarters of their vote in 2004. It has become a political cliché to say that evangelicals are conservative, mainly concerned with social issues like abortion and gay marriage, and hold no potential interest for the Democratic Party.

Yet, for a growing number of young Christian evangelicals, party identification means less than ever before, and the religious right’s hold is not so strong. Members of this millennial generation hold the same pattern of religious beliefs as their parents, but emphasize a broader range of social issues, and constitute far more of a swing constituency. Evangelicals may never be a base constituency for the Democratic Party, but if this trend holds, born-again Christians will no longer be a guaranteed conservative and Republican force.

It’s Not Just About Abortion

Although young evangelicals view politics differently from their parents, their disagreements are on the level of prioritization, not actual opinion. “[Young evangelicals] still care very deeply about issues of life and family, but their agenda is not confined to those two issues,” Aaron Graham, national field director of Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization, told the HPR. As Graham pointed out, the difference is one of emphasis. “Issues of poverty are very central” to younger evangelicals, Graham said, as well as “issues of war and peace.”

These concerns come at the expense of traditional wedge issues. Jeremiah Lorrig, deputy director of Generation Joshua, an evangelical youth political organization, agreed with Graham. He explained, “Young evangelicals, they’ll talk about more issues. Young evangelicals take up the issues of sex trafficking, being good stewards of the environment.” These new emphases seem to represent opportunities for Democrats to reach a once-elusive Republican constituency.

But still, it would be misleading to say that young evangelicals have totally abandoned the social views of their parents. On abortion, the foundational concern of the religious right, young evangelicals may be even more conservative than the preceding generation. A 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 70 percent of young evangelicals wanted tougher abortion restrictions, compared to 55 percent of evangelicals over 30.

Nonetheless, this new generation differs from older ones in that they place far less emphasis on social issues. Indeed, according to a poll by Public Religion Research, two-thirds of evangelicals under 35 are willing to vote for candidates who disagree with them on abortion. Although young evangelicals have not abandoned social issues, neither do they impose litmus tests before they vote.

Explaining the Shift

Young evangelicals are shifting politically for many reasons, but the most salient factors include their disillusionment with the Republican Party and a shift in priorities by evangelical leaders, as well as the Democrats’ outreach to religious voters. After decades of identification with the Republican Party, some members of the evangelical movement appear unsatisfied with the results. They feel that Republicans have used them as “a means to an end,” said Graham. “Some of the leadership has been disillusioned with their affiliation with the Republican Party … because they put too much trust in a political organization, rather than standing up for the principles,” Lorrig agreed.

As a response to their perceived abandonment by Republicans, evangelical leaders have chosen to emphasize different issues, or even eschew party politics altogether. “There has been a set of leaders who provided a bridge from the almost single-issue ethics of the religious right and this new broader social-justice orientation of the younger generation,” Harvard Divinity School professor Ronald Thiemann explained. Thiemann cites Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church, all of whom have worked on HIV/AIDS in Africa, as exemplars of this shift.

Aiding the process of realignment, the Democratic Party has actively sought to take advantage of the changes within the evangelical movement. “It had been an article of faith in the Democratic Party for years that evangelicals were Republican voters, so it would be a waste of time to reach out,” Amy Sullivan, author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, told the HPR. Noting the social-justice emphases of young evangelicals, however, Democrats have begun to question their earlier assumptions. The Obama presidential campaign in particular made sustained efforts to court born-again Christians. “They didn’t necessarily change their messages at all. In most cases, it was simply a matter of showing up and talking to evangelicals,” said Sullivan. The campaign was rewarded with the largest-ever evangelical vote for a Democratic candidate, double the number from four years before.

Becoming Party-Neutral

Young evangelicals are not only shifting their voting patterns; they are changing the way they approach politics itself. “I think that you are going to see a loosening of the ties between any political party and the kinds of social and ethical issues that young evangelicals are interested in,” Thiemann remarked. The loosening may already be underway. In 2005, according to the Pew survey, 55 percent of evangelicals under 29 identified themselves as Republicans. Just two years later, only 40 percent responded the same way, with most of the balance joining the “Independent” column.

Indeed, evangelical youth may well be abandoning politics and partisanship in favor of party-neutral activism. In recent years, said Sullivan, “we’ve seen more kids graduating from Christian colleges and going into the Peace Corps or Teach for America. This is becoming the preferred form of political expression for young evangelicals, rather than rising through the ranks of the Young Republicans.” The shift away from politics appears to offer significant benefits for evangelicals. As Thiemann pointed out, “[non-profits] don’t require the sacrifice of one’s religious convictions to the aims of a political party or to electoral politics.”

Will It Last?

Although future elections may complicate the trend, one thing seems certain: young white evangelical Christians are no longer a guaranteed conservative voting bloc. Yet the extent to which they will truly shift left remains up in the air. As Graham put it, “Whether this is a long-term trend or not really depends on how the Democratic and Republican parties respond to evangelicals’ broader agenda.” Democrats would be strategically wise to heed the evangelical voice, and Republicans silly not to make shifts of their own. Since evangelicals make up 26 percent of the electorate, both parties will continue to watch how religious youth express their faith through politics.

Rob Lothman ’13 and Kristen Eberts  ’13 are Contributing Writers.

Photo Credit: Flickr (Steve Snodgrass)

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