In late September, Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times sent out a request on twitter than many others, including me, passed along. She tweeted:
Followers–are you an evangelical born after 1980? I’d love to hear about the relationship btwn your faith + politics today. I’ve put together a few questions for you, and hope you’ll take time to reflect, respond and share with your churches + friends –>
Today, with five days to go before the midterms, she shared her responses. In her story “God is Going to Have to Forgive Me: Young Evangelicals Speak Out“, she summarizes the responses in general and then focuses on six specific individuals. As you read the story, be sure to click on the comments. The ones that are from young evangelicals are especially enlightening.
In her opening summary, Dias shares this:
Young evangelicals are questioning the typical ties between evangelicalism and Republican politics. Many said it had caused schisms within their families. And many described a real struggle with an administration they see as hostile to immigrants, Muslims, L.G.B.T.Q. people, and the poor. They feel it reflects a loss of humanity, which conflicts with their spiritual call.
Young evangelicals struggle to find the balance between their desire to remain theologically and biblically grounded and to affirm the diversity that has been present in the society throughout their coming of age. This is a difficult path and one that they often walk alone. Two of the six featured evangelicals shared how little politics comes up in their family:
I don’t talk politics to anyone, not even my family. We talk about Christian values.
Last year I was in the car with my mom and her husband. Trump had said something. I said, “Well he’s racist and homophobic.” They were quick to dismiss that. That was the most I’ve ever talked politics with my mom. It was five minutes.
While many of these young evangelicals are looking to sever the presumed Republican-Evangelical linkage, it is hard for them to figure out where they land. They haven’t simply substituted a new party in place of the old one but are trying for a more informed perspective. Here are two more responses:
I don’t consider myself Republican or Democrat. I am pro-life. It’s not just abortion, it’s people in prisons being treated terribly. I went to the Women’s March knowing I wouldn’t agree with a lot of what they are saying. But there’s inequality in the workplace, there’s sexual abuse.
When I have white friends or colleagues, and they assume that I align fully with the Democratic Party, I try to be as tactful as possible. Wait, should I be fully Democratic? But as a Christian there will be things I don’t fully agree with.
Navigating the space between church and the voting booth is a challenge. One woman shares the following (the quotes originally appear in the opposite order).
I don’t feel so much like I am leaving conservative evangelicalism. I worship like one, I talk like one. It’s not like I can pull myself out of this relationship. I feel incredibly guilty for attending a church I can’t invite people to. But I love the community that raised me.
The world I was dreaming about was not the world my church was dreaming about. The world liberal evangelicals want to see is the one conservative evangelicals hope doesn’t happen.
Some of the young evangelicals featured in the story maintain their Republican identity. To them, Trump is supporting evangelicals in unique ways. It’s possible that their social location (Kentucky and Iowa) has shaped those views, but they appear sincere.
I know Trump has brought back prayer. Knowing that our leaders believe those same core beliefs as us is something that brings calm. We know they have our best interest in mind.
As a Christian, I drive around the town now and see the billboards that say, “Jesus is lighting the way.” But before, when you’d say you are a Christian, that would signal you are a critical, judgmental person. I feel a little bit more safe now, going into places and saying, “I’m a Christian.”
Their views reflect the kind of rhetoric President Trump has used quite often. In a conversation with David Brody of CBN aboard Air Force One, the president reflected on the promises to evangelicals.
“Well they’re going to show up for me because nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals or frankly religion than I have. You’ve seen all the things that we’ve passed including the Johnson Amendment and so many things we’ve nullified. Nobody’s done more than we have. Mexico City, take a look at that. Things that frankly until Ronald Reagan, nobody did anything. So, I know they’re very happy with me. We’ve seen they’re very happy. The question is whether or not they’re going to go out and vote when I’m not running. I have no doubt they’re going to be there in ’20. I hope they’re going to be there now because it’ll be a lot easier if they are, a lot better.”
For the record, I have to observe once again that Trump did not do anything to the Johnson Amendment besides signing an executive order to instruct the government not to after pastors, which they weren’t doing in the first place. And it is true that he reinstated the gag order on abortion messaging in Mexico City but that has flipped every time the party in the white house flips.
Yet his rhetoric rings true to some. For a young woman in rural Iowa to now feel “safe” being a Christian or for a young man to believe that “prayer is back” suggests that the sense of oppression characterizing some corners of evangelicalism is very strong.
My friend Kristen DuMez had an interesting post in The Anxious Bench today about Evangelical Fear. She writes:
Perhaps evangelical leaders believed these threats were real and present. Perhaps. But they knew full well that inciting fear in American Christians was key to amassing their own personal power. In convincing followers that evil lurked around every corner, they ensured that their followers would cling more tightly to the spiritual protection they promised—a protection that came with a cost.
White evangelical fear is genuine. But history teaches us that evangelicals should be more suspicious about who is stoking that fear, and to what ends.
Elizabeth Dias’ article suggests that these past appeals to fear will be less potent for the rising generation. Two of her young evangelicals spoke to the limitations of this method.
There are a lot of old white men in the Republican Party that use Christianity as a weapon to get themselves elected, but I’m here to tell you that we do not fall for them. The Jesus those men depict is not the Jesus that healed the sick and broke down social barriers. We are not a part of those men’s religion, and my hope is people will see that.
I don’t think I diverge theologically from my parents in major ways, but while my family is quicker to blame “the liberals,” I’m able to see that they aren’t evil, just people trying to do things in a different way.
If millennial evangelicals continue being reflective about policy positions, commit to civil discourse, and try to articulate their religious values into their voting patterns, there is reason to believe that the rancor that has so dominated our political lives might be dissipating. That clearly would be good for evangelicalism and for the country’s sense of civic engagement.