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How Liberal are Young Evangelicals: A Dialogue with Ben Domenech

October 30th, 2012 | 11 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Are the young evangelicals becoming liberal?  And how would we know?  I asked Ben Domenech to let me publish our correspondance on the question.  Ben is directly responsible for Mere-O’s success the past few years:  his encouragement to write for The City came right when I was contemplating leaving writing behind altogether.  And I’m addicted to his daily email, The Transomwhich you all should read.  To it, then.

Ben: Isn’t this exclusively a measure of young evangelicals‘ position on marriage? There’s a healthy body of evidence indicating that young churchgoers are more pro-life than they’ve ever been, and Millennials broadly are more fiscally conservative than prior generations at the same point. “Becoming more liberal” requires that you track trends, and other than marriage, I have a hard time seeing where that trend exists. Plus, statistically, as you become more liberal, you typically become less likely to attend church… so if they’re wedded to liberalism, they become less likely to remain evangelicals, or at least engaged ones.


Young evangelicals like this book. A lot.

Matt:  Well, a position on marriage has ramifications everywhere.  The study I referenced found differences on views of pornography, cohabitation, premarital sex.  Johnson and Smith grant that there are significant differences on environmentalism.  And I would bet that the gap on the permissibility of recreational drug use is pretty large, too.  Which is to say, when it comes to public issues besides abortion, the mindset is increasingly something like liberaltarianism.  At least from where I sit, anyway.

To your point about attending church, we haven’t started hearing much about evangelical church decline yet because of the emphasis on celebrity pastors that evangelicals have and the disparate nature of the movement which makes measuring numbers notoriously difficult.  But the SBC is a good bellwether of the evangelical world, and their decline has definitely begun (and if their voter rolls actually reflected the number of people in the pews, the drop would seem precipitous).

So I do think that the problems extend beyond marriage.

Ben:  I remain skeptical of the impact of this population primarily because 1) the claim that our inability to acknowledge the entrenched social leftism of youth will doom conservatism and the church isn’t new, 2) historically, we see that after the point of childbirth and homeownership, people’s priorities change, and 3) the number of elected officials representing this viewpoint is extremely small, infinitesimal even. The drug legalization comparison is worthwhile: the priorities of the young shift after a certain point of maturity. You can hold this shift into adulthood off for longer, as we do today, but at a certain point you care more about property taxes than pot.

My general view is that what we’re really talking about is the rise of the religiously unaffiliated who find doctrine socially inconvenient. People stop enjoying church so they effectively drop out. For all the talk of atheism and agnosticism, the real rise in America in recent decades has been the religiously unaffiliated, accompanying a decline in Protestantism.  You dig into these numbers and you see people who, unlike atheists and agnostics, actually do believe in God. They just don’t have any interest beyond that (68% say they believe in God, only 14% say he’s very important). They actually approve of churches generally, saying that they do all sorts of good work in the community, etc. But they just don’t care. They’re not seekers, they’re not spiritually interested – only 10% are “looking for faith right for them”. How incredibly dull.

Politically, 63% are Democrats or lean Democrat, while only 26% are Republicans, including leaners. While only 1 out of 10 Republicans are religiously unaffiliated, 1 out of 4 Democrats are. My view is that these are the liberal evangelicals you’re talking about – casual Christians who are essentially becoming unchurched, will live in cities longer, will get married later, will have fewer kids if any, etc. Such people have always ended up just plain liberal if given enough time to muck about. I’m only really concerned about them in terms of how they’ll muddle the message of those who stay in the church.

Matt:  Sure, it’s not a new claim.  And it’s easy to dismiss because it’s been wrong before.  But the risk of foreclosing the possibility that it is actually happening now is that we end up having to do backflips in order to hold on to the narrative that it’s all going to turn out well for conservatives because it always has.  I don’t think you, Joe, or Eric are doing that.  But I can see how people might.

What’s more, I think we ought to note that this is the most media-saturated generation of young evangelicals we’ve ever had and the most connected across geographical boundaries.  Which calls into question, I think, the historical precedents because of the various ways that social formation is changing.  Someone might have been the only liberal in their youth group or conservative church and simply given up because of attrition.  These days, they set up a blog and find a 100 others just like them and then spend a bunch of time online.  I suspect that will make the affiliation stronger and harder to overturn as in the past.

Now, that could all be wrong.  But as a hypothesis, I think it’s at least enough to call into question that past results are indicative of present realities.

Similarly, childbirth and homeownership:  as you point out, these folks are pushing those off longer.  That gives a lot more time, though, for social attitudes to become entrenched and habitual, which makes a reversal when the kids come at least a little less likely.

But while I think you’re right that the “rise of the nones” is related here, I’m not ready to collapse the one into the other.  If anything, it’s been the narrative of “the rise of the nones” that has set the stage for the mushy-liberalish rewriting of evangelicalism (thank you You Lost Me and Unchristian, which both have done more to engrain this narrative in the evangelical world than anything else the past decade).  A significant number of these younger evangelicals are simply going to drop out of evangelicalism and Christianity altogether.  But then we’re back where I started:  namely, that the state of the young evangelical world is not nearly as rosy as Joe and Eric painted it in their posts.

I mean, if “young evangelicals” are staying conservative but there are only 20 of them left who simply define everyone else who isn’t conservative anymore outside of evangelicalism, how is that a helpful posture or analysis of what’s going on?

Ben:  I actually don’t dispute that a “rosy” scenario is inaccurate. My quibble is more with the rise of liberal evangelicals as being a thing that’s bigger than it used to be. I also just don’t see that shrinking tent fear happening in the poll data we have to go on.

In 2008 there was a big surge in youth and evangelical support for Obama/Democrats which has now completely evaporated. In 08 65% of white evangelicals identified as Republican with leaners, 28% as Democrats; in 2012, 71% identify as Republican with leaners, 22% as Democrats. The same is true of the mainline: in 08 they were tied, now the GOP has a 12 point advantage. Essentially, churchgoers have grown both as a percentage of the GOP and in real terms. That’s all from a Pew report a few months back, you can dig into it here. Democrats have increasingly lost evangelicals – went from 22% to 20% to 17% today. You’re basically reaching a point where if you’re a churchgoing Democrat, it means you’re either black or Hispanic – AME or Catholic. And this was with a sample where Republicans were 30% pro-abort.

Now, just because they identify as Republican doesn’t mean they identify as conservatives, and that’s across all age groups, not youngsters… but my point really is that if you become unchurched, you were likely going to end up there anyway, and you are overwhelmingly likely to become a Democrat. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to keep these people in house that wouldn’t amount to changing the gospel to fit the times, as some do, with awful results.

Matt:  Just to clarify, I am not the least bit interested in deviating an iota from the Gospel to accommodate those on their way out the door.

But part of the problem in this discussion is that we simply don’t have the sort of evidence that we really need.  Most of the data comes from party affiliation and voting patterns, but that just isn’t very helpful as it doesn’t capture a range of attitudinal shifts on a host of social issues that seem like are underway.  In the past, those attitudinal shifts may have morphed into switches in voting patterns or party affiliation.  But if young evangelicals end up devaluing social issues in their vote, then they wouldn’t have as much of an impulse to change parties.  Additionally, if the Republican party is becoming more moderate on social issues–which I worry the election of Romney is going to further–then there will be more “room” within the Republican party for young evangelicals who are moderate to liberal on social issues even while still advocating for free enterprise, etc.

What’s more, whether it’s a “thing bigger than it used to be” depends not on the straight number of liberal young evangelicals right now, but on the relative ratio of liberal young evangelicals to conservative parents.  So when Richard Quebedeaux writes The Worldly Evangelicals in 1978, what percentage of the younger crowd relative to their parents is he talking about?  (I have the book back in the states, but not here so I can’t check.)  Were younger evangelicals 1.5 times as likely to be liberal as their parents?  1.25?  Because on gay marriage these days, they’re twice as likely to take a more liberal stance.  So if the relative size of liberal young evangelicals has grown, then that would be a statistically compelling shift.  But I don’t think anyone has done that analysis, at least not that I’ve seen.

I could go on with questions.  All I’m trying to do, though, is push back against the use of voting patterns and habits in the past as a way of arguing that the status quo is going to hold.

But I’ll give you the last word.

Ben:  I’m not intending to imply you are of that ilk.  But again, my belief is that there’s always been this faction, that it tends to work itself out over time, and that the overall trendline of Republican/churched vs. Democrat/unchurched is pretty locked in, with a few exceptions here and there. It will always be fashionable to be “I’m a Christian but I’m not one of THOSE Christians”, and proving that by supporting a grab bag of social justice leftism, whether that was anti-nuke messaging or the entitlement state or green policies. The hippies and hipsters will always be with us.

One additional note: it’s impossible to assess the effect legitimizing SSM would have on the church. My own prediction has long been an unexpected backlash as religious freedom overrun creates enormous legal headaches and clashes between church bodies and litigious couples. Loss of property is only the beginning. How would young evangelicals respond to that circumstance? It’s been interesting to note the backlash among evangelical communities over just the contraception/abortifacient mandate. Few things bring Catholics and evangelicals together like the appreciation that government has entered into a new and newly regulatory relationship with the church, one that few appreciated at the time. I remember sitting across from the Catholics defending Bart Stupak during the PPACA fight and telling them in no uncertain terms that they were total numbskulls for assuming the conscience protections would in any way defend their institutions. We already saw the potential tax status/property loss fight play out in New Jersey. One wonders what would happen in a similar space with evangelicals and the marriage issue.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.