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The Existence of the Liberal Young Evangelical

October 29th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My good friend Joe Carter has gone public with a disagreement we've had for a few years now over whether the "liberal young evangelical" exists, or whether he is a media creation.

My own line on this is that the shift has been overstated by the media, but still real.  And that media narratives tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies, as they provide cover for those who might be on the fence to go in a more liberal direction.  It's a theme echoed by my other good friend Eric Teetsel, who points to the details of a study by Sojourners to make his case.

There's a lot to say about both posts, but I'll limit myself to a few points.

First, Brett's analysis of why he's voting for Romney pretty much nails the younger evangelical support: it's there, but it's not quite enthusiastic.  In fact, given Romney's own moderate past I'm a bit surprised that Joe didn't take the opportunity to say that the millennial evangelical support for him is a sign of how confused we are.

Second, Joe points primarily to party identification to make his case.  But the Republican party hasn't been very friendly territory for social conservatives these days, and that's probably only going to get worse.  So while I understand the decision to use it as a metric, it's not as persuasive as Joe makes it out to be.

Sojourners Young evangelicals dig this.

Joe's best argument is the Baylor study he points to, but then when it comes to analyzing trends among young evangelicals, that one is such an outlier that it's tendentious to weigh it too heavily.  For instance, most other studies have found young evangelicals to be twice as willing as their parents to support same-sex marriage.  Yes, it's still not at the level of other social groups, but the trend is definitely in a liberal direction.

And the most recent peer-reviewed study I've seen after Johnson's critiqued it for focusing too heavily on electoral issues directly.  Justin Farrell, who makes the case, found that young evangelicals are in fact more liberal on their parents on every social issue besides abortion.

In fact, Farrell's study nails the real problem with Joe's analysis:  by focusing on party affiliation, Joe misses the change in ethos that younger evangelicals have experienced.  Farrell's article measures attitude, not behavior, and he points out in closing that the changes do not necessarily "suggest that young evangelicals are becoming Democrats, or leaving the Republican party in droves."  If we deprioritize the political affiliation--which is a move that young evangelicals tend to want anyways--then the case for a liberal shift becomes quite a bit stronger.

As to the Sojourners study, I don't have much to say about it other than I don't quite share Eric's excitement over 42% of evangelicals prioritizing social issues in their top two concerns.  The Sojourners folks note some Akron University study that listed about half that, which I presume comes from John Green's center but I could not verify.  At any rate, 42% seems disappointingly low--and at any rate, the number can only be used one way or the other when compared with the previous generation.  If we've gone from 80% to 40%, then it seems like we'd be able to call that a liberalizing shift.

Which is to say, I remain unmoved in my position:  the liberal young evangelical is no myth.  They may not be a Democrat (yet), but they are very real indeed.

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.