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.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Andrew Walker

    Mr. Anderson, I guess I’m perhaps caught somewhere between you, Teetsel, and Joe. I don’t dispute your analysis and neither am I critical of Teetsel’s excitement.

    My wonderment comes from this:

    “Although Barack Obama got only 26 percent of white evangelicals in 2008, according to exit polls, he got about 33 percent of young white evangelicals. The latter statistic inspired hopes by Democrats and liberal evangelicals for a generational shift away from social issues in favor of more liberal-focused causes. But a Public Religion Research Institute poll, pre-presidential debates, showed young white evangelicals choosing Romney over Obama by 80 percent to 15 percent.”

    Again, this may be too strongly of an electoral emphasis. But regardless, I find this info telling.

    • Andrew,

      I think the question is what that is telling of. So there’s a 17% percent swing away from Obama toward Romney this time around. That’s not that remarkable, given that many young evangelicals can’t find work.

      Best,

      Matt

  • arshield

    I think that geography probably still plays a fairly big role. Almost all of the young evangelicals that I know (at almost 40 I am not sure I am in the young demographic any more) have spent significant amount of time living in urban areas. If fact I can’t think of anyone that I know that has started voting Democrat that has not spent time living in urban areas. Evangelicals as a whole are more suburban and White than the national averages. Democrats are more minority and urban than the national average. So I think that geography makes a difference. Although many of the urban Christians I know either work in financial areas (and are still Republican) or are in some sort of urban ministry or social work. So maybe there is a job bias as well as the geography bias that is making a difference.

    • I think you make a very good point, arshield. I live in inner-city Baltimore and I am a registered Democrat solely so I can vote in city primaries. I tend to vote for Republicans or Libertarians when it comes time for state or national elections. My friends & I tend to lean more liberal on most social issues except for abortion, but my friends from high school youth group who either went to community college and stayed in the suburbs or went to someplace like Grove City and then came back home definitely follow more traditional evangelical thought processes on these issues. What’s encouraging to me is that most of my peers are at least a little more thoughtful and well-read about the issues at hand, even if we come to different conclusions on what a Biblical position on legalizing gay marriage or pot is.

  • I’m going to go ahead and say that all of this number-crunching trying to figure out how many young white evangelicals are on whose side makes me feel icky. I know this is not your intent, but it certainly feels like we are treating young white people as though they are a desired commodity for our tribe (certainly while your post, Matt, is appropriately balanced, Joe’s really rubs me this way.)

    It’s the way of the world to idolize the power that being young, white, and influential brings. It makes one wonder if the right-wing culture warriors give a rip about old black people.

    Also, it is fairly obvious (to me, anyway) that Joe Carter and David Sessions have some sort of unpleasant history, which is what these articles tend to remind me of.

  • There’s also the issue that if the strongest indicator against the idea that YE are becoming more liberal is that they are pro-life, they seem to be increasingly private with their pro-life views. If the trend is an unwillingness to politically or otherwise publicly express a personally held view from the conservative end of the spectrum – and Christian Smith and my gut impression of Christian colleges strongly suggests it is – is that an indicator of a larger trend?

    Privatizing moral beliefs is not a conservative value. So perhaps they are becoming more liberal on a more basic level than just what positions they hold. How they hold those positions is worth considering too. Which positions they are willing to be most vocal and courageous about, etc.

    And to be clear, I think the indicator is more than political posturing. It’s that they will post the Kony video on facebook, but nothing pro-life. It’s that they may not approve of abortion, but are lack interest in being pro-life in what Scott Rae has called the Pro-Life 2.0 and 3.0 issues. It’s that line, “I’m against abortion personally, but I would never want to legislate against it.”

    • There’s some of that, to be sure, but there’s also an underlying, quiet shift in strategy going on there. The focus among the folks my age I know has shifted away from pure political engagement—though there’s still a lot of that going on—to a mix of political engagement, personal interactions both face to face and “wall to wall”, and a lot of engaging on a service level with crisis pregnancy centers, adoption, and so forth. I’m not sure that young evangelicals are abandoning it so much as attempting a new approach, as they do tend to dislike the timbre of the culture war angle on the issue (for good or ill). The people I know my age are deeply, profoundly committed to a pro-life position, but they’re (a) not persuaded that the government will change, as they’re increasingly jaded by “pro-life” politicians who are clearly just using it as a political stumping point while making no attempt to change and (b) interested in tackling issues of systemic social injustice, which directly blunts one of the ongoing critiques the left likes to level at conservative pro-lifers. My evidence is admittedly anecdotal, but I suspect the same trends exist more broadly.

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  • Millenials are more liberal in general, because they’ve been raised in a climate of liberal fascism, where holding the conservative position on gay marriage, e.g. brands you as a hater and a pariah.

    But it seems their convictions on that have never really been tested, and may not survive contact with adulthood.

  • j

    I know many of them personally. Anecdotal evidence.

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