Note from Jake Meador: In early 2009 after the election of Barack Obama, Matthew Lee Anderson published his “New Evangelical Scandal” essay in Houston Baptist University’s journal The City. The essay is no longer available online, so we are making it available by republishing it here at Mere O. I for one think it is still relevant.
In the 2008 Presidential campaign, the dominant story once again focused on how the evangelical voting bloc would align itself. In late 2007, amidst stories that the influence of the so-called “values voters” was waning, evangelicals launched Mike Huckabee’s previously struggling campaign into the national limelight. Though Huckabee’s inability to move beyond his evangelical base ensured his influence would not last, his politics and campaign drove a wedge not only between the evangelical public and the evangelical elite, but between the evangelical public and the Republican intelligentsia, most of whom offered nothing but loathing for the Arkansas governor.
As Huckabee’s campaign faded, Barack Obama’s ascension kept evangelicals and religion in the public eye. In 2004, John Kerry ignored the so-called “faith based community” until it was too late—so Obama started his courtship early. In 2006, he had shared a stage with Sam Brownback at Rick Warren’s influential Saddleback Church for a Global Summit on Aids and the Church. In 2008, he returned to Saddleback along with Republican nominee John McCain to discuss with Warren the issues evangelicals care about.
While Obama was expected to perform wonderfully on stage, McCain was not to be outdone. The aging Senator delivered what was unanimously considered a stellar performance on Saddleback’s stage, and then acknowledged evangelicals even further by selecting one of their own, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Palin’s status was solidified during her speech at the Republican National Convention, where she established herself as a formidable political force in spite of attacks from many in the establishment media.
For the most part, evangelicals were overjoyed by the selection of Palin, a mother of five who clearly lived out her pro-life principles. But prior to her selection, many of Obama’s supporters fueled increased speculation that evangelical voters—especially the younger generation—are no longer captive to the “religious right” or the Republican Party. It is a story that seems to write itself every election cycle—as author Hannah Rosin wrote in 2000, the focus of the religious right was, in her words, “maturing”:
Like many who start out as political gadflies, Christian activists are blurring into the mainstream. Where once pollsters found solid agreement among those who identify themselves as religious right, they now find disagreement, even on fundamental questions such as prayer in schools. Where once they found a single-issue focus, they now find distractions; religious conservatives define their top priorities for candidates as anything from their morality to their education policy to their tax plan. They still care about abortion, but many care about other issues more.
This trend, if real, wasn’t reflected to a great degree at the ballot box in November. According to the 2008 exit polls, even a dynamic figure like Obama was unable to break evangelical voters to the left. A total of 26% of evangelicals voted for Obama, compared to 23% for Kerry—a statistically insignificant change. But upon closer examination, Rosin’s description might finally be coming true.
While evangelical turnout in 2000 was down slightly, evangelicals supported George W. Bush in 2004 in overwhelming fashion. Democrats learned their lesson—in 2006, they began appealing directly to people of faith and adopting values-heavy language, winning back some evangelical votes. They did not stop there. While dissatisfaction with Republican complacency and corruption had made their job in 2006 easier, Democrats began building an infrastructure to ensure that they would retain those votes in 2008.
The 2008 Democratic National Convention began with an interfaith forum and included faith caucuses, a new development from the 2004 convention. Cameron Strang, CEO and publisher of trendy post-evangelical magazine Relevant, accepted the opportunity to open the convention with prayer before reversing his decision. He was replaced by emergent church icon Donald Miller, whose Blue Like Jazz is popular on Christian college campuses. Strang wrote on his blog:
If my praying on opening night at the DNC would be perceived as showing favoritism or incorrectly labeling me as endorsing one candidate over the other—rather than being the bridge-building gesture which I intended it to be—then I needed to rethink the decision. So I brought that concern up to the DNC, and they graciously understood. They still desired to have someone participate who represented this new generation of Christian voters (which is awesome, by the way), and I thought, who better than Blue Like Jazz author Don Miller? I respect him immensely, and he’s a much better representative of our audience than I am. So, I gave him a ring and he was more than up for it. Likewise, the committee was thrilled to invite him to give the benediction in my place—a move I think will ultimately be much better for the DNC. Don Miller’s famous; I’m not.
In a move that encapsulates the “new generation of Christian voters,” Strang subsequently changed his voting registration from Republican to Independent.
Whether Democratic efforts to win over evangelicals are successful in the long term remains to be seen. But their devotion of resources and attention to evangelicals and other faith-based communities suggests they see an opportunity to make inroads that did not exist previously. Their focus is on the younger, hipper evangelical: the twenty and thirty-somethings who are just as likely to have been educated at Harvard as Wheaton, and who are ostensibly more thoughtful and compassionate than their parents, and are disenchanted with the purported Babylonian captivity of the evangelical right.
Even though the sociology has not yet caught up, the narrative of a new breed of evangelicalism has taken hold among the media and political elites. The narrative is doubtlessly popular in part due to wishful thinking by Democrats and their media-savvy friends; yet as a young evangelical myself, it is impossible to discount entirely. Even if the outline of our theology is broadly the same as our parents, as it is for an increasing number of conservative evangelicals, our ethos is different. And the differences are not strictly political—the political trends among young evangelicals that have received so much attention are grounded in different concerns and emphases that undergird younger evangelicals’ approach to culture and spirituality as well. This new ethos is largely a reaction to the abuses, failures, and excesses of our parents’ generation and contains significant clues as to the future of evangelicalism in America.
At the close of the twentieth century, evangelicals began to wade into the political arena. Though their first dalliance was with Jimmy Carter, their disappointment with his failures to address their needs and concerns—and to give them a voice in his administration—disillusioned them and made them vulnerable to the advances of Ronald Reagan. Unlike Carter, Reagan appointed evangelicals to prominent positions within his administration. Though it would occasionally waver, the evangelical/Republican alliance was solidified at that point.
For younger evangelicals, this political alliance signaled an abdication of Biblical principles about poverty, race, and other issues of social justice, and constituted a subordination of the hope of the Gospel to the promise of politics. Evangelicals, the story goes, had gained political influence in exchange for their souls.
This myth of evangelical conservative political captivity pervades younger evangelical sermons, conventions, and conversation. Regardless of its veracity, it has become an accepted truth. While some younger evangelicals have run in the opposite direction and placed their hope in the Democratic political platform, most have instead eschewed the partisanship of our parents in favor of self-labeled independence and open-mindedness.
This rejection of partisanship is often motivated by emphasizing the apolitical nature of God and His Gospel. Jim Wallis’s Sojourners, the standard bearer for leftist evangelical political reflection, has popularized the slogan, “God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.” The idea was formalized in the “insistently moderate” Evangelical Manifesto, which Joe Carter accurately criticized in the pages of this journal (see THE CITY: SUMMER 2008) as giving the impression that “one of the purposes of the document is to be a repudiation of the Religious Right.” While I venture most young evangelicals have never heard of the document, they would be very familiar with its message. Unfortunately, such sloganeering prevents careful consideration of the role political parties play in the American political process and the potential benefits of partisanship. Some questions, it seems, are non-starters.
Yet while young evangelicals are increasingly unlikely to associate themselves with the Republican Party—or with any party at all—on many key issues they are at least as conservative as their parents. For instance, while a majority of younger evangelicals are resolutely pro-life, they justify their disassociation with Republicans on the (mistaken) grounds that the Republican Party has not benefited the pro-life cause at all. This ignorance extends especially to the effect the President has on pro-life issues (one thinks of the Mexico City provision and President-elect Obama’s promise to repeal it as his first official act), and a misplaced optimism about Democrats’ moderation on the issue. As Michael Gerson has put it, “In my experience the new evangelicalism is not trading moral conservatism for social justice. It is adding social justice to moral conservatism.”
While younger evangelicals are pro-life, they are not pro-life in the same way as their parents. Rather than pursuing political solutions, younger evangelicals are more intent on engaging in a cultural ground war to change hearts and minds, which in practice ends up diminishing the political importance of abortion. Even the limited success of Democratic overtures toward younger evangelicals ought to concern Republican and cultural conservative leaders, and prompt healthy self-reflection about how well pro-life Republicans have educated their own on their successes and how they have been gained. While non-partisanship is the new political virtue, it is increasingly being used to justify political apathy on moral values not currently in fashion.
The rejection of partisanship by younger evangelicals is part of a broader deterioration and rejection of the institutions that shaped the identities of our parents. While younger evangelicals may claim to be above the partisan fray politically, they are increasingly segregated into self-selected niche communities from which they derive—or better, create—their respective identities. Despite its claims to reject modernity, this communitization suggests the triumph of western liberalism over the evangelical mind.
Consider the case of patriotism among younger evangelicals. For most young evangelicals, it is far easier to gain applause by pointing out America’s flaws than by trumpeting national virtues, especially when those flaws have to do with American consumption and economics. Rob Bell’s “Nooma” videos are instructive on this point: In “Rich,” Bell, a prominent leader of the emerging church, targets Americans for being rich relative to the rest of the world. While much of his teaching is instructive and Biblical, Bell ignores the generosity of both Americans and American evangelical Christians, and the interesting questions around what constitutes “rich and poor.” While such critiques are sometimes heralded as courageous, they are typically nothing of the kind. It is easier for young evangelicals to criticize than to praise, especially when the target is America and her values.
At the core of this revised patriotism is the attempt to rescue the Gospel from its American captivity, the chief symbol of which is the presence of the American flag in many evangelical churches. As the argument goes, the presence of patriotic symbols in the house of God inevitably marginalizes the church by subordinating it to the political order. Many young evangelicals fall into the trap of placing an “or” where there previously had been an “and,” assuming that we can remain loyal only to God or Caesar, but never both.
From whence the devaluation of patriotism? Sadly, much of this view is reinforced at historically Christian universities, which have become hotbeds of a baptized version of Sixties liberalism that is not as much anti-American as it is anti-national. Unlike our parents’ generation, many younger evangelicals have had extensive experience outside the country (and much of that in third-world countries). Evangelicals have always been globally minded—the missionary movement of the 19th century is evidence enough of that—but the increase in short-term missions and the influx of study-abroad opportunities provide young evangelicals extensive opportunities to see the United States from the outside, creating conflicting opinions about America’s position in the world. While the missionaries of our parents’ generation permanently relocated and adopted the habits, customs, and culture of their new homes, younger evangelicals experience just enough to become disillusioned with the excesses of American culture for a while, only to slowly return to enjoying those excesses while maintaining their newfound cynicism.
Yet it is not just the sense of national identity that has deteriorated among young evangelicals. The social effects of divorce have been well documented, and evangelicals have hardly been immune. The prevalence of divorce in the evangelical community has left large swaths of young evangelicals to deal with the debilitating effects of shuttling between two households for holidays. For other evangelicals, the deteriorating social structure has endowed them with a cynicism around marriage that has contributed to a rising marrying age. While young evangelicals are still flocking to the altar, they are taking their time to do it—and exploring their options along the way.
In addition to their political, national, and familial affiliations, young evangelicals have slowly moved away from identifying with their own theological systems and heritage (the trend of evangelical converts to Anglicanism that Robert Webber first noted has not abated—if anything, it has expanded toward Rome and Constantinople). Such conversions belie, I think, evangelicalism’s failure to articulate its own theological distinctives and advantages and its rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Few young evangelicals who convert have read—much less heard of—the writings of John Wesley, Andrew Murray, A.W. Tozer or other giants of the evangelical past (one wonders whether the new evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Rob Bell and others have read them). And even fewer evangelicals are inclined to give the tradition in which they were raised the benefit of the doubt, to see the errors and problems and remain regardless.
All this bodes badly for the future of evangelicalism. In the face of declining partisanship, patriotism, and eroding family ties, young evangelicals have increasingly turned away from their roots in search of a sense of grounding and stability. They have the intelligence to notice the flaws, but often lack the charity and the patience to work to fix them.
As our communal ties have deteriorated, our consciousness of the role social institutions and communities play in our own spiritual and social formation has increased. On evangelical college campuses, it is fashionable to criticize the narcissistic individualism of modernity while trumpeting the virtues of community and the importance of social structures for change. Politically, young evangelicals are just as quick to criticize the social structures that keep individuals in poverty as they are the individual decisions that lead to young women getting abortions.
All this, ironically, signals the triumph of western individualism on the evangelical (and post-evangelical) mind. The renewed focus on community and on institutional structures is still grounded in the decisionism that has always marked evangelicalism. The fact that we are born as Americans—or as evangelicals—is unimportant. What is important is that we choose to be patriotic, that we choose to be Republican, that we choose to be evangelicals (or emergent, or Catholic, or Presbyterian)—and that we make that choice independent from and irrespective of any tradition that may have shaped us.
The young evangelical fashions himself into his own preferred identity, and then finds others who have done likewise. More often than not, this results in a rejection of the traditions—political or otherwise—in which younger evangelicals were raised.
In other words, as the traditional identity shaping institutions have eroded or become passé, young evangelicals have turned to carving out their own identities. The introduction and acceptance of tattooing in the evangelical community is indicative of this sort of identity creating behavior. Living in the bodies we have been given is not enough—we must remind ourselves that we have control to make ourselves how we want to be. This self-styling is as common among conservatives as it is among liberals.
No book is more exemplary of this need to create our own identity than Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Written in 2003, Miller’s book is styled after Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies. For many young evangelicals, it functions as a modern-day Confessions, with two important exceptions: there is no attempt to discover the unity behind the decenteredness and fragmentation, and there is no interlocutor. It is difficult to see how his rambling and disjointed narrative and his distaste for social institutions and religion are not simply Fifties beatnik ideology baptized. The fact that it has resonated with so many young evangelicals reveals that most of us are struggling to pick up the pieces of an ever-expanding world and form a unique identity for ourselves, which is precisely what Donald Miller attempts to do. He simply has been more successful than most.
Fewer words find more frequent use among young evangelicals than “authentic.” Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee resonated with young evangelicals for the same reason: they appeared authentic in their positions and their mindsets. Sarah Palin’s immediate success hinged upon her knack for being a different sort of politician, a more authentic one—that is, one who reminded us of her humanity. The ability to appear authentic matters to young evangelicals just as much as a politician’s policies or decisions. As one friend put it to my wife, “I agree with more of John McCain’s policies than Barack Obama’s, but John McCain just doesn’t make me feel good.”
Such sentiments are common. And while authenticity has a political dimension, it is also a social virtue. Young evangelicals frequently decry the inauthenticity of the mega-church and individualistic evangelical tradition, where people put on a happy face and “played church.” Experiencing “real life together” is the pursuit of the new evangelical small group, where “real life” is always “messy.” Authenticity in social settings is frequently an excuse for sharing sins and problems within a group of people who doubtlessly share the same sins and problems.
It may seem an odd comparison, but few cultural phenomena have captured the new authenticity like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson’s revision of Faramir—changing him from a heroic and pure character to a conflicted, modernized man—represents something much deeper than an additional plot twist designed to generate additional suspense. A Faramir who has the purity of heart to not be tempted by the Ring—like J.R.R. Tolkien’s—is inconceivable for members of the Millennial Generation, evangelical or otherwise. For young evangelicals, authenticity is synonymous with struggle.
This represents a substantial shift in how young evangelicals understand themselves, and in how they behave. The language of character formation, virtue, right and wrong has been supplanted by pseudo-psychological language about authenticity and feelings. With respect to decision making and evaluation, the rightness or wrongness of an action or an attitude is downplayed if the action itself is “authentic.” When it comes to political decisions, policy, character, and experience take a back seat to whether the politician strikes us as a “real person.”
The emphasis on authenticity is tied to the rejection of a doctrinaire and dogmatic Christianity that outsiders perceived to be hypocritical and artificial, and it results in an intellectual approach that is reticent to draw lines or provide definitive answers. The new evangelicals tend to frame their intellectual engagement with the world and with Christianity in terms of a journey or a path—conclusions do not matter nearly as much as questions and conversation. Being right is less important than asking authentic questions. In this way, Rick Warren’s Civil Forum with Barack Obama and John McCain perfectly encapsulated the new trend in evangelicalism.
The new questions don’t stop at political issues, though. For previous generations of evangelicals, questioning one’s faith was anathema. Now, it is a rite of passage, necessary for maturation and perfectly acceptable with God. It is, after all, part of the journey toward an authentic faith.
The refusal of younger evangelicals to be held captive to a political party does not mean that we are immune to the underlying issues that lead to the purported Babylonian captivity of the evangelical church. Younger evangelicals’ claims to be above the fray may be true politically—but in the place of political power they have begun to seek cultural influence.
The new movement to become culture creators is driven largely by the rejection of the evangelical artistic sub-culture. For young evangelicals, Thomas Kinkade, DC Talk, and the Left Behind books and movies are embarrassing lightning rods for criticisms that Christians have abandoned the arts. In this way, Francis Schaeffer circa-1970 has won—young evangelicals are quick to defend artistic engagement as a valid expression of our humanity and Christian faith.
Thankfully, the new movement has promise. Evangelicals would do well to raise the level of their artistic and cultural productions. But young evangelicals’ language about engaging the arts suggests that their new pursuit has little to do with excellence for its own sake—rather, artistic engagement is frequently subsumed under the hope and promise of cultural influence. The popularity of worldview oriented training programs indicates a deepening dissatisfaction for the fragmentation and privatization of Christianity, and a new drive toward excellence in all realms of life. The arts and the classics are to be engaged for the sake of promoting the Christian worldview, and for building Christianity’s reputation to the world.
Fundamentally, young evangelicals want an evangelicalism that is respectable—and more often than not, that means distancing themselves from it when it isn’t. Criticisms of kitsch art and of misplaced political loyalties are rarely courageous. Rather, they often win those who offer them praise and admiration from similarly embarrassed young evangelicals and traditionally scornful elite outsiders.
Beneath each of these shifts in the young evangelical ethos is a tacit, yet devout, commitment to a kind of libertarianism—even while holding more paternal instincts on political issues like poverty and race. The libertarianism of my peers is less political and more cultural. It is grounded in the notion that we have—and hence, we ought to have—control over ourselves, and responsibility for ourselves, regardless of circumstance. This conflicts, of course, with many of the communitarian ideas these same young evangelicals support in regards to governmental assistance in society—but few would accuse my generation of being intellectually consistent or coherent.
For most young evangelicals, the flash points where our libertarianism comes out are traditional sources of conflict with parents: tattoos, alcohol, music, movies, language and sexuality. In each area, younger evangelicals have rejected the perceived prudishness symbolized by our parents (yes, ironically, the children of the sixties and seventies) in favor of engaging the culture around us. Often this reflects a new internalization—one might characterize it as a gnosticization—of the Gospel. Social rules, such as those which once governed alcohol consumption among evangelicals, language, and sexual behavior, are now a sign of a Puritanical legalism that has forgotten that Jesus really cares about the heart and our intentions, not our behaviors and, as such, are to be discarded.
This principle of self-control and self-realization undergirds young evangelicals’ consumption of media. The new mantra of cultural engagement provides young evangelicals an effective cover to consume the same media as their peers. They are deeply convinced that such media has no effect on their lives—remaining confident they are carefully protected from the bad effects of consumerism by their flawless decision-making abilities.
This is one of the deep ironies of the young evangelical ethos. While vehemently rejecting the consumerism of 20th century evangelicalism, young evangelicals have adopted a new consumerist mindset under the guise of engagement with culture—a mindset that earns them access into the social standing they desire. The consumerism that has infected the core of evangelicalism has not been eradicated in the younger generations—it has simply been subsumed under a new teaching. Young evangelicals aspire to be urbane, sophisticated, and not appear judgmental or harsh—they want to be cool. And being cool means tossing aside the social mores that many of them grew up in, and transforming themselves into faith-soaked libertines.
Here young evangelicals’ approach to marriage and sexuality is instructive. The social institutions governing mating processes among young Christians continue to erode. While isolated pockets of evangelicals have attempted to buttress them against the impending tide of libertarianism, in reality couples decides for themselves how they want to approach marriage and sexuality. The slow but inevitable relaxing of codes of conduct at evangelical institutions is indicative of this trend—and it is a welcome trend to students who have to deal with being “weird” for attending a school with arcane rules. The new consumerism and the new libertarianism go hand in hand.
Eschatology has historically been one of the chief hallmarks of evangelical theological reflection. It is one of a handful of doctrines evangelicals have made famous. From the Thief in the Night movies and Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth in the 1970s to the Left Behind series of the 1990s, eschatology has dominated the evangelical imagination. It has been so prevalent, in fact, that leftist commentators have sometimes blamed dispensational theology and its focus on national Israel and the end-times for American foreign policy.
Such analyses frequently give evangelical political savvy far too much credit. For younger evangelicals, however, eschatology is barely worth considering—unless, of course, we are mocking Left Behind among our peers. Worship music is one of the best indications of the declining focus on eschatology. While there are lots of other reasons to criticize evangelical praise choruses, one neglected point of criticism is that they tend to ignore the future triumph of Jesus. Any casual trip through prominent evangelical hymns reveals an extraordinary emphasis on the next life: There is a Fountain, It is Well, How Great thou Art, Blessed Assurance, and Amazing Grace all see fit to acknowledge the work that is yet to be done. I can find no comparable thread in the new evangelical worship songs.
The disappearance of eschatology from a young evangelical framework has much to do with a renewed focus by younger evangelicals on their view of the Kingdom of God. On the liberal side of the spectrum, Brian McLaren has been at the forefront of focusing on the Kingdom of God’s effects here and now. While McClaren has focused on the social and political dimensions of the Kingdom, Dallas Willard has approached the Kingdom from a more individualistic, relational framework. McClaren has gained the most traction among younger evangelicals, among whom it is increasingly common to speak of “building the Kingdom of God.”
Yet focusing on building the Kingdom here and now to the exclusion of a robust eschatology ignores the inevitable failure of the Church to influence the world for Jesus that eschatology presupposes, creating idealistic (and ultimately, humanistic) notions of Christianity and its potential for progress in the world. It is disingenuous of young evangelicals to criticize the political triumphalism of the religious right while ignoring the cultural triumphalism that this presupposes, and which undergirds our own cultural ethos.
The de-emphasization of eschatology by young evangelicals has several political and cultural consequences. For one, it focuses young evangelicals more on the current state of the earth and the necessity of protecting and preserving our environment. “Creation care,” as Richard Cizek has put it, is significantly less important if the end times will be as Thief in the Night depicts them. A devalued eschatology lends itself to cultural engagement rather than the cultural escapism that has historically marked evangelicalism. And perhaps most importantly, a weakened eschatology signals a weakened commitment to answers. Young evangelicals’ rejection of the “moralism” of their parents’ generation is frequently accompanied by a diminution of the categories “right” and “wrong”—they are about questioning, not necessarily answering, pointing out that life is not “black and white, but often gray.” For those who are inclined to focus on the blurriness of life, the stark juxtaposition between good and evil that eschatology depends upon is inconvenient at best and impossible at worst.
Yet I get the sense that for many of my young evangelical peers, the doctrine of eschatology is less important not because of careful reflection upon the Scriptures, but because of the political and cultural scorn the doctrine has earned. For most young evangelicals, eschatology is cringe inducing not because traditional formulations are wrong, but because they are weird. That all Christians would disappear in a flash will hardly earn Christians cultural acceptability—and cultural acceptance, today, is their paramount desire.
What does the new evangelical ethos portend for the future of evangelicalism? A less doctrinaire, culturally engaged, and politically independent evangelicalism will doubtlessly be more palatable in a culture that esteems tolerance, respect, and being nice. On a political level, I suspect that as evangelicals become more independent in their rhetoric, they will continue to vote with Republicans. Pro-life issues continue to be sticking points for many young evangelicals who might otherwise vote for a Democrat, and while the Democratic Party has begun to make overtures to pro-life voters, such moves have been to this point more rhetorical than substantial.
Yes, there are long-term changes afoot among younger evangelicals, who like their generational peers have shifted to the left. But these changes will take decades to mature—just as it took the Religious Right more than a decade to gain the national influence it sought. Whether evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican in twenty years depends largely upon the direction party leaders choose. If politicians like Mike Huckabee are run out of the party because of moderate-sounding fiscal policies, there is a strong likelihood that young evangelicals will continue to disassociate themselves with Republicans.
This cuts to the heart of the young evangelical ethos. Young evangelicals frequently care more about being ostracized than they do being correct. The embarrassing image of the anti-intellectual, culturally ignorant and doctrinaire right-wing evangelical is easy to run away from, and it is common to hear it criticized in younger evangelical circles and churches. As young evangelicals go off to college and after graduation take jobs in the big cities, they discover that the suburban conservatism in which they were raised is simply not trendy, and that accommodating more centrist or leftist positions is significantly easier than dispelling stereotypes.
That young evangelicals care deeply about social acceptance is true on levels deeper than politics or culture. From alcohol to media to language, young evangelicals are consistent in defending their right to behave just like the culture around them. Those evangelicals who live truly counter-cultural lives, like those who pursue abstinence, do so with privatized, stylized reasons instead of moral reasons. Youth pastors sell chastity as the new way of being cool, rather than a sober and serious rejection of a devastating lifestyle. This is because, like the broader culture, young evangelicals do not have lives as much as they have lifestyles—consciously chosen preferences, beliefs, and dislikes that allow them to associate with others who share their preferences, whether conservative or liberal, traditional or contemporary.
The irony, of course, is that the newfound political independence of young evangelicals will give them increasing amounts of true political power. In the 2008 primaries, evangelical leaders realized that the perception that they would rally behind the Republican candidate, regardless of whom it was, had diminished their influence within the Republican Party. Their response to this situation—to stay out of the fray until it was too late—only confirmed their enduring political naiveté. By avoiding the appearance of aligning with any one political party, young evangelicals would be a coveted demographic.
And yet, I suspect that we will see the rise of a new religious right—or left—when my generation discovers that while voting as an independent may be politically feasible, independent politics in Washington D.C. cut against the gears that run the political machine. In other words, non-partisan politics—as opposed to bi-partisan politics—is hardly a way to get things done. While young evangelicals have lamented the lack of progress on pro-life issues, few have considered whether their own rejection of partisanship would further the pro-life cause in the least. In addition, while it is currently fashionable for young evangelicals to value culture over politics, I would suggest that as young evangelicals grow older the pendulum will swing toward politics again. An anemic eschatology places the burden of God’s work on the here and now, but cultural renewal is a multi-generational process that responds to decay with rebirth, neither of which fit comfortably with the leftist notion of painless hope, change, and progress. In twenty years, when presented with an opportunity to gain short-term influence within the political machinery as our parents were, I suspect my generation will seize it. I suspect they would rather be courted for their votes than have their voices ignored.
Theologically and ecclesiastically, it is fair to say that the exodus from evangelicalism by many of its intellectual leaders will continue. One could reasonably argue that the distinctives of evangelicalism are such that it is exactly where intellectuals ought to be, and that they have an obligation to remain evangelical. Yet until evangelical leaders educate their laity on the importance of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, the role and depths of the evangelical tradition, the importance of the body to the spiritual life and disciplines, and the wonders and glories of the Triune God—and then reform their ecclesiastical life accordingly—it will be difficult to keep our best and brightest within the fold.
This is not to say that evangelicalism will cease to exist. Its great hope and promise—both in the past and now—is its vibrant energy, missionary impulse, and its deep commitment to the authority of Scripture. At the beginning of American evangelicalism, Wesleyan circuit riders brought the Gospel to the untamed lands of the West, while the revivalists worked to reform the Church from within in the East. At the core of these movements was a deep enthusiasm and desire for a real encounter with the living God.
In this regard, young evangelicals remain truly evangelical. The new evangelical ethos is marked by a desire to reform evangelicalism from within, to recover a sense of authenticity in our connections to God and each other. This is accompanied by a renewed desire to reach out beyond the confines of evangelicalism and meet people on their own terms. Think of it as version 2.0 of the seeker-sensitive movement: it’s trendier, better dressed, and more open to conversation.
Young evangelicalism, then, is not so different from previous iterations. It shares the same contours, the same pursuits, and even the same human propensity to self-deception as previous generations. But it is different in its expression, and in this it presents new opportunities and challenges for the Church in America.
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.