Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Please get out of the new road, If you can't lend your hand...

Are young evangelicals leaning left?
by Venessa Mendenhall
Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer 11-22-2006

"Your deeds, Mr. President -- neglecting the needy to coddle the rich, desecrating the environment and misleading the country into war -- do not exemplify the faith we live by," stated a letter of protest signed by over 800 students, faculty members and alumni at the conservative Christian Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., objecting to the commencement address given by President Bush in May 2005.

Twenty-two-year-old biology major Nathan Haan was a junior when the protests erupted on his campus. As the co-chairman of Calvin's Environmental Stewardship Coalition, Haan felt strongly that the president was not living up to his responsibilities as an evangelical Christian.

"The two primary tenants of the Christian faith are to care for the poor, and to care for the earth. The Bush administration wasn't doing a good job on either" Haan said.

Although few Christian leaders today would disagree that charity and stewardship are important religious values, the question of priority is another issue. According to Paul Froese, a sociologist of religion at Baylor University, such disagreements are threatening to divide the Bush administration's evangelical base.

"There is tremendous strife within evangelical groups in terms of what issues should be collectively prioritized," Froese said. "I've been to evangelical conferences where the speaker insists that poverty is all evangelicals should care about, and I've seen some in the congregation nod their heads in agreement, while other members of the audience walk out in protest."

And according to data provided by the religious research and advocacy organization, The Barna Group, it may be young evangelicals who are leading this challenge to the current conservative politics of their religious elders.

Not only are they more liberal on several of the hot button issues currently driving conservative politics, many evangelicals in Generation Next want to change the conversation all together, putting traditionally left-leaning concerns such as the environment and social justice to the forefront of the evangelical movement.

Cooling hot-button issues

According to experts, there is a notable generational difference at play between how younger and older evangelicals approach the controversial issues of abortion or gay marriage. For Froese, the reason is simple: exposure.

"I've been to so many churches where a preacher will say something about homosexuality, and all these young people will get upset about it," said Brandon Rhodes, a 22-year-old evangelical from Portland, Ore. "We have a much more nuanced and compassionate view. When your sister or your friend is out of the closet, you can't just say, 'Oh you sinner.'"

According to "The New Gay Teenager," a book published by Harvard University Press last year, the average gay person now comes out just before or after graduating high school.

The chances of a young evangelical making it through their teens or their early 20s without befriending someone of a different religious background or sexual orientation are getting remarkably small -- and, experts agree, this new reality is beginning to change a generation's approach to these issues.

According to preliminary studies by The Barna Group, 18-29-year-old, born-again Christians are some 15 percent more likely to find homosexuality morally acceptable than their religious elders.

Further, less than half of them favor a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

"They care about losing marriage, but they aren't going to scapegoat gays and lesbians for the breakdown of the American family," explained Jim Wallis, left-leaning Evangelical leader and author of "God's Politics."

Acording to research by The Barna Group, born-again Christians actually have a higher divorce rate than non-born-again Christians, and this reality has influenced a generation's view on the problems facing marriage today, said Wallis.

"They know from experience that divorce is the far deeper cause of the breakdown, and they are frustrated that their leaders aren't speaking out against it. Young people have gay friends, and that proximity brings compassion and understanding," Wallis said.

Although young evangelicals generally oppose abortion rights, their views on the issue are often similarly nuanced. Nick Price, a 22 year old who lives in Chicago, believes that better health care, rather than criminalization, should be the Christian response to the problem of abortion.

"I would love to see a government that makes abortion obsolete," Price said. "Criminalizing abortion doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Instead we need public policies that support women and children."

Rhodes, the young evangelical from Portland, agreed. "We are becoming politically ambidextrous," he said, referencing a quote by Christian activist Brian Mclaren. "We'll be pro-life, but we'll be pro-circle-of-life as well. ... After all, family values means taking care of future generations."

For Rhodes, this concern for the future has turned into a mission to turn the attention of his evangelical peers away from such issues and toward the problems of social and environmental injustice.

"If you love the Creator, take care of creation"

In November, a few dozen young religious leaders from around the country descended on Washington, D.C. to present the federal government with a statement on global warming signed by over 1,250 evangelical college students. Brandon Rhodes was part of this Evangelical Youth Climate Initiative.

"We want politicians to know that the next generation of Christians considers dealing with climate change to be a moral and biblical mandate," Rhodes said.

"We'd like to speak with [incoming House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, and I think she might let us in. . . But I don't know about George [Bush]."

According to preliminary data from the 2006 Baylor Survey on Religion, over 80 percent of 18-25-year-old white evangelicals believe that the federal government should do more to protect the environment.

For Peter Illyn, founder and president of the nonprofit group Restoring Eden, this position emerges naturally from a post-modern world view that worries about the environmental costs of contemporary living.

"Environmental stewardship resonates very strongly with this generation. It goes hand-in-hand with their faith. Removing it seems artificial," Illyn noted.

The struggle ahead, Illyn said, is not in convincing young people to recognize the environmental problems we are facing, but rather to persuade their religious elders that it's an issue worth prioritizing. "I really believe that this is not just a fad or a phase. I honestly think that there are enough of them that they are going to change the conversation significantly."

Bucking the status quo

For many young evangelicals, the complex realities of poverty and disease often lead them to challenge -- if not repudiate -- the moral conservatism of their religious elders.

According to Nick Price, evangelicals have a special calling to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic both in the United States and abroad. From his point of view, that call is not exclusively for abstinence-only education.

"People are dying, we have to deal with that issue first. Teaching about condom use is necessary, and it definitely helps," Price said. "If you want to argue about it, go to your own corner and argue. But don't get in the way of those of us trying to stop this disease."

Amy Jonason, 20-year-old co-chairwoman of Calvin College's Social Justice Committee, agreed.

"Having a personal relationship with God mandates a critical engagement with the world. Where we choose to live, what we choose to buy and how we tend to vote are all things we should be thinking about as Christians," Jonason said.

Global poverty has been the central focus of her student committee, with an emphasis on fair trade and labor practices. Her group also educates the student community about the genocides in Darfur and northern Uganda, and raises money for Christian world hunger relief organizations.

Although some of her more conservative peers accuse her group of trying to convert students to the Democratic Party, such liberal opinions among young evangelicals are more common than many people assume.

For instance, the 2006 Baylor Survey on religion found that approximately 60 percent of young people affiliated with an evangelical church believe that the federal government should work to redistribute wealth more evenly. An equal percentage also agreed that the government should regulate business practices more closely.

Taking "liberal" stances on the issues of poverty or the degradation of the environment, however, is a distant cry from actually voting that way. It is this discrepancy that leaves open the question: Just what political impact will young left-leaning evangelicals to have?

Will they mobilize?

Young evangelicals, like many of their elders, are looking to politics and the government as a way to implement their religious beliefs. According to the Baylor study, nearly 70 percent of them believe that the federal government should advocate and defend Christian values.

Although the Republican Party lost votes across all age brackets in November, it was the youngest voters who registered the most dramatic shift to the left. According to the Pew Research Center, support for Democratic candidates jumped from 16 percent to 26 percent for 18-29-year-old white evangelicals between the 2004 and 2006 elections.

Yet, thus far, social justice or environmental concerns aren't driving voting patters, according to sociologist Paul Froese.

Nathan Haan, the student from Calvin College, isn't convinced that this is going to change anytime soon.

"It is something that worries me," Haan admitted. "I don't think that care for the environment is going to trump abortion for mainstream evangelicals."

Brandon Rhodes from Portland, however, remains hopeful -- and angry. "The pro-life platform is total lip-service from the Republicans. Evangelicals are starting to realize this, and that should scare the hell out of every Republican in office."

I bolded the areas I particularly liked.
10 points for anyone who gets the refrence in the blog title.


Anonymous said...

I need to plow through this article still, but in the meantime I wanted to let you know it was great to see you at NNU. I'm so bummed it didn't work out to meet Jenny, but next time for sure! Happy Holiday!

Bob Van Allen said...

Good to see you last weekend JR . . .

I thoroughly enjoy your posts like this one. It gives me hope and almost persuades me that the church may not be so "bad" after all with people like you and I growing up now . . .

Mamamax said...

Dear precious son-in-law :)
Good read. Nice to know what someone thinks your generation is thinking. Generation Next - sure beats generation X!

I think it is important to look at the different points of view and to hear what the pollster are saying people think is right.

Of course what is popular thought is not necessarily God-thought for your generation or mine. And neither Bush nor Pelosi can restore Eden. If I remember God placed anglelic guards at the gates to paradise lost.

Anonymous said...


Will we always let government decide what we believe? I sure hope not. Shouldn't it be us decided what we believe and then using that believe in our politics/voting?

Anonymous said...

I hope that made sense. It would help if I proof these things!

J.R. said...

Bob, It was great to see you, I wish we had more time to catch up. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I am sure glad we are not alone wanting change to come.

Kathy, a couple things for my beloved mother-in-law. #1. I think there are those who think and those who don't, and those who don't out number those who do in every generation. And I am actully the tail end of generation X, so watch it. ;-)

#2. It is very true that what is popular thought is not always God though, actually I think it is usually the opposite, which is why young Christians are getting tired of a christinity that is based on popular thought.

#3. Eden has been lost, but the whole purpose of our work on earth is to do the work of bringing about Christ's kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.

Chad, I hear you man, I hear you.