Millennial Evangelicals Diverge from Their Parents’ Beliefs

August 30, 2018
Posted in Blog
August 30, 2018 Editor

The separation of families at the border, climate change, and various progressive causes have galvanized young Christians.

WN: I have a white Canadian Evangelical friend who expresses being fed up with white Evangelical-bashing — in particular towards white Evangelicals south of the border[1]. I argue on the contrary that such bashing should be the Evangelical norm, because over 80% of said Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, and continue to this day to be in thrall to Trump. My Bible fairly screams against virtually everything Trump, and therefore against 80% of white American Evangelicals, who long since abandoned most vestiges of Jesus’ teachings on love of neighbour/enemy/the Good Creation, in favour of crass embrace of political power and influence, a perverse civil religion idolatry as old as Billy Graham‘s modelling, who led the post-World War II Evangelical Renaissance; which trajectory fully matured into the Evangelical anti-Christ travesty that is his son (and majority of similar ilk), Franklin Graham.[2]

Is this too harsh? If you think so, please go back and read Amos in condemnation of the religious charlatans of his day; then really read Jesus (possibly again for the first time?) in his scathing remonstrance against everything Pharisaical — a term arguably and of course anachronistically interchangeable with (four fifths of white American) Evangelicals. Evangelical historian/sociologist Doug Frank argues this in his book Less Than Conquerors: The Evangelical Quest for Power in the Early Twentieth Century[3].

Now if the next generation of Evangelicals en masse became truly pro-life and rejected as well American Empire brutality the world over, something unstoppable — the Gospel as Counter-Narrative to Empire — just might radically redraw the face of white American Evangelicalism. In such a case, Trump would immediately be expelled from the world stage — along with virtually (if not) every federal politician in the United States! The article highlighted below certainly gives hope to that end!

One can always dream of/hope for such mass conversions (with greats like Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu)… and continue to pray “Thy Kingdom Come“…

excerpts:

“We are Ambassadors of Heaven first, and Americans second,” Furjanic, the head pastor of Block Church, told me. Furjanic, who is thirty-two, was born in Bristol, Pennsylvania. When he was three years old, his family moved to Orlando, and he and his parents accepted Jesus and became born-again Christians at the Faith Assembly church. He attended Southwestern University, in Dallas, where he played football and served as a youth pastor. After college, he travelled through Europe and helped out in churches before moving to upstate New York, where he met his wife. Together they moved to Illinois, and then back to Philadelphia, five years ago, to start the Block Church, “a place where social, economic, religious and political walls are torn down,” its Web site reads. For young believers at Block and elsewhere, the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks in their lives, among other factors, have made it more difficult to live in the kind of theological, cultural, and political isolation that previous generations once did. And, as their secular peers embrace more fluid identities in regard to sexuality and race, young evangelicals are also beginning to see such positions in shades of gray rather than in black and white. There are other factors, too, related to globalization: the exponential growth of fellow-believers in the Global South; the growing diversity of evangelicals in the U.S., driven in part by the influx of immigrants who arrive in American churches with their own dynamic faith. The result is that younger evangelicals are speaking out on issues like family separation at the border, climate change, police brutality, and immigration reform­­––causes not typically associated with the evangelical movement. In the continuing moral outrage at the border, which includes nearly six hundred children still displaced in New York City alone, many see the faces of themselves and their families.

Among younger Christians like Colón-Laboy, it isn’t unusual to oppose abortion but support immigration rights. Many are no longer willing to ally themselves categorically with either the right or the left. Instead, they challenge all kinds of ideas of identity and tribe. The separation of families at the border, however, coalesced young Christians around a new level of outrage.

“It’s wicked and absolutely evil for this regime to treat children like they are disposable,” Ekemini Uwan, a thirty-six-year-old public theologian who recently completed a Masters of Divinity Studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, told me. “And I’m supposed to believe that Trump is pro-life?” For Uwan, who became a born-again Christian while at California State University, Northridge, in Southern California, being pro-life, rather than anti-abortion, also involves protecting people’s rights to health care and education. “If you’re weeping for the child who has been aborted, you should be weeping for Trayvon Martin and black mothers in Flint who are experiencing miscarriages as a result of lead poisoning,” she told me. Uwan is in many ways theologically conservative, yet she prefers to call herself a black Christian rather than an evangelical. “Historically, it really means white and Republican, and I am neither,” she said. Instead, Uwan is a Democrat and a public theologian and a supporter of Black Lives Matter who believes that, in addition to her faith, she must always consider the marginalized people for whom her votes matter. “I’m thinking about what’s going to be best for immigrants,” she said. As a black Christian, she sets herself in the tradition of women like Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth. Her faith requires her to reject politics that discriminate.

“The pushback I see is on the God and Country idea,” Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center, at Wheaton College in Illinois, told me. “Younger evangelicals are not as ready to jump into patriotism,” he went on. “They love their country. They love their faith. They just don’t want those things inappropriately mixed.” Most of the young evangelicals I met don’t consider themselves liberal or conservative. Despite being ardently pro-life, they weren’t sure whom they’d vote for in the upcoming midterms or in the 2020 Presidential election. “I’m going to vote for whoever aligns with scripture,” Kassy Mayer, who graduated from Liberty University in May, majoring in women’s leadership, told me. “I don’t really know who that will be at this point.”

Uwan is also part of a growing trend of young Christians who view themselves as theological conservatives rather than political ones. To them, this shift marks a return to a more authentic way to follow the teachings of Jesus, without the taint of the conservative politics with which older evangelicals have imbued the text. These younger believers contend they aren’t looser in any way in their approach to scripture—in fact, they say the opposite. By following the words and actions of Jesus as revealed by God in the Bible, they believe they are being more faithful believers, eschewing worldly politics altogether. They remain deeply committed to the tenet of Biblical inerrancy, and the idea that the Bible, as a whole, is divine revelation. “It’s the inspired word of God,” Uwan said. “God’s gracious act of communicating himself in a way we can understand.” But their emphasis is different from that of older white evangelicals who frequently turned to scripture verses––often out of context or in isolation, believers like Uwan argue­­––as a weapon in the culture wars of the eighties and nineties. These younger believers focus more on the example of Jesus’s life in the Gospels. Jesus practiced a radical love, Colón-Laboy told me on the stoop. “This dude was breaking down gender roles and taking on racial issues that made people around him hate him,” he said.

For younger evangelicals, the political fights waged by previous generations no longer hold the sway they once did. Many told me that their focus in reading the Bible is on broader questions, such as, How shall I live? “Young evangelicals don’t have any skin in the game when it comes to fights over Biblical literalism,” Jonathan Merritt, the author of the recently published “Learning to Speak God from Scratch,” told me. Merritt, a journalist who writes for The Atlantic and the son of James Merritt, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is accustomed to acting as a translator between the faith-based and secular worlds.

He calls for Christians to stop relying on old, culturally conservative terms, like “lost,” to define people who have different beliefs from theirs, and invites his fellow-evangelicals to reconsider the feminine aspect of God. After all, being “born again” invokes feminine imagery: only mothers can give birth to children, and yet “born again” Christians often consider God solely masculine. Merritt’s most controversial argument revolves around homosexuality—a word in traditional evangelical circles often encoded by “brokenness.” According to P.R.R.I., fifty-three per cent of evangelicals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine now support same-sex marriage, but the theological debate over homosexuality is still a fraught one. Merritt was outed in 2012 after having a homosexual encounter with a gay blogger. He doesn’t believe, however, that being called “broken” defines his complex sexual orientation or that of thousands of other Christians like him. “Being called ‘broken’ is a source of shame,” Merritt said. It implies that something needs fixing when, Merritt argues, it doesn’t.

Yet no matter how progressive his positions on many social issues, Merritt continues to oppose abortion. “I’m personally pro-life,” he told me. “But would I pull a lever and overturn Roe v. Wade? The answer is no.” Merritt’s view is common among his fellow-believers: that abortion is wrong, and there are ways to work on reducing it without overturning the law of the land. Ekemini Uwan agrees. “I’m not pro-repealing Roe v. Wade,” she told me. As law of the land, the landmark decision should stand. “That’s why I oppose Brett Kavanaugh as well.” She went on, “Let’s move forward. Let’s not go back and fight wars we’ve already lost.” This was less of a political calculation than a practical reality. It would be nearly impossible to overturn the law, and there were more pressing issues. “We should be dealing with kids locked in cages right now,” she told me.

“All my adult life, I’ve felt like a misfit,” she told me. “I don’t fit into the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. What I see is this new generation of evangelicals who are likewise.” Prior sees this youthful awakening, born out of the 2016 election, unfolding at Liberty, particularly among students in the humanities, where there’s a long tradition of questioning interpretation of language. “They’re deeply rooted in scripture and an activist spirit,” she told me. “Our origins were in eighteenth-century stances against slavery,” she said. “It’s taken us a few centuries, but we’re getting back to a more holistic approach on social issues.” But that doesn’t mean that either Prior or younger Christians were headed for a full embrace of the political left. “Those who push back against us call us social-justice warriors, which is hilarious,” she said. Prior is deeply conservative, but for her that’s not about politics; it has to do with reading the Bible and adhering to conservative readings of scripture, which include opposition to same-sex unions, among other issues.

“Ask the real progressives, because we are not.”

Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, who is forty-eight and was raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the senior pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center, in Sacramento, California. On a given Sunday, he preaches to five thousand worshippers. Around fifty per cent are millennials or belong to Generation Z. When we spoke by phone earlier this summer, he described the shift between the older members of his congregation, whom he called the “Billy Graham generation” and younger members he called “the Martin Luther King, Jr., generation.” The older generation was more concerned with what he called “vertical” Christianity—issues like “religious liberty, and life and Biblical inerrancy”; the younger members “are more about social justice, police shootings, and mass incarceration,” he went on. “Here’s the irony, though,” he told me. “They’d also go out and march against partial birth abortions.”

For many younger and more diverse evangelicals, this political calculation isn’t as simple. Some, like Colón-Laboy, are still uncertain about their views on repealing Roe, which might further disadvantage the Latino and African-American communities. He is specifically worried about repealing “the law of the land,” for the unintended consequences, which are likely to disadvantage poorer communities. “For people of color, there are so many things that prevent people from succeeding. A poor kid’s life and a well-off one are both God-ordained,” he went on. “We need to look at the sanctity of life both in the womb and after. Since the government isn’t doing that, we as a church need to.”

Eliza Griswold is the author of “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America.”

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Please click on: Millennial Evangelicals

  1. [1]He writes: I’m “tired of hearing evangelicals described in the media only in terms of their relationship to Donald Trump, or even the United States…”
  2. [2]The above said, this article, “Evangelicalism: A Political Movement?“, also puts American Evangelicalism into political perspective.
  3. [3]He writes:

    … that the core characteristic of dominant evangelicalism is a spirit of pharisaism; a spirit not likely easily to disappear from those who in positions of leadership set the evangelical agenda.  He yearns nonetheless for, “… a church that awakens to the Stranger, Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ of the biblical witness; not the denatured, ideologically and morally useful Jesus Christ of evangelicalism… [1] (1986, p. 277)”

    [1] John Alexander similarly dedicates his book, Your Money or Your Life: A New Look at Jesus’ View of Wealth and Power (1986), to his father this way: “He is an unusual fundamentalist[/Evangelical]; for he believes that inerrancy extends to the teachings of Jesus.”

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Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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