Every few months sees another Christian pundit publicly wishing The Youth would just get a grip and do as they’re told. It usually goes something like: the “young evangelicals” just want to be accepted by the world, they’re just bitter, they only define themselves negatively, they reflexively oppose anything traditional or conservative, they’re self-absorbed egotists, etc. And while I no longer consider myself an evangelical, this tired, dismissive non-critique is so blatantly self-serving that I can’t help defending the Youngs whenever someone attempts to trot it out as serious analysis.
The latest attempt at this comes from my friend Anthony Bradley, who has written a post about “evangelicalism’s bitter 20-somethings.” Here’s the first bit:
Is it me or does it seem that many kids reared in affluent conservative evangelical communities become bitter people in their 20s? I’ve recently read blog posts and articles by 20-somethings reared in suburban evangelicalism that seem to be committed to doing one thing: attacking the very community that raised them and doing it bitterly. I call them “the Bitters.”
…Adding to that, Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, writes that children of abundance become post-materialist young adults who lose interest in organized religion and become increasingly focused on personal spirituality. Economic growth and military security decline in political importance and are replaced by issues like personal freedom, abortion rights, social justice, and the environment. These young adults are less inclined to obey central authority and lose trust in hierarchical institutions. Finally, they harbor resentment for the big organizations that created America’s modern, industrial society: big business, traditional church denominations, traditional family structures, and so on.
The Bitters, who tend to gravitate toward Christian hipster culture, are on a mission to expose the “conservative conspiracy” wherever they can find it (or create it) under the guise of “healthy critique.” Bitters define themselves by what they are not. If their parents are Republicans they become staunch Democrats. If their parents are in a conservative church, Bitters will find a more liberal church. Bitters choose “the left” because it’s not “the right.” There is no greater sin for Bitters than sounding like you might be “conservative.”
Let’s get one thing straight: A lot of young adults of all demographics feel the need to distance themselves from their parents. It’s almost an American rite of passage: you’re not an adult until you’ve rebelled against a major pillar of your parents’ lifestyle or belief system. Maybe that’s individualist and a little bit irrational, but it’s the way things are. So of course there are young Christians out there who have to try a different political party or denomination because it’s different from what their parents want them to do. Of course.
But conservative evangelicals, and they do tend to be conservative, want to stretch that obvious, banal reality into an explanation of the church’s current Young People Problem, which this blog has described at length. It’s a classic type of denial: if we can convince ourselves the young peoples’ discontent is all their own problem, then we don’t have to sweat as much about fixing it. And the young people hear the tone-deaf dismissal and rightly conclude that the Christian establishment just doesn’t care all that much about working with them. They don’t even seem to like younger people. So the Youngs become “leavers” or “nones,” or just regular Christians isolated from a community because finding one that doesn’t talk down to you, ply you with pieties or infuriate you with right-wing politics—not to mention one that really cares about real people—is in so many cases just too spiritually draining.
Now, about the Bill Bishop quote. The thesis of The Big Sort is a fascinating one, and, as generational sociology, there’s nothing wrong with quoting it here. But is it just me, or do I detect an unmistakable whiff of disapproval? There’s an underlying annoyance that the Youngs “harbor resentment for the big organizations that created America’s modern, industrial society” and as a result feel like there is a “conservative conspiracy” afoot. If this is true, it’s very interesting. But in typical fashion, Bradley is more interested in defending the old order rather than wondering: Hey, these twenty-somethings who got into a lot of debt for the careers they may never be able to have—maybe they have a crucial point of view about this mess. Maybe they actually care. And maybe they have a point when they’re critical of a political party that wants to double down on the let-the-market-run-wild philosophy that played a huge role in the economic meltdown. But no, in the youth-hating evangelical punditry, the only reason someone would question “big institutions” and conservative dogma is out of bitterness, immaturity, or desperation for attention.
Next, Bradley reveals that not only are the Youngs bitter, but they are cowards:
To define one’s identity in terms of being “not like them” seems cowardly.
It only seems cowardly if you don’t particularly like, sympathize with, or at least understand young people. The modern world is huge and overwhelmingly complex, and figuring out who you are in it and what you think about it takes a very long time—years of careful thought and study and a lot of painful and joyful experience. Trying to sort between competing truth claims and prejudices and remain a decent human being is exhausting work. One can do a lot worse than figuring out what they are not. Hopefully we all have the privilege of finding and following a deep passion for something, but one can do worse than to identify the ideas, institutions, career options and even people they dislike and to stop wasting precious time and energy on them. Twenty-somethings, myself included, for the most part don’t know enough yet to know for sure what they are for. (Nor, for that matter, do many middle-aged adults.) Figuring out what’s wrong, though, is a pretty important step to getting there, and it’s always helpful to have those who went before calling you a coward for trying.
We have at least reached Bradley’s postlude:
The longing for self-expression Inglehart discussed in his thesis may be a longing to be heard and affirmed, because many kids of affluence are ignored in homes where meaningful participation in family life is communicated as optional. Bitters likely feel deeply insignificant, like they don’t matter. They probably weren’t “cool” in high school. Craving affirmation, Bitters want someone to pay attention to them—finally. The easiest way get attention is to protest things dear to the hearts of their elders. “You’re paying attention now aren’t you,” the Bitter protests.
Somewhere, I’m sure the phantom young evangelical described in this amazing paragraph must exist. But in my extensive interactions with and readings about them, I have never met one. Perhaps that explains the appearance of the journalistic code phrase “may be,” which is often slipped in when the author really has no idea what the hell he is talking about.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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- Orthodoxy Book Club: Chapter 2, “The Maniac”
- Introducing the Confront-Your-Prejudices Book Club on G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”
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