Yesterday, Fitz argued that evangelicalism won’t split because it’s eroding instead. I agree, and I would add that this erosion factors heavily into the debate over whether young evangelicals are staying conservative or shifting to the left.

Christian conservatives have been trumpeting new numbers that show the evangelical kids are holding on to their politically conservative beliefs. A recent Baylor survey found that 85 percent of young evangelicals and 83 percent of old evangelicals oppose gay marriage. In some cases, young evangelicals are even more hard-line than old evangelicals: 61 percent of young evangelicals say it is wrong to abort a child conceived through rape, compared to 50 percent of older evangelicals.

But other evidence suggests something different from the theoconservative spin. I think evangelicalism is so inextricably linked to political conservatism that young people who leave conservatism leave evangelicalism as well. Yes, 70 percent of young evangelicals may identify as conservatives. But this doesn’t indicate either growth or the increased persuasiveness of the conservative evangelical position; it just means that young people who call themselves evangelicals are already politically conservative. As far as the “movement” goes, a greater number of young people are leaving evangelicalism altogether—which isn’t exactly reason for Christian conservatives to celebrate.

We’ve seen in the past several years a few failed attempts to de-link evangelicalism from conservative politics. For instance, the 2008 Evangelical Manifesto struggled to strip the “evangelical” label from all of its political baggage:

A politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church. … We Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality.

Evangelicalism is still heavily politicized, if not “completely equated” with conservative political ideology. As the Baylor study found, a full 70 percent of young evangelicals identify as conservatives. But is that because their evangelical faith is informing their political convictions, or is it because their political conservatism makes them naturally fit in with people in the evangelical faith? I think the evidence points to the latter.

First, the overall evangelical retention rate has declined, especially among young adults. According to Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s landmark study of American religious shifts in American Grace, evangelicals had a high retention rate—about three-quarters—for most of the century and an even higher one among evangelicals who became adults in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s changed in the past two decades: the retention rate has steadily fallen to 62 percent for people who became adults in the 2000s.

Second, a fascinating finding suggests that politics drives our choice of religion instead of religion deciding our politics. Putnam and Campbell found that conservatives who were already evangelical tend to stay evangelical, and conservatives who weren’t raised evangelicals tend to become evangelical. Also, “misfits”—“liberal churchgoers and unchurched conservatives”—are more likely to change their religion than change their politics. The evidence “strongly suggests,” the authors say, that “politics is driving religious conversion.”

So what happens when a young evangelical becomes a liberal? Does she stick with the extremely uncomfortable identity of evangelical liberal, or does she decide to go to a church that doesn’t harangue her about her convictions? Evidence suggests she’ll switch churches. Thus, polls of self-identified evangelicals that purport to show them staying conservative are roundly unconvincing, because if you’ve done much shifting, you’ve probably also shifted out of the overwhelmingly politically conservative evangelical church. By only questioning people who call themselves evangelicals, polls like this miss the very people who are doing the shifting.

So is evangelicalism eroding? The retention rate among the young suggests it is, perhaps because evangelicalism has become irrevocably linked to politics they no longer embrace. The authors of the Evangelical Manifesto writers were correct to say that politicizing faith is “foolish.” When we equate faith with a certain political ideology—or, to use the Christian conservative vernacular, equate our faith with a certain “worldview” that always entails a political ideology—we are not entering into a deeper exploration of faith but reducing faith to the political. And when your politics change, as politics do, you find there’s nothing left to your faith.

About The Author

Alisa Harris

  • William Brafford

    These last few posts leave me wishing for a fuller discussion of the situation of the mainline churches – that is, it’s not as if the Episcopalians are maintaining numbers. Might I suggest that a single-minded focus on the failings of evangelicals hides the broader forces at work on the American religious scene?

    • David Sessions

      I don’t think discussing statistics that have primarily been examined and blogged about by evangelical-affiliated/identified pundits is a “single-minded focus on the failings of evangelicals.” Some evangelicals (mostly writers, not church leaders, I’ll admit) have touted these statistics in a less-than-convincing way, and I think we can debate that without being said to be harping on evangelicals.

      • William Brafford

        To put it positively, I think the project of “a review of religion and the modern world” would be served by thinking about how this stuff plays out among the old mainlines, or in the Roman Catholic church, or among other faiths.

        I think I probably came off as an ankle-biter in my first comment. Sorry! I’m actually curious about what you guys (or future like-minded contributors) would have to say about the graying out of the mainlines, or the divergence between the Magisterium’s moral teaching and the lives of American Catholics, to name two issues with profound political significance.

  • Bryan

    I agree William. Mainline churches are seeing dramatic drops in numbers. A discussion of where young mainline’s are going would be interesting. I wonder if there needs to be a “third way” between the harsh conservatism of some evangelical churches and the “lack of Jesus” liberalism of some mainline churches? I myself feel this as a Baptist minister serving in a Presbyterian church. I wonder if there are more Liberal Evangelicals out there like me?

    • Glenn

      You’re not alone, Bryan. I’m a liberal evangelical, too. It’s tough because there’s no church that reflects our beliefs. For a liberal evangelical to fit in, we have to make dramatic compromises no matter where we go.

  • Joe Carter

    ***I think evangelicalism is so inextricably linked to political conservatism that young people who leave conservatism leave evangelicalism as well.***
    Ironically, your impression says more about young liberals than about conservative evangelicals. When I lived in Chicago, I used to attend Willow Creek Church. Out of the 23,000 members, I would say that more than half would have identified themselves as Democrats. Yet these are the same people that you would probably see as “political conservatives” because they don’t fully embrace the same agenda as liberals in New York City.
    ***it just means that young people who call themselves evangelicals are already politically conservative.***
    But in the survey you are referring, the people didn’t necessarily call themselves evangelicals. In fact, as the report noted, many people who were attending a church that could be considered as evangelical identified themselves as “unaffiliated.”
    Very, very few evangelicals call themselves evangelicals.
    ***As far as the “movement” goes, a greater number of young people are leaving evangelicalism altogether—which isn’t exactly reason for Christian conservatives to celebrate.***
    But you provide no evidence for this. I know you guys at Patrol would like to think that you are speaking for a “silent majority” but you are not. The number of young evangelicals who are leaving the movement hasn’t radically increased over the last 20 years.
    ***But is that because their evangelical faith is informing their political convictions, or is it because their political conservatism makes them naturally fit in with people in the evangelical faith? I think the evidence points to the latter.***
    You really believe that? If so, why is the majority of the conservative movement that is *not* evangelical (or Catholic) tend to be socially liberal? If conservative political convictions are informing their faith, then why aren’t those same convictions leading non-evangelicals to embrace socially conservative policies?

    ***First, the overall evangelical retention rate has declined, especially among young adults.***
    This is true. But the retention rate for Catholics and Mainline Protestants has also declined. How does it support your case when those traditions have also declined, but at a higher rate than evangelicals?

    ***The evidence “strongly suggests,” the authors say, that “politics is driving religious conversion.”***
    You don’t have to be a sociologist—or even understand that correlation doesn’t imply causation—to see the flaws in that claim.
    Imagine that you are a young liberal nonbeliever who works in New York City. If you have a “religious conversion” what is likely to have led to the change (other than the Holy Spirit)? Presumably, someone you know would have talked to you about religion, offered you religious materials, or invited you to church, etc. Since most of the people you know would be similar to you (i.e., young and liberal), chances are that they are not going to be pushing you to accept a strain of the faith that is identified with “political conservatism.” Does it therefore mean that “politics is driving religious conversion?” Of course not.

    ***So what happens when a young evangelical becomes a liberal? Does she stick with the extremely uncomfortable identity of evangelical liberal, or does she decide to go to a church that doesn’t harangue her about her convictions? Evidence suggests she’ll switch churches. ***
    Can we presume that you are talking about the path you took? If so, your post starts to make more sense. In essence, you are saying that since politics drove your religious conversion than it must be doing the same for many other young people too.
    While it’s possible that you have stumbled upon a wider sociological phenomenon, I’m not sure you can extrapolate from your own experience to claim a broader trend.
    I’d be curious to know whether your theological convictions changed because of your political change. But so we don’t get too personal, let’s take a hypothetical young woman and consider why she might “switch churches.”
    Imagine that a young, formerly conservative evangelical young woman moves to New York City and take a job dominated by liberals. She decides to save money by moving in with her boyfriend (something her current church wouldn’t approve of). She hangs out without gay friends who are aghast that some churches (like the one she goes to) don’t approve of same-sex marriage. She also has other friends who are also engaged in behavior (casual drug use, promiscuity) or have views (pro-abortion) that would also be looked askance on by the people in her church.
    Now the girl has a choice. She can either change the rest of her life or she can switch to a church that is more tolerant of her lifestyle. Which path do you think she will take? Would we say that she changed because of her “political views?” Perhaps. But more likely it was due to personal decisions and peer pressure.

  • Alisa

    William–the question of mainline denominations is a very interesting one as well. I don’t have as much personal experience with that one, although I have learned through research that part of the picture, at least with Catholics, is that religion used to be very much tied to their ethnic and cultural identity and now it’s less so. The Catholic share of the population has stayed more or less steady, although their retention rate is poor, because of the influx of Latino Catholic immigrants, who are more faithful and more conservative than American Catholics. (Their ethnic and cultural identity is still tied to faith.)

    I don’t know much about more mainline Protestant traditions, but I do know that in all traditions, intermarriage is a big factor. In mixed-religion marriages, people tend to switch religions, fall away, and raise kids who fall away from the faith.

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  • Brandon Wright

    Historically I’m conservative, both politically and regarding Biblical interpretation (that is to say, I think I typically fit in the “Evangelical” label). But I think I’m part of the young (I’m 28) shifting to the left.

    Recently, when I made a comment that indicates that I might question some of the politics coming from a certain right leaning news organization, the response I heard from another member of our church’s worship band is “What, are you big lib or something?” in a tone that clearly indicated that the individual might think less of me because of my opinions.

    I went camping with my religiously disenchanted siblings-in-law this week and we had an extremely in depth conversation about their beliefs about the spiritual world, the church, politics, etc. and I must report that the one of the biggest obstacles to their surrendering their lives to Jesus is the politics of pseudo-Christian right.

    I don’t know what it all means, but it makes me sad that the idea that “the final authority of the Bible and the need for conversion” are somehow fundamentally connected to political conservatism is so prevalent, especially among the older generations of the faith. The correlation of Christian/conservative and secular/liberal does not necessarily indicate causation.

    • Jim Jacobson

      Brandon, I wonder sometimes about the reasons for “religiously disenchanted” folks… it’s my experience that often these folks are looking more for an excuse for unbiblical behavior more than anything else.
      Towing the line of spirit-filled righteous living is necessarily narrow and difficult, we should expect that few can really accomplish it. (I think I read something like that somewhere)
      I’m not discounting your comment in any way,… just positing another viewpoint.

      • Brandon Wright

        While I’m sure many reject Christ because it would interrupt their lifestyle, I know that’s not the case for my sister-in-law and her husband. The sad thing is that they see and recognize benefits that they desire in the church, but they’ve been so badly burned by others who call themselves believers (I call these people “cultural Christians”) that they want nothing to do with the church.

  • Adam

    Thanks for an interesting article. However, if you want to fully engage the sociological contributions to this American religious issue you have to include two other factors.
    1. Birth rates
    2. Immigration
    For this article to truly engage what “eroding” means it must discuss these variables/events.

  • Boardermom

    So, I’ve lived the life of the hypothetical conservative Christian who, after college and law school, became a liberal evangelical who is unashamed to state that I am pro choice–not pro-abortion, but in favor of letting a woman make the personal choice on what to do, and NOT the federal government or the local pastor. I am also anti-prop 8, and in favor of gay marriage and embracing LGBTQ members into the church with open arms and without the stigma of sin. I’m also in favor of prayer and religion in public schools, nativity scenes and crosses in public places and keeping God in the pledge of allegiance. Where I draw the line is I don’t want the government, federal, state or local, legislating ecclesiastical views. I may have my opinion on terminating pregnancies, but I don’t want my government legislating that choice for everyone. And yes, I do not consider it the same as murder, so don’t even try to argue that point with me. And if you want to use the Bible to argue against homosexuality, I want you also to use the Bible to defend American slavery to me.

    What moved me to the left, however, was the conservative Christian view that does not match the educated reality of people around us who desperately need Christ. For me, it is simple. WWJD? He would not exclude; he would not name call; he would not condemn; he would not protest at strangers’ funerals to make his point. If we truly believe that God takes us where we where we are in our faith journey and works with us, then we must also agree that he takes every human being where they are in their journey.

    I believe young people who are raised conservative Christians move to the left as they become older, see more of the world outside of their conservative communities, make friends with people from all walks of life, backgrounds and faiths, obtain more education in schools, colleges, universities, print and internet media–both liberal and conservative-their view of Christianity shifts more to the left because the conservative view is so rigid and unworkable in the real world on a daily basis. Obviously my view of the Bible and Christ’s teachings are more fluid than conservatives, but I do not think anyone can rationalize or justify conservative teachings–particularly on homosexuality–with the inclusiveness and love that Jesus so clearly teaches in the New Testament. Yesterday, I was in a seminar with many individuals of all ages, sex and martial status who identify as LGBTQ and it was unanimous that the biggest stumbling block to their coming back to their faith was the conservative religious bigotry that reminds them on a daily basis that they do not belong in the kingdom of heaven. Again, WWJD? Jesus would open them with open arms and welcome them back to the church, as they are, with no changes, no claims of chastity, no swearing off of anything, except perhaps self-hate for being the way God made them.

    And it is the dogmatic responses that will follow this post that drive young people away from Christianity and the conservative pundits. Life in the 21st century is complicated on many levels and young people are looking for legitimate, authentic ways to reconcile their faith with the reality of homelessness, terrorism, poverty, racism, elitism, homophobia, and all the rest.

    So to answer the orignal question, I believe conservative Christians using a political platform to legislate their religious views drive conservative young people to the left. And I believe that liberal Christians leaving the main line liberal denominations has to do with the busyness of life and not so much with the denomination per se. In a nutshell, I think it’s about sleep, working too much to make ends meet and the need for down time.

    And to the writer who wanted to know if there are any Christians out there who are democratic, you betcha there are!

  • Jim Jacobson

    Alisa, it seems as though you are asserting that the ideal would be apolitical Christianity. Am I reading you right?Our faith seems necessarily political to me as we are given a set of beliefs that impact our view of everything moral. We are governed by inextricably political systems in which we should have both voice and opinion. That evangelicalism is, and has been, traditionally conservative or right leaning seems natural to this evangelical conservative. :-) Prime example: As a believer in Christ, I am unapologetically pro-life. In this political culture of death, what else would I be?

    I am of the opinion that much of the battle for the hearts and minds of young evangelicals is lost as we send them to the high priests of liberalism for education.

    • Troy

      I could not agree with you more, sir! I know its late in replying but you nailed exactly why young people are leaving, if they really are. I’ve read lots of statistics and studies that counter this belief and say Christian younglings are stronger today than previous generations, though. But as a student who went through public school, believe me. It is the schools destroying their politics and their faith.

  • Theresa K.

    “I think evangelicalism is so inextricably linked to political conservatism that young people who leave conservatism leave evangelicalism as well.”

    I agree 100%! I’ve been reading D.G. Hart’s books over the years and I highly recommend them. I fell into the Republican Evangelical movement for 20 years until finally leaving in 2002. I’m still a Christian, though not Evangelical in the American sense of the word and I’m still conservative, although there is no party I can identify at the moment. Our church would never espouse a party or candidate, but encourages us to use scripture as our guide. I’m happy to have two young adult childrn who, by being baptized and catechized in the faith, have a more honest and scriptural practice of faith and citizenship than I did at their age.

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  • T h e o • p h i l o g u e

    Can anyone give us some links to research results comparing the growth of conservative/evangelical churches vs. non-evangelical churches? (or something like this?)

  • OFelixCulpa

    Thanks. Your point is very good. I mentioned precisely that as one of my reasons for leaving the movement in my recent set of posts “Why I Walked Away from Evangelicalism.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  • http://businesspropsal Jed Downer

    tnanks alot

  • cynthia curran

    I wished that some evangelicals would go liberal. I’m a theological liberal but a political conservative. In fact back in the early 1900’s evangelicals were leftist William Jennings Bryant for example. On the other hand, the theological liberal was the political conservative William Taft a unitarian. Evangelicals are only slightly to the right of most mainline protestants that are laymen. The leadership of mainline churches are liberal. In fact Mormons are more politcally conservative than evangelicals but its hard for a mormon to run for president.

  • cynthia curran

    Hispanic Catholics are to the left of American Catholics even on the social issues since white Catholics are older and tend to be more social conservative than Hispanics that are younger. In fact, white Catholics are more likely to vote Republcian. Hispanics are more likely to vote Republcian if they are protestants.

  • Jenny

    Well said.

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